Tyler Childers surprise released the new album Long Violent History on Friday, a record of mostly instrumental fiddle music that culminates in a hard-hitting title track about racial injustice.
The album arrives with a six-minute video message from the Kentucky songwriter, in which he directly challenges his fans, including his “white rural listeners,” to empathize with black victims of police brutality. It’s a stunning speech, with Childers touching on his six-month sobriety, the Covid pandemic, and the South’s misguided allegiance to the Confederate flag. But the focus of his address is on police brutality.
“What if we were to constantly open up our daily paper and see a headline like ‘East Kentucky Man Shot Seven Times on a Fishing Trip’?” he asks. “Read on to find the man was shot while fishing with his son by a game warden, who saw him rummaging through his tackle box for his license and thought he was reaching for a knife.”
Instead of Louisville, he sets the police shooting of Breonna Taylor in predominantly white Ashland, Kentucky, asking fans to imagine a news report about an “Ashland Community and Technical College Nursing Student Shot in Her Sleep.” “How would we react to that? What form of upheaval would that create?” he asks, before going on to mention Taylor by name.
“So what can the rest of us who feel seemingly outside of these issues do?” Childers says. “We can stop being so taken aback by Black Lives Matter. If we didn’t need to be reminded, there would be justice for Breonna Taylor, a Kentuckian like me, and countless others.”
In the banjo and fiddle dirge “Long Violent History,” Childers, who released his Country Squire album in 2019, sings about the Appalachian upbringing of a “white boy from Hickman,” and how he and his kin have been sometimes labeled “belligerent” and “ignorant.” But, he points out, they’ve never had to fear for their lives.
“Could you imagine just constantly worryin’/Kickin’ and fightin’, beggin’ to breathe?” he sings.
“If we wouldn’t stand for it,” Childers asks in his video address, “why would we expect another group of Americans to stand for it?”
Childers is donating 100% of net proceeds from the new album to the Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund, which he and his wife Senora May established in 2020 to raise awareness and money for “philanthropic efforts in the Appalachian Region.” Fans can also make a donation here.
Read the full transcript of Childers’ message here.
Back in June, when I wrote the song “Long Violent History,” it was my original goal to continue to make fairly legible sounds on the fiddle and put this album out with no announcements or press. I’d plan to package it as an old time fiddle album and let the piece make its statement on its own, taking the listener by surprise at the end. However, there has been concern that the album could run the risk of being misinterpreted if not given some sort of accompanying explanation to set it in context.
A writer can write an essay. But the writer can never predict or control how that essay is interpreted by the reader, be it in the tone of levelheaded calmness or a preachy, holier-than-thou condescending way.
As a recovering alcoholic who has drunk and drugged himself around the world playing music for the better part of 11 years and now has six months of sobriety, I can say with clarity that I have no soapbox to stand on, to talk preachy to anyone on anything. Be it the word of God or the condition of the world. But as a person who has been given a platform by providence, luck, support and working at it, I feel undeserving of the grace this world has given me, and I would find it a waste were I not to try and use it to make some good.
Long Violent History is a collection of instrumental pieces intended to create a sonic soundscape for the listener, to set the tone to reflect on the last track, which is my own observational piece on the times we are in.
Covid has been a strain on all of us in some form or fashion. People have been cooped up and quarantined. People have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet. People have lost their family members. The country is feeling a general angst. All the while, we’ve all witnessed violent acts of police brutality happen around the nation that have gone unaddressed. In response, we’ve seen protests turn to riots and riots culminate in acts of violence and destruction of property. From the outsider’s perspective, it’s hard to see where all this visceral anger is coming from.
What I believe to be one of the biggest obstacles in pinpointing the cause of this is our inability to empathize with another individual or group’s plight. In the midst of our own daily struggles, it’s often hard to share an understanding for what another person might be going through. With that in mind, at the risk of mistakenly analogizing two groups of people, I would ask my white rural listeners to think on this. I don’t mean to imply that many of you aren’t already doing good self-examination on this issue, but I have heard from many who have not.
What if we were to constantly open up our daily paper and see a headline like “East Kentucky Man Shot Seven Times on a Fishing Trip?” Read on to find the man was shot while fishing with his son by a game warden, who saw him rummaging through his tackle box for his license and thought he was reaching for a knife. What if we read a story that began, “North Carolina man rushing home from work to take his elderly mother to the E.R. runs stop sign and was pulled over — beaten by police when they see a gun rack in his truck.”
Or a headline like “Ashland Community and Technical College Nursing Student Shot in Her Sleep.” How would we react to that? What form of upheaval would that create? I’d venture to say if we were met with this type of daily attack on our own people, we would take action in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia.
And if we wouldn’t stand for it, why would we expect another group of Americans to stand for it? Why would we stand silent while it happened? Or worse, get in the way of it being rectified? I’ve heard people from my Appalachian region say that we wouldn’t act the way we’ve seen depicted on various media outlets. But I’ve also seen grown folks beat each other up the day after Thanksgiving for TVs and teddy bears. And these aren’t things these communities have lost. These are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and cousins, mothers and fathers. Irreplaceable threads within their family fiber torn from their loved ones too soon with no justice, and they are demanding change. Same as I expect we would find. Life is hard enough without being worried about the smallest interaction with a public servant.
So what can the rest of us who feel seemingly outside of these issues do? First, we can use our voting power to get rid of the people who’ve been in power and let this go unnoticed. Chances are the people allowing this to happen are the same people keeping opportunity out of reach for our own communities, that have watched job opportunities shipped out, and drugs shipped in, eating up our communities and leaving our people desperate, in what some folks would deem a food desert. We can stop being so taken aback by Black Lives Matter. If we didn’t need to be reminded, there would be justice for Breonna Taylor, a Kentuckian like me, and countless others.
We can start looking for ways to preserve our heritage outside lazily defending a flag with history steeped in racism and treason.
Things like hewing a log, carving a bowl, learning a fiddle tune, growing a garden, raising some animals, canning our own food, hunting and processing the animal, fishing, blacksmithing, trapping and tanning the hide, sewing a quilt. And if we did things like that, we’d have a lot less time to argue back and forth over things we don’t fully know, backed by news we can’t fully trust. Love each other. No exceptions. And remember, united we stand, divided we fall.