I’ve always loved the old Utah Phillips tune Rock, Salt, and Nails. It has such a lonesome sound that connects on so many levels. And surprisingly, for a song that sounds so ancient, no one sings it with greater feeling than the young country singer Tyler Childers.
“On the banks of the river, where the willows hang down,
Where the wild birds they warble with a low moaning sound,
Way down in the hollow where the water runs cold,
It was there I first listened to the lies that you told.
Now I lie on my back and I see your sweet face.
The past I remember, time can’t erase.
The letters you wrote me, they were written in shame,
And I know that your conscience still echoes my name.”
Childers is from Kentucky, having grown up in Lawrence County where his father worked in the coal industry and his mother worked as a nurse. Like many a country musician, he began singing in church—in his case the local Free Will Baptist congregation. His grandfather gave him a guitar, he absorbed the music of the 1980s, and began writing songs. At 15, when his grandfather died, Childers turned to bluegrass as a way to remember him.
“Now the nights are so long, my sorrow runs deep.
Nothing is worse than a night without sleep.
I walk out alone, I look at the sky,
Too empty to sing, too lonesome to cry.
Now if the ladies were blackbirds if the ladies were thrushes,
I’d lie there for hours in the chilly cold marshes.
And if the women were squirrels with them high bushy tails,
I’d fill up my shotgun with rock, salt and nails.”
Childers first major studio album was 2017’s Purgatory, produced by Sturgill Simpson and David Ferguson, and it earned him a 2018 Emerging Artist of the Year award from the Americana Music Association. He released a live album, Tyler Childers: Live on Red Barn Radio I & II, in 2018, and last year saw the release of Country Squire, which has solidified his reputation as a major new player in the country music mix of artists like Simpson and Chris Stapleton.
All Your’n from Country Squire received a Grammy nomination as Best Country Solo Performance.
To my taste, Childer’s best work to date is the solo acoustic work you find on the Red Barn Radio sessions and on YouTube videos. Nose on the Grindstone, which hasn’t been included on one of his studio albums, is about a coal miner and addiction, and a poignant reminder of the pain of eastern Kentucky. That’s a recurring theme in his music. Childers is all about hard lives and hard loves, and his simple guitar playing and aching voice are a perfect match for these stories of pain and love. White House Road may be one of the best of these songs, as the singer from Paintsville, Kentucky—famous for its lawlessness, religion, and booze—puts his own spin on life in rural Appalachia.
When they lay me in the cold hard clay
Singing them hymns while the banjo plays
Tell those ladies that they ought not frown
Cause there ain’t been nothing ever held me down
Well the lawman, women or a shallow grave
Same old blues just a different day
On a brighter note, 22nd Winter is about the first time Childers was snowed in at his in-laws. As he explains in one performance, it isn’t a blues, but a love song. Childers has clearly made his mark, and with that voice and songwriting ability he has a great future ahead.
Tyler Childers opens for Sturgill Simpson at the Anthem in the Wharf in D.C. on March 15th (sold out) and the 16th.
More to come…
UPDATE: Due to closings amid rational, well-intended and well-studied efforts to slow the spread of infection, the Sturgill Simpson + Tyler Childers shows at the Anthem have been rescheduled for May 17-18, 2020.*
*Emily Winthrop had this right when she tweeted, “Hey media friends. Can we please stop saying things are closing “amid fears of coronavirus” when it’s actually “amid rational, well-intended and well-studied efforts to slow the spread of infection?” The frame of fear is helping no one.