Folk music is the eternal sonic vehicle, for not just stories about our ancestors; if we’re smart enough to look closely, we will often find ourselves in there too. Essentially, within the quaint shanties about fishing villages, and tragic storms that may have taken away a sizable chunk of the men-folk, one discovers, they are all songs about working people; tales of working people with soil, salt from the sea, and grease from factory machines beneath their fingernails; or bad backs, from bad ergonomic office situations. Folk music is the melodic encyclopedia of working people’s lives. Tyler Childers is intimately acquainted with these stories, and he’s adding vital chapters of his own to the canon with “Long Violent History”.
The son of a Kentucky coal miner, and nurse, the atoms of Appalachia run through Childers’ bones, his songs, and his sentiments when he opens his mouth between picking up instruments to play. His 2017 breakthrough record, Purgatory, lit up multiple charts with its hard-hitting tales of rough n tumble country boy living. It was a less, pop-production Ryan Adams-ish offering, that saw Childers straddle the county line between Bluegrass and Indie-Folk-Rock. Though he’s got the chops for pop, Childers resisted straying too far from his roots, by continuing with his own stubborn brand of six string poetry. He plays it the way I like my room during a hangover – a little on the darker side but still accessible to those who love me most. It was a winning formula for him.
September 2020 sees Childers release Long Violent History, an 9 track album of mostly traditional fiddle tunes with the work’s title track, and only song, strangely bringing up the rear. I have to state, I love this record. On first listen it was very pleasing, on the second turn around, I was absolutely taken by the choice of sure-fire melodic earworms. On the third encounter, I was on the dining room table, pounding the boards, in full Hopak squat dance mode, screaming out the hooks, Fiddler On The Roof style, and demanding Kentucky bourbon, to fuel my uplifted soul. It’s not recorded as a stomper of an album, it’s light on compression, and post-production effects are minimal, and very tastefully done. It’s just that these tunes are so incredibly infectious. Nothing gets in the way. It all does exactly what it’s all supposed to do.
The opening tune is a winding waltz around Stephen Sondheim’s Bring In The Clowns. It’s tasteful; if you don’t look at the title, it’s more of a hint, than a fateful retelling. It’s nice, and it works pretty well. The following Zolie’s Retreat, and Midnight on the Water, venture into Bluegrass with an understated Indie-Rock-ish feel to them. There are no electric guitars or synth sounds or anything like that, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that for me, they seem to touch stones laid down by fellow travelers Sufjan Stevens, or Bonny Prince Billy (who, incidentally, I once watched roll out underneath the bottom of a tent with stars in his eyes, and whiskey in his veins, while watching Nick Cave play. Nobody minded having to go bring him back… It was a beautiful, funny moment in the south west of Ireland). Squirrel Hunter, Camp Chase, and Jenny Lynn are all unabashed foot tappers, that solidly remind me of long nights into early mornings at the 11th Street Bar in NYC, where the tunes make the walls heave. Childers and company are obviously enjoying these sessions, you can absolutely feel it in the energy they bring to the recordings. They then slide down again, into the mournful Bonaparte’s Retreat, before coming to the final number, Long Violent History. And let me say this, about that. You know those shouts at the end of a live show, “one more song, one more song.”? Well, that’s what I find myself shouting on the sidelines of this album. If there was just one more song, it would send me over the edge. As I said earlier, I love this little gem, but I really wanted to hear Childers plumbing the depths of what’s going on right now. This title track, hitting nails, squarely on the head, tacked to the end of this short album, just left me thirsting, for a further telling. There’s so much to say this year alone, so many depths begging for a talent like Childers’ to investigate them. A solo acoustic track, would have sold it, but this wonderful record’s title, and solitary title track, belies its sound. It’s actually an uplifting recording, with little to do with a long violent history.
But what may go down as an unexpected marquee moment of the album, is actually the video introduction on Childers’ website. It’s an exceptionally brave monologue, which does what any good art should, in challenging Childers’ peers, and indeed, his audience, to live up to the platitudes that get slung around the U.S, and particularly the Americana scene; namely, staunch exclamations about equality, and liberty for all. The video is hard hitting, it’s gritty, it’s truthful; it’s gloriously honest. He pins his flag resolutely to the mast, in the way that the troubadour outlaw country stars of old, lived their lives, in very upfront, no nonsense ways, aside from the dysfunction of course; though Childers touches on that too, in his coming out as 6 months sober. In a way, it makes one wonder if the release of a short album of admittedly solidly earworm fiddle tunes and one song, is a release to accompany the statement, rather than being the statement itself? There’s nothing wrong with this record in any way. It’s just a much brighter album than the title suggests, and the gifted heartfelt monologue introducing it, is perhaps the precursor to an upcoming body of work? It’s my only quibble about the whole project, that mismatch…why? It feels like, alongside the traditional tunes, Childers may be looking to go somewhere deeper, and this record is a beautiful thing in itself, but perhaps in the naming, it’s a stepping-stone to that other place?
Long Violent History is a great addition to the Tyler Childers canon, and will no doubt provide additional texture to the live show, and get this, 100% of the Profits will go the Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund, to help underserved communities, making Childers the teller, and the hero of the working peoples’ stories of today. Good on you man. Either way, Tyler Childers playing tunes, or poignantly slinging out hard hitting folk tales; I’m all for it.