Tyler Childers swears he'll always sing about home. The born-and-raised Eastern Kentucky singer-songwriter has been writing and performing country-folk songs about his region since he was barely a teenager, and he can't imagine ever doing it any other way. The concept of becoming an artist who makes music that doesn't in some way speak to his community simply makes no sense to Childers.
"When I was a little kid, it blew my mind and kind of broke my heart when I found out that the Dukes of Hazzard weren't actually from Hazard, Kentucky," Childers says, calling during a recent drive between gigs. "The voice that I want to write in is a voice for me and mine and where I grew up."
To make his intentions perfectly clear, the 26-year old songwriter enlisted a local artist to draw the outline of his native Lawrence County on the front cover of his highly anticipated new album, Purgatory, out August 4 on Hickman Holler Records. Nonetheless, it's a release that will likely catapult the singer into a world that has very little to do with where he's from. Co-produced by fellow Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson alongside heavyweight Nashville veteran David Ferguson, Purgatory immediately places Childers in the conversation with the top tier of artists reviving classic country sounds for a new generation.
A blend of Nashville honky tonk, plaintive acoustic folk, and Appalachian bluegrass, the album is populated with the tales of the types of the stubborn, hard living, lapsing Christians Childers has grown up around all his life. He paints familiar characters, ones drawn to the "chase of the pills and the powder, corn liquor and women," as he puts it in one song.
"The character in 'Banded Clovis,' I've met that dude," he says, referring to a song in which a down-and-out man commits murder out of desperation. "He might not have killed anyone, which is why he's still kicking around and among us, but I've met that dude over and over again."
"Place is important, but getting away from your place and getting outside of it and looking at it from a bunch of different angles is equally important."
The one atypical song, both sonically and thematically, on Purgatory is "Universal Sound," premiering below. With its pulsing, U2-style electric guitar riff, the song would sound at home on mainstream country radio, a direction that still surprises Childers. He had performed the song for years as both a mournful solo-acoustic folk tune and as a sped-up bluegrass number, but his producer had other ideas. "Sturgill was like, 'we should slow this down and space it out. It's a song about meditation, and you can't really meditate going at the speed of bluegrass,'" he says.
Childers wrote the song during a stressful period of time in which he had moved to West Virginia. Money was tight, and balancing his touring life with assorted day jobs to help make rent had left Childers without any time to himself. When he finally found a few days free in his schedule, he thought, "All right, I'm going to take my daughter, take my tent, and get the hell out of here." He headed to the Cranberry Glades of eastern West Virginia with a copy of Ram Dass's book on meditation, Journey of Awakening. Looking within, he found a new way of thinking.
"Place is important, but getting away from your place and getting outside of it and looking at it from a bunch of different angles is equally important," says the songwriter. "In my opinion, with political and religious views, how can you 110 percent, full-hearted say without a shadow of a doubt say that this is how I feel, and this is where I want to be in my life, if you haven't looked at it any other way than just one angle?"
Ultimately, with Purgatory, Childers has one goal in mind: "Maybe I can bring my own perspective and connect with people from my home area by giving them my two cents of a different angle."
Jonathan Bernstein is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.