Tyler Childers knows how the house of country music can be divided against itself. Since his 2011 debut, the Kentucky songwriter has roamed beyond the conventional divisions of the genre, flirting not just with Sturgill Simpson-esque heartland rock and old-time mountain music but synthesizers and even lo-fi beats. As an outspoken progressive who has found success outside the Nashville establishment, it’s tempting to see him as a break from the genre, rather than an artist working within a clear sense of tradition. But at the 2018 Americana Awards, where he accepted an award for Emerging Artist after the host mispronounced his last name, Childers took a hardline stance on his preferred genre: “Everybody always talks about the state of country music and puts down commercial country and says ‘Something’s gotta be done’ and ‘We need to be elevating artists that are doing more traditional country,’ But then we’re not calling those artists country.”
His latest record, Rustin’ in the Rain, is impossible to mistake for anything but country music. From the jaunty opening guitar lick, its songs take the dirty stains on his shirt and the scraggly edges of his sound as a badge of honor: “Blame it on my jeans/Caked in tenant farmin’,” he quips on the title track. Childers has always approached music as hard work, both a virtue earned through sweat and something to do with idle hands, but Rustin’ in the Rain takes work itself as its defining subject matter. On “Percheron Mules,” he fantasizes about rolling around in the mud with a pack of mules, and the animal becomes a recurring motif throughout the album, whether literally on the cover or as a metaphor for the labor of relationships on the stirring ballad “In Your Love.”
The catchy country-pop rhythm of the title track, buoyed by a twangy electric guitar solo, wouldn’t have sounded out-of-place in between Clint Black and Dwight Yoakam on Country Music Television in the 1990s, but Childers frequently channels a vision of the genre that predates the video era. Despite its tale of long-distance technological heartbreak, “Phone Calls and Emails” is a mournful jukebox waltz in the lineage of Willie Nelson standards like “Hello Walls.” The wistful “Luke 2:8-10” — featuring guest vocals from Margo Price, Erin Rae, and S.G. Goodman—is an ironic twist on a Nativity narrative, but the instrumentation is sincerely traditional, as an accordion squeezes away in three-quarter time. There’s gravel in Childers’ voice but a softness too, as he cries and yelps at the moon. The tender, plain-spoken quality of his tenor is what makes it stand out; he never feels strained or affected.
The old-time feeling of Rustin’ in the Rain is most evident in the bluegrass-inflected “Percheron Mules,” a jubilant picking session with the Travelin’ McCourys, the ensemble led by the sons of living mountain music legend Del McCoury. The choice in cover songs also speak to Childers’ heritage within the genre. While his early albums featured entirely original compositions, he has increasingly woven in songs by other artists, building his own canon and using other writers’ words to tell us who he is. Here, he drapes a tender rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” in gentle piano and pedal steel, and it expresses an older model for the kind of outspoken outlaw Childers has become. On the closing track, Childers interprets a more modern selection, “Space and Time” by fellow Kentucky native S.G. Goodman, turning her searing ballad into a sock-hop slow-dance.
While Childers built his audience without support of mainstream country radio, his process for the album wasn’t all that different from the Nashville standard. In a recent interview with The New York Times, he explained that he imagined himself as an old-school songwriter, pitching songs to Elvis Presley. In true Nashville fashion, this album marks the first time that Childers has opened himself to co-writers; he worked with Geno Seale on “In Your Love,” while the song’s video was scripted by the queer Southern poet Silas House. He may often speak up for country music, but Childers acknowledges he does not speak for all of country music.
Released as the album’s first single, “In Your Love” suggested a significant departure, both in its Hornsby-esque sound and its queer themes, made explicit in the music video’s tale of the forbidden longing between two male coal miners. Over a glistening piano and a warm bed of synthesizers, Childers sings not just of love, but self-defense, as the emotional bond between two people helps them endure persecution: “It’s a long hard war/But I can grin and bear it.” By grounding such a radical statement in songs that are still tinged in the patina of tradition, Childers makes clear that this isn’t a break with country music: It is a light cast on its history, a recognition of what it has been and can become.
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