In 2011, Tyler Childers independently released his first album Bottles and Bibles. Over the next six years, he lived largely as a local Kentucky legend the rest of the world had yet to discover. Bottles and Bibles was released when Childers was just 19 years old, and while a few appearances on Lexington's Red Barn Radio provided enough new material to keep local fans satisfied, none of his music was reaching a wider audience.
In 2017, his second record Purgatory became his long-awaited breakthrough success. The Sturgill Simpson disciple quickly found a new audience. Seemingly overnight, audiences at Childers' live shows grew from 100 to 1,000. Soon after, he signed a record deal with RCA and with a global publishing deal through Warner Chappell Music Nashville. In 2019, his Simpson-produced record Country Squire peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 chart.
While his musical catalog is still growing, Childers has already amassed an impressive collection of odes to his home, tales of love and one statement that few of his peers have ever dared to speak.
Here are The Boot's picks for Tyler Childers' top 10 songs:
"Whitehouse Road"From: 'Purgatory' (2017)
“Whitehouse Road” is the kind of outlaw throwback that first earned Childers his largest audiences. Drinkin,’ smokin,’ back roads and banjos — it’s all here.
“Get me drinkin’ that moonshine / Get me higher than the grocery bill / Take my troubles to the high wall / Throw em in the river and get your fill”
"House Fire"From: 'Country Squire' (2019)
Childers’ first major label single was mostly a vehicle for a great fiddle track, and the popular country music world that Childers was entering into at the time didn’t have much of it. It was a bold announcement of his intentions as a rising star in a genre that had morphed a lot since he self-released his debut a decade prior.
"Shake the Frost"From: 'Live on Red Barn Radio I & II' (2018)
From early recordings that Childers did at Red Barn Radio that were later repackaged as Live on Red Barn Radio I & II, “Shake the Frost” is another song about a girl, dripping with Southern metaphor and Eastern Kentucky drawl. While it isn’t something that he does a lot, it’s something that he has mastered.
“So if it’d make you stay / I wouldn’t act so angry all the time / I wouldn’t keep it all inside / And I’d let you know how much I loved you every day”
"I Swear (To God)"From: 'Purgatory' (2017)
For a lot of people, “I Swear (To God)” was an introduction to Tyler Childers. The lead track on Purgatory begins with a soft fiddle and tip-toes into a foot-stomper about raucous times forgotten by overindulgence. In front of live audiences, the tune works its way to a familiar bridge and shout-along refrain.
“Bands too loud for their Bible thumpin’ / Feels too good to not count for somethin’ / Big Sandy rock Sludge River roll / G--d--- fire in the hole”
"Feathered Indians"From: 'Purgatory' (2017)
To put it simply, “Feathered Indians” is a song about a girl, which isn’t really something that Childers writes a lot of. But here, he pens it with the same vividness that he writes about Eastern Kentucky -- and somehow, both feel connected.
“If I’d know she was religious / Then I wouldn’t have came stoned / To the house of such an angel / Too f----- up to get back home”
"All Your'n"From: 'Country Squire' (2019)
From Country Squire, the first record he released on RCA, Childers did something that he hadn’t really before. He wrote with the folksiness that first turned listeners' and critics' heads, but he used a more traditional song structure ready for radio. The combination made it the first of his songs to crack the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart at No. 46.
"Coal"From: 'Bottles and Bibles' (2011)
“Coal” is the essence of the Tyler Childers story. A cut from Bottles & Bibles, which Childers recorded when he was just 19, the track serves a vivid story of how he grew up in Eastern Kentucky as the son of a coal miner.
“He says ‘Keep on a-minin’ boy cause that’s why you were born’ / We coulda made something of ourselves out there / If we’d listened to the folks that knew / That coal is gonna bury you”
"Universal Sound"From: 'Purgatory' (2017)
Life has grown even more overwhelming since this track debuted on 2017’s Purgatory. But even then, Childers warned that sometimes, everyone needs to take a deep breath.
“My mind’s a mile a minute / And my thoughts they bark like hounds / I focus on my breathing and the universal sound”
"Purgatory"From: 'Purgatory' (2017)
The title track from Childers’ breakthrough record isn’t quite traditional bluegrass (it includes light percussion), but it’s certainly the earliest song that most successfully pays homage to the sounds of his home. The narrator has made peace with living an afterlife in purgatory, but he’s found a woman he believes may be a shortcut in leading him to the other side.
“I know that Hell is just as real as I am surely breathin’ / But I’ve heard tale of a middle ground I think will work for me / When the time has come for changin’ worlds I’ll hedge my bets with a Catholic girl / Catholic girl pray for me you’re my only hope for Heaven”
"Long Violent History"From: 'Long Violent History' (2020)
In September 2020, at the end of the first summer of the pandemic and amid a months-long movement for civil rights and justice for police brutality in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Tyler Childers released a surprise album titled Long Violent History.
The traditional bluegrass record featuring eight instrumental tracks, but the final, titular track imagines a world where the people of rural Kentucky would have to defend their own rights, and goes on to examine what their reactions might be. It was a remarkable moment for someone of Childers' influence and drawl to publicly take that stand on the heels of releasing his major label country debut.
Tyler Childers is a lot of things to a lot of people. This may not be the track inebriated fans will shout at the stage during his performances, but it was the most important of his career.