About a month before the release of his new album Rustin’ in the Rain, singer-songwriter Tyler Childers released a video for leadoff single ‘In Your Love’ that depicts a love story between two gay Appalachian miners. Of course, the video has drawn both praise and backlash along predictable partisan lines.
On one side of that divide, NPR framed Childers as an LGBTQ “ally” for opting to have queer author and Kentucky poet laureate Silas House write the script for the video.
House, however, emphasized via the new album’s press release that, “Too often, simplistic notions are pushed about both rural and LGBTQ people, so we did everything we could to make this story as rich and layered as possible.” Like Childers, House is an Eastern Kentucky native with a gift for bringing believable characters to life in vivid backdrops that are both empathetic and hard-hitting.
When Childers first made a splash with his Sturgill Simpson-produced album Purgatory in 2017, he took listeners into the world he grew up in. Purgatory’s vivid character portraits allowed us to feel like we were walking side-by-side with living, breathing people grappling with (among other things) drugs, poverty, destructive choices and the universal yearning to break free from one’s circumstances.
The same month as ‘In Your Love’ was released, House told PBS Storytellers that “when you’re from a place that most of the world has disdain for, I think it makes you prouder to be from there.” House cautioned audiences against the way media tends to stereotype Kentuckyans, stressing that outside portrayals of life in Kentucky tend to be “devoid of joy”. Joy, House explained, is what he thinks of whenever he reflects on where he grew up. “The rest of the world,” he said, “thinks of a lot of despair. I’m always so confused by that.”
What’s perhaps most remarkable about both House and Childers is that, like many of their critics, they’re keenly aware that culture is often defined outside of their native region. Undertones of this awareness were evident when Childers decided to make an overt socio-political statement with his fourth LP Long Violent History in September of 2020. Effectively a surprise album drop, Long Violent History simply appeared, without any anticipatory press buildup.
Instead, on the same day as the album’s release, Childers posted a YouTube video titled “A message from Tyler” that explained his motivations. He started the video by prefacing his main points with a caveat: “As a recovering alcoholic who has drunk and drugged himself around the world playing music for the better part of eleven years,” he said, “I can say with clarity that I have no soapbox to stand on to talk preachy to anyone on anything, be it the word of God or the condition of the world.” He then encouraged “my white rural listeners” to try and put themselves in the shoes of Black Americans vis-a-vis police violence.
At the time, the USA was still reeling from widespread civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. That summer, the country had been rocked by protests marred with violence, arson and looting. The ensuing billion dollars in property damage was not only the worst in U.S. history, but it was also concentrated predominantly in Black neighborhoods.
Looked at from a certain angle, it’s easy to see how Childers’ statement might come across as a misguided, if well-intentioned apologia for uglier truths about the protests that are thornier to grapple with. The song ‘Long Violent History’, after all, paints in a sympathetic light the process by which collective frustration boils over. Regardless, his plea for understanding the plight of another is, perhaps, worthy of the most focus (not to mention his decision to make a protest album consisting almost entirely of instrumentals).
Empathy, a primary appeal of Childers’ songwriting, tends to be one of the first casualties of our modern, hyper-charged discourse. For better or worse, Childers was demonstrating that it’s possible to try and see the world through someone else’s eyes. And, by trying to explain contemporary events in terms that people from Eastern Kentucky would understand and relate to, he was acting as a kind of social translator. That simple act alone is admirable, regardless of how one might or might not align with Childers’ actual positions.
Positions, in fact, can change— if one approaches a subject with Childers’ willingness to see what something is like from someone else’s point of view. We can’t really ask for more than that from artists when they’re responding to developing events in real time just like the rest of us. And if we’re to evolve and grow, we have to be able to do what we’ve watched Childers do. The fact that his message seems likely to progress over time is precisely what makes him compelling as an artist.
Amidst the never-ending roar of slanted commentary, it’s difficult to form a holistic outlook that integrates opposing ideas. It’s possible, for example, to be both outraged by police violence and hedge in support of the way the protests unfolded. The untold silver lining to the age we live in might just be that a sense of balance could be bubbling back up to the surface, all appearances to the contrary.
These days, for example, there’s no shortage of Black and LGBTQ media voices who don’t tow anyone’s party line but instead offer dynamic viewpoints that don’t fit neatly into a box. The Jubilee YouTube channel’s Middle Ground series, which just posted a remarkably constructive panel discussion between Black conservatives and white liberals the same week as Rustin’ in the Rain’s release, is just one of many platforms where one can witness—and participate in—people actually hearing one another.
One has to wonder how artists like Childers might broach social issues differently if they felt like they had the leeway to unpack unabashedly complex ideas. Which is not to accuse Childers of being insincere. After all, when he felt moved to make Long Violent History in 2020, there simply wasn’t as much room for voicing nuance in public. But, if the past is any indication, Childers—who has already shown himself to be careful, considerate and caring—is precisely the kind of figure who should be encouraged to think aloud in a less tightly constrained manner.
In the meantime, it’s best to look at Childers as someone who’s poised to keep exploring, and to do what he’s done so well to date, which is to keep his eyes open and observe how people tick. All in all, he’s done about as capable a job as one could expect at expressing himself from the heart while navigating a quagmire. But listeners eager to know where Childers might point his inquisitive mind next will just have to wait. Because the new album, as it turns out, takes quite the detour.
Right from the opening notes, as Rustin’ in the Rain kicks off with dueling guitars and launches into a rocked-up Western Swing-meets-rockabilly groove, Childers, his backing band The Food Stamps and their guests sound noticeably more light on their feet than we’ve gotten accustomed to hearing them. The disposition of the music, which Childers himself describes as playful and Elvis-inspired, comes in sharp contrast to the solemn, downbeat style of last year’s triple-album Can I Take my Hounds to Heaven?
‘Luke 2:8-10’ initially appears to start off in familiar territory, with Childers adopting a stern tone as he reads Bible verses. But he barely gets a few words in before a tumbling guitar-drums-piano figure rolls right over his rendition of the Gospel. ‘Luke 2:8-10’ sees Childers playing the straight man in his own joke. At several points—such as the lighthearted thump of ‘Percheron Mules’—one gets the clear sense that Childers is making fun of himself.
Even when he switches to the heartbroken ‘Phone Calls & Emails’, there’s a winking levity—a sense of celebration of the quaintness and innocence of yore, perhaps—in his faithful recreation of a traditional, slow-dancing country ballad. Coming off several albums where he hasn’t exactly shied away from heaviness, it sounds like Childers might finally be embracing the joy that House spoke to PBS about.
Indeed, the joy and humor one hears on Rustin’ in the Rain doesn’t detract from Childers’ weightier meditations. On the contrary, the unencumbered quality of his new music actually bolsters the gravity of his older material—to say nothing of the bullet-proof musical execution that he and his band continue to show. That we can laugh along with him now only makes it all the more inviting to revisit the tangle of conflicted feelings that have defined his muse for so long.
Rustin' in the Rain is out now via Hickman Holler Records. For more on Tyler Childers, see below: