In the fall of 2017, on their way to a shoot in West Virginia, the Parts Unknown crew made a pit stop in Lawrence County, Kentucky.
Tyler Childers, a flame-haired singer-songwriter and Lawrence County native, met the city slickers in town. “Unless you already had a clue of where you’re going, you’d really not have a clue at all where you were going,” he says.
Childers is the reason for the pit stop. Two songs from his debut studio album, Purgatory, feature prominently in the West Virginia episode. Purgatory came out in August 2017 to rave reviews, and by the end of the year it was on the top of everyone’s list of best country albums.
Few artists blend the old with the new as seamlessly as Childers. His lyrics are linear narratives, similar in style to those of Bob Dylan or John Prine (he’s actually performing with Prine on his current tour). They sound as if they are autobiographical—to a certain extent they are—but have a cinematic, almost fantastical quality that is only achieved by a good storyteller.
His sound doesn’t stray far from his roots. Childers credits bluegrass and country classics like Ralph Stanley and Merle Haggard as inspirations but says he is also influenced by local musicians like Prison Book Club and Luna and the Mountain Jets. “I was lucky to cut my teeth in a pretty tightknit, close community of musicians that are all just cranking out really awesome stuff,” he says.
His more experimental sounds? He credits his producer, singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson. The working relationship was a natural fit, Childers says, because they both grew up in small-town Kentucky. Known for his use of imagery and original take on traditional country music, Simpson pushed his sound in directions he had never even considered.
“Stuff like ‘Universal [Sound],’ that was certainly a Sturgill call,” Childers says. “I wouldn’t have seen it that way, but when he suggested we try it, I was like, ‘Oh man, yeah, that’s fine.’ That’s the way it’s supposed to sound.”
But “Whitehouse Road” and “Nose to the Grindstone,” the songs featured in the Parts Unknown episode (along with his beautiful love song, Lady May), are guided by his Appalachian roots. He says they are a “somewhat” autobiographical take on the highs and lows of drug use.
The more upbeat of the two, “Whitehouse Road,” evokes a sound similar to the Outlaw-country movement of the 1970s. It takes a more lighthearted approach to the protagonist’s recurring cocaine use. “There’s certainly the going up and the coming down. And, I mean, being able to show both of those is important,” he says. “I get it—it’s fun, it fills voids, but it’s a temporary thing that leads to bigger problems and addiction eventually.”
Despite the upbeat tone and delivery, Childers says the protagonist is fatalistic. “He’s still aware that he’s going to die, but it’s kind of like that recklessness of it, kind of really being in it and not really minding the consequences,” he says.
In the more somber, acoustic “Nose to the Grindstone,” Childers tackles the opioid crisis in a personal way. The lyrics are “just observations of where I grew up and people I grew up with and the problems that some of my friends and family have had,” he says. His voice breaks over the chorus. He finishes with “keep your nose on the grindstone and out of the pills.”