The feeling of being in purgatory is something small town and country people will never be able to properly convey to someone who grew up in a big city. When you grow up in a place that is not mentioned in the news and is in font size 6 on maps, you get the mixed feelings of living in an oft beautiful, untouched part of the landscape, a place close to heaven in a lot of cases. But then, under the surface, you’re living in an often hard place, where the decisions and mores of your forebears, and a lack of opportunity, conspire to keep you stagnant, falling into traps like drugs, alcoholism, and in the extreme case of this album’s “Branded Clovis,” murder. It’s close to hell, in a lot of ways.
Tyler Childers, proud son of Paintsville, Kentucky (population 3,459), articulates that purgatorial stretch of existence on his stunning debut LP, Purgatory. His is a world of bible-thumpers, cocaine, eating and drinking too much, lapsed Christians trying to grind out a living, and women who are better than you who you’re hoping to make your wife. Co-produced by David Ferguson--a Nashville vet who has done albums for the likes of Charley Pride, John Prine, and uh, U2--and Sturgill Simpson--who naturally is being used as a big selling point for the album--Purgatory is a deft amalgam of old honky tonk, bluegrass, and folk, an album that transcends any “this is real country” cliches you could try to hang on it.
Purgatory opens with some plaintive fiddle strokes, and then tumbles into “I Swear (To God),” a song about how no matter how hungover, how lonely, how broken down by physical labor, he still takes time to thank some higher power for his continued existence. “Pay no attention to the words I say, because they’re no count anyway,” Childers says, mere lines after promising his mom he’s “doing all right.” It’s that kind of wry songwriting that makes Purgatory so consistently thrilling; from the hijinks he gets into up the road on “Whitehouse Road,” to the increasingly desperate things that lead someone to murder on “Banded Clovis,” to tiny details like talking about grocery bills, Childers is telling small stories for the small town people he’s potentially leaving behind with Purgatory.
Purgatory goes out on its strongest note, a naked, acoustic ballad called “Lady May” delivered to a woman Childers feels unworthy of, but who he’d do anything for. “I ain’t the sharpest chisel that your hands have ever held, but darling I could love you well,” his voice cracks here, in the album’s most emotional moment, before comparing himself to a tree that is fashioned into whatever it needs be, like he was in his relationship with the titular Lady May. Childers told Noisey that his goal was to, “Bring my own perspective and connect with people from my home area by giving them my two cents of a different angle." He’ll be connecting with people far outside of his home area with Purgatory.