Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Tyler Childers’ Country Squire, the follow-up to 2017’s breakthrough Purgatory.
“He’d rather be dead, than alive one more minute, in this god forsaken town / when he was a kid, oh, he never’d have dreamt it, all the ways a city can bring a country boy down,” Tyler Childers sings on “Creeker,” one of the nine heartworn songs about hard-working people trying to make sense of days spent breaking their hands and backs for little reward. The sentence might as well be a thesis for the suddenly exploding Childers and his relationship with the country music infrastructure, as Childers went from a punk kid from the hollers of Kentucky playing a mix of bluegrass and roots country to a performer who sells out theaters across the Midwest in a matter of months. Childers might be secretly one of the biggest acts out here in flyover country, but he did it without sacrificing an iota in terms of his music or his locale; he still lives in eastern Kentucky, and when he’s profiled in Rolling Stone, he treats reporters to cooked mushrooms he picked himself.
After 2017’s Purgatory made him into a hot commodity, he could have signed with any number of Nashville powerhouses, but he stayed on his own Hickman Holler Records and had RCA distribute. He recorded Country Squire in Nashville, but you feel like that’s just where producer Sturgill Simpson and the ace band that plays on this lives. Country Squire is the result of that attitude of going your own way, and it is the kind of country album that you thought doesn’t get made anymore, an album about regular folks and their burnt Eggos and lost loves and dirty nails and drug problems and the bosses who they wish would drop dead.
Describing Childers’ voice is both easy and incredibly complex; how do you explain a guy who sings like he’s in the pit of despair at the end of a 60 hour work week that’s ending with a remembrance of the girl that left and the night the drugs were too strong? How do you capture the simple charms of when he talk-shouts in the verses to hit you with that strong, chiming howl in the choruses? He can do regret and pain (“Creeker”) and emotional knee-slappers about, well, slappin’ the hog (“Ever Lovin’ Hand”), and he can do gospel-fied ballads (“All Your’n”) and good ole honky tonk about an RV (“Country Squire”). He can sing songs from the perspective of old folks wondering where the hell their lives went (“Peace of Mind”), and about a guy remembering details from his daily bus ride home (“Bus Route”).
Where Purgatory felt like a bending of Americana into slightly left-of-center venues, Country Squire skews ever so slightly more alt-country, which gives these songs, and by extension, Childers’ voice, more heft. “Creeker” hits like a piano falling on your head, thanks to its swelling instrumentation and Childers’ howling of the chorus. The organ figures of “All Your’n” give the song wedding soundtrack potential, and the explosive electric guitar on “House Fire” elevates the song to what will surely be a live killer.
Country Squire is a stunning achievement of form, a modern John Prine album delivered by a son of Appalachia for the sons of Appalachia. If Purgatory was the breakthrough, Country Squire is the one that proves that Childers is here for the long haul, a distinct talent making superlative albums that are layered, beautiful, and nearly perfect.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.