Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Hump Day Harangue: I'm NOT a Professional Music Reviewer!

My eventual obituary should mention something about me being a hopeless Tyler Childers fan.  Paragraph or two tops.  I stumbled across him searching for new music on Youtube a couple years ago.  I believe the first two songs I heard by him were the Shaker Steps productions of William Hill and Charleston Girl.  They’re still two of my favorite songs of his. 

I don't want to deny Mr. Childers his due fame and fortune.  He's talented and works hard and clearly deserves it, but there’s something appealing about having him to ourselves; him being our little secret and not sharing him with the world.  Of course when you have a local favorite musician or artist you fear how the wide world will change and perhaps mar their art.  It would be hard to take the Eastern Kentucky out of this boy.

It seems that he's not trying to be anyone but Tyler.  A talented singer songwriter with a unique voice?  That's a winning combination.  While he could be classified as folk, Americana, or maybe borderline country he doesn't wallow in nostalgia for traditional folk tunes.  The songs Tyler writes embody—not pithy frontier kitsch, but—a modern reflection of central Appalachian culture.  The line “ain’t got bars nor the charge to call her anyway” describes the reality of modern technology in rural romantic transactions while “keep your nose on the grindstone and out of the pills” is a stark line that is rooted in one of the direst problems that face Central Appalachia today.
Tyler Childers at the Mountain Arts Center
Last Friday evening Mandy, her dad, and I traveled east to Prestonsburg to see Tyler Childers open for the Steep Canyon Rangers at the Mountain Arts Center.  Fittingly the home town boy was the main attraction.  The place was packed.  Until Tyler’s set was over, then the crowd moved to the lobby where he was mobbed by a throng of fans that were probably family, old high school friends, and neighbors who were proud to see their talented Tyler teetering on the big time.  Many of them didn’t come back to see the headliners, a fantastic group in their own right, that recently played backup band to comedian Steve Martin’s successful foray into mainstream bluegrass music.
Steep Canyon Rangers
We had great seats!
Tyler’s appeal in Eastern Kentucky is genuine.  His songs strike at the heart of the natives because they know where Virgie is, they've driven White House Road, and they know all the vague or explicit references from Tyler's life.  They've met the namesake of his crowd favorite Lady May.  We met his wife Senora May—a talented singer-songwriter in her own right—at the CD table that night.  The music of Tyler Childers is accessible, approachable, and relatable for us common folk. 

While I’m a borderlands Eastern Kentuckian I still don't talk like Tyler.  My accent transects too many geographic areas, but his word choices, inflections, and accent are the same as the people around me every day.  He talks like my people.  I think for me this is the main factor that keeps drawing me back.  His stories are eerily similar to stories I’ve heard in my own life.  This is my native language spoken in music and poetry unlike any I’ve ever experienced. 

Tyler Childers can go from a heartfelt Lady May to a rousing White House Road and carry the room like driving on some twisting Eastern Kentucky country road with the radio blasting and the tires screaming in every curve.  He doesn’t just strum chords, but exhibits a familiarity and love of the guitar which I don’t think a lot of his fans even appreciate.  I was never a great guitarist myself, but I played for the better part of twenty years and can recognize someone who plays for enjoyment.  His songs are rich with a playing style that goes beyond simply strumming some twangy chords. 

I keep hoping for a full length studio album, but the truth is Tyler’s live performed original compositions have a weight that I think will be lost in production.  It would take a genius in the studio to capture the life and energy of this guy’s art.  I’m not saying he wouldn’t put out a phenomenal studio album, but there’s something deep and abiding in the voice of Tyler Childers that doesn’t translate to a recorded medium.  Listening to his live performances is like having a deep conversation with a dear friend in a hopelessly crowded and loud room.  You strain to hear every word and cling to the truth and poetry of the words as chaos swirls around.  You can’t bottle that.  You can’t inscribe it on plastic with a laser.  It has to live in the wild.

I’ll buy every album he puts out.  I’ll be a huge fan even if he goes mainstream country (my least favorite genre), but at this moment in time Tyler Childers is in a perfect place and producing a perfect musical experience.
As we were walking out Mandy said: "Well, there's Mister Childers himself!"  Sure enough, he stood a few dozen feet away talking to a group of three or four.  The place had pretty much cleared out.  Tom offered to take a photo if I wanted to go over.  I thought about it but decided not to.  I hate to impose on people and I know he'd had a big night.  He looked like he was getting ready to head out himself.  So we walked across the parking lot back to the hotel with no photo of the fanboy and the artist. 
The next morning as we were loading up for the drive home I had a revelation.  Murphy's Law strikes again!
"He's going to be huge.  I know it, because last night I had the chance to go meet him, and I'll probably never get another one."
Tom nodded in agreement.  Tyler Childers is going to be huge.


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