Album Review – “Purgatory” by Tyler Childers

Photo: David McClister
Photo: David McClister

Timing is the intangible quantity that is often overlooked for why sweet lady luck smiles upon certain artists and allows their music to succeed, and why others fall flat, or never seem to find the success their relative talent deserves. If Sturgill Simpson had started his career in earnest at age 23, he may have become a known quantity in music way before he was ready, typecast as just okay, and not be in a position where if he randomly chooses to produce an album from some unknown Kentucky songwriter, it immediately results in a necessity to pay attention.

Just like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, Tyler Childers was playing and writing music for many years before he was ready to become a part of the national country music conversation. It was only after years of failure, perseverance, tempering in the fires of everyday life and dues paid on small stages that Tyler was able to find enough wisdom furrowing his brow and the proper resources beneath him to take it to the masses.

Some of the songs on Tyler Childers new album Purgatory are old, but the world was not ready for them when they were first released. Kentucky was, but not the rest of us. The rising country music insurgency had yet to take hold to the point where you had folks like Stapleton, Sturgill, and Isbell influencing the mainstream. Some of the stuff on Tyler’s early recordings, including his Live on Red Barn Radio records, contain moments that duplicate or may even surpass the infectiousness and appeal of the moments on this new album. But what good is a song if nobody is listening to it? Give credit to those savvy few who were paying attention to Tyler Childers way before the rest of us. It just took some time and Sturgill Simpson’s involvement for everyone else to pay attention.

tyler-childers-purgatoryBeyond anything else, the first identifier most worthy of assigning to Tyler Childers and Purgatory is that it is country. Its twangy, sweaty, live and loose. And with apologies to Sturgill—because the past comparisons have been made off of shallow observances—but there is a lot of Waylon on this record. Or perhaps it’s better to say that there was always a lot of Otis and across-the-tracks influence in Waylon’s music that was transferred into country music through Waylon, and that influence also find its way onto this Tyler Childers record.

We are talking about half time bass shit, hard grooves, and twangy stuff that comes from bloodshot eyes and untucked shirts unbuttoned to mid chest. There is also a straight up bluegrass song as the title track, and even a song that is fair to call contemporary in “Universal Sound,” like something Dierks Bentley would record back when he was still cool. But overall, this is country, baby.

People will make a lot of Sturgill Simpson’s presence on this record, which is only fair and understandable. But the best producers are the ones who know how to get out of the way of the music and leave any signature stamping to the artist and the musicians involved, and most importantly, bring out the best in the artist whose name’s in bold on the cover as opposed to in small font on the inner sleeve. Sturgill Simpson accomplished is this by making the center of focus not him, but Tyler Childers, his songs, and his warbly, greasy, interior Kentucky accent that adds authenticity to everything on this record.

It’s that nexus between rural, real-world vernacular, filtered through an intelligent perspective, and gifted with poetic insight that makes an album like Tyler Childers’ Purgatory more infectious than your average throwback country effort. This album makes no apologies, and no attempts to sand down the rough edges, speaking candidly about drug use and womaizing similar to those early underground records from folks like Hank3 that helped set the table for the current country insurgency, yet is still distinctly Kentucky in perspective, steeped in the hollers of coal country, where the action happens down winding roads shaded from the sun due to the looming hills, and debauchery is so easy to discover if you know where to go looking.

You do get a sense similar to the Brent Cobb album from last year that despite being consistent throughout and delivering some really excellent songs, this isn’t one of those records sticks to your bones eternally. It lacks a cohesive expression, and originality in musical approach. But it does put Tyler Childers in the place he belongs right here right now, which is alongside a stellar group of new, if not young artist who are giving hope to the future of country music and happiness to our ears in the here and now.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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