Album Review – Tyler Childers – “Long Violent History”

Long Violent History released by Tyler Childers must be regarded in the context of what it is, and who it is from. This surprise release that includes seven old-time fiddle standards, a theatrical piece in “Send In The Clowns” that’s been turned into a fiddle standard, and one original song rendered in the old-time fiddle style, is not meant to be regarded as a regular, original studio release. In such a context, it would fall apart under the mildest of scrutiny. Remove any Tyler Childers fandom, or any regard for his current stature in country music as a non radio artist defying all odds and revolutionizing the genre, and the majority of the songs and performances of Long Violent History fall somewhere near amateur.

This isn’t a COVID-19 special, of which we’ve received so many of in the last few months—acoustic albums of covers or previously-released songs, or other half efforts—though usually well-performed for what they are by artists attempting to stay busy and keep funds coming in. This practice is perfectly understandable given the plight of musicians, but often not especially compelling or valuable when it comes to seeking something interesting to listen to. But Long Violent History doesn’t even really fit into that category. It’s probably better to consider as a Record Store Day release. “Tyler Childers releases beginner-level standard fiddle tunes played at a beginner level competency, stamped in 180-grain Colonel Sanders suit white vinyl, limited to 250 numbered copies.” A collectors item. An oddball.

Perhaps for people who are not aware or well-versed in old-time fiddle music or primitive Appalachian tunes, the Tyler Childers renderings may feel magical to them. But those who know this music—from artists such as Matt Kinman, or the Foghorn Stringband, or quite a few others who are adept in this discipline, including lots of African American artists who tend to disproportionately perform and preserve this very old music compared to their white counterparts—including Dom Flemons who plays a large role here—this record is a novice work. If anyone really likes this primitive style of roots music, they should really check out the latest record from Cahalen Morrison full of original works, that may be one of the best records released all year.

Playing the fiddle is just as much about hitting the notes as it is how you move between them. With only months of practice before compiling this record (and a broken clavicle bisecting this time), Tyler Childers just doesn’t have the chops to do anything that would be regarded highly within this old-time fiddle music realm, or within the fiddle discipline in general. And any reviewer worth their salt and intimately aware of old-time music would be doing the public a grave disservice to attempt to gloss over the amateur aspect of this material. The scratchy nature of Tyler’s fiddle playing here is very indicative of the wafts of intonation issues and unintentional accidentals one hears while attending a fiddle roundup or a bluegrass festival, and walking past the fiddle boot camp for kids on your way to the restroom. It would earn the 5th place ribbon among a competition of 14-year-olds—the embellishment of bass, mandolin, banjo, guitar, 2nd fiddle parts, and other accompaniment notwithstanding.

But that’s not what all of this is about. It’s not an attempt at releasing a record of top notch old-time fiddle music. Is it?

Tyler Childers is one of the most important country music artists of our era—mainstream, independent, major label, unaffiliated, or otherwise. Some may not be aware, but over the majority of 2020, Tyler’s 2017 record Purgatory has been a steadfast perennial entry in the weekly album charts in the Top 20 of country, regularly receiving some 8 millions streams every seven days, and selling thousands of physical and downloaded copies. It zoomed past the half million sales barrier in mid August, and continues to rack up incredible numbers that are running laps not just around some of the biggest mainstream stars, but most of them.

Earlier this year before COVID-19, Tyler Childers took part of an arena tour with Sturgill Simpson that was so in demand, they were selling out certain dates, and doubling up performances in some cities. And not to knock on Sturgill, but there’s a good chance that when life returns to normal, Childers will be selling out his own arenas. It is hard to express just how big, and how significant Tyler Childers has become. While still receiving virtually no mainstream radio play, and garnering no attention from the CMAs or ACMs, Childers has grown into one of the biggest artists in all of country music at the moment.

And when an artist of this stature chooses to release an album of the most fundamental old-time fiddle tunes that is likely to be the first taste of this type of early roots music for thousands, if not millions of listeners who will be attentive due to the name on the front of the record, it is massively important, sort of like Dierks Bentley recording a bluegrass or parody comedy record at the height of his career, only perhaps even cooler. Long Violent History was recorded with “The Pickin Crew,” which included Tyler’s fiddle player and traditional music instructor Jesse Wells, the aforementioned Dom Flemons formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, 5-string Kentucky banjo specialist John Haywood, mandolinist Andrew Marlin, guitarist Josh Oliver, upright bassist (and solo performer/songwriter) John R. Miller, fiddler Chloe Edmonstone, and cellist Cecelia Wright.

There is talking the talk. And there is walking the walk. Tyler Childers will be the first to tell you his fiddle playing is novice. But he doesn’t give a shit. And in some respects, neither should you. That is not the point. “If I’m writing for a place specifically, then I need to be fully immersed in that place ’cause there’s little things, turns of phrases, and nuances of a lifestyle,” Childers said last year about his dedication to keeping himself grounded to his Kentucky roots. Choosing to learn old-time fiddle that’s at the very foundation of country music and the Kentucky culture is the kind of level of commitment Tyler Childers has to authenticity that few others in country music are willing to pursue or express.

And despite the fair criticism of the simplicity of the selections, and the quality of the renditions (the use of double fiddle on most songs really exposes the sloppy aspect of Tyler’s playing), you’re following along on Long Violent History as Tyler Childers develops and improves his fiddle skills. The opening song “Send In the Clowns” feels very elementary. But by the time you get to his version of “Jenny Lynn,” you start to feel like he’s finding his footing, and he’s becoming a true fiddler. By “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” Tyler Childers has reached a proficiency where he doesn’t need any accompaniment, and really captures that bygone, nostalgic mood that awakens something very deep inside of you in a way only the oldest odes in American and Old World music are capable of.

And then of course there is the final song and title track, which is where most—and for some—all of the attention is centered. Tyler’s tempestuous treatise upon the contentious moments we find ourselves in that directly and pointedly addresses truth in media, the scourge of social media, and the issue of racial injustice is not, and should not be as polarizing or controversial as some are making it out to be, on both sides of the political and cultural spectrum. Brilliantly written and passionately delivered, it’s Tyler’s answer to the current moment told distinctly through his Kentucky eyes.

Of course, in these roiled times, some have taken exception with the song’s content. But much, if not most of the concern is actually tied to the accompanying 6-minute video Tyler Childers released as an addendum to this record, which both deserves it’s own conversation (which Saving Country Music may address in due course), but also should be considered autonomous from this album, and the title song itself. As Tyler Childers says in the video, his intent was for the album itself to be considered without preamble or explanation. It was others that convinced him otherwise.

If you want to recuse yourself from experiencing and enjoying one of the most phenomenal and revolutionary artists in country music in our generation due to perceived or actual differences of opinion on political or cultural issues, you do so at your own detriment, and at the severe limitation of your musical experience, whether that ire is aimed at Tyler Childers, or any other artist that has chosen to express themselves in these polarizing times.

But no matter the attitude one brings to this unusual, and unexpected work by Tyler Childers, it’s undeniable that when his biography is penned, a dedicated portion will be transfixed on remembering that time during the crazy pandemic of 2020 that he released a surprise record full of old-time fiddle tunes, and cemented without a doubt that Tyler Childers is, was, and always will be the real deal Kentuckian that embodies the authenticity many in country music strive for, but few achieve to such a degree due to a heartfelt dedication to his Kentucky roots.

1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)

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Proceeds from Long Violent History go towards the Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund.

Purchase Long Violent History from Tyler Childers

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