Album Review – Tyler Childers – “Rustin’ In The Rain”

There’s a lot of noise in music these days, and that noise often drowns out the music itself. The quarreling and distraction that ensues in certain segments of the country music population simply from mentioning names like “Tyler Childers,” “Jason Isbell,” and “Sturgill Simpson” due to particular stances they have taken, and the political reactionism those stances elicit has become a drag on the otherwise strong and vibrant grassroots movement attempting to offer an alternative to mainstream country.

This is unfortunate, because these same names constitute the very pinnacle of creative expression and importance in this independent music movement. Perhaps it’s these artists’ own doing, but the polarization that has permeated everything throughout society has most certainly not spared the independent country scene, and it’s been a party to eroding the once strong camaraderie that allowed independent music to become the mainstream.

But the release of a new album is the opportunity to replace all of that noise. A good album, or a good song can act like a panacea for the public perception of any artist, and can set folks strait and bring people together across otherwise stratified political and cultural divides. Jason Isbell’s new album Weathervanes released earlier this year is a good example of this. With 13 strong new original songs, he hushed many of his critics.

You pipe up the new Tyler Childers album Rustin’ In The Rain and the tandem twangy guitar sounds introducing the title track immediately hit your ears, and all of a sudden everything seems a little more right in the world. The second song “Phone Calls and Emails” about being ghosted with it’s 3/4 time signature and tinkling piano reminiscent of Charlie Rich is also perfect for softening hardened country hearts and putting bygones aside.

Childers has always been more of an Appalachian-style folkish-leaning country artist. But the first two tracks of Rustin’ In The Rain give off a more traditional country signal. This continues into the Childers rendition of “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” written by Kris Kristofferson, and popularized by Sammi Smith on its way to becoming a classic country standard. Having performed this song live for years now, Tyler knows how to navigate the contours of this composition to squeeze every ounce of emotion out of this classic composition.

S.G. Goodman’s “Space and Time” isn’t exactly a traditional country standard just yet, but Tyler Childers helps boost its signal significantly here, and deservedly so, even if S.G’s version remains the definitive take of the song. And similarly to the other songs of the set, Childers proves that it’s not just his writing or style that has ensconced him at the top of country music, but his singing and performances that exude tremendous soul and a sincere affection for the words and sentiments that’s hard to not recognize and appreciate.

“Luke 2:8-10” and “Percheron Mules” are the tracks on the album that feel a little bit weaker than the rest. Already familiar to many Tyler Childers fans, you’re not sure if there is a tongue-in-the-cheek when you’re listening, which Childers and his backing band The Food Stamps with their side project El Dorado are known to do. It’s also fair to wonder if these songs wouldn’t have been better placed on Tyler’s last album, the Gospel-inspired Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven.

Otherwise though, it’s really hard to find an avenue of criticism for what you get on Rustin’ In The Rain. These seven tracks sound great, and in many ways this album constitutes the true traditional country record some Childers fans have been clamoring for.

Even though some have worn these songs out via live versions on YouTube, the studio versions have enough unique wrinkles and character to make them their own living entities beyond the fond memories of live performances. Also, it’s not exactly Tyler’s fault if folks became comfortable to the live versions first. This is the risk any fan takes by taking a peek forward on YouTube.

But the concern about Rustin’ In The Rain is what this album doesn’t include. It feels like it pulls up a bit short, just like really all of Tyler’s albums since Purgatory. It’s Purgatory that remains the most popular album by Tyler Childers, and one of the most popular albums in all of country music, despite having been released now some six years ago, and Childers releasing three other albums subsequently. It’s not just because it’s where people first discovered Tyler Childers. It’s because it feels like Tyler’s last complete effort.

Whether it was the pandemic-era Long Violent History filled mostly with old-time fiddle standards, or Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven that stretched eights songs including covers, standards, and instrumentals into a bloated three-album set, you just don’t feel like you’re getting the full effort, and the full Tyler Childers experience from these most recent albums.

Tyler Childers may be keeping his nose out of the pills these days, but he’s not keeping it on the grindstone. When he revealed that he spent all of two days in the studio during the recording of Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven, it seemed to make sense.

Nobody’s asking Tyler Childers to be like Zach Bryan and slap dash tracks out with poor production, nor should Childers be forced to release a new album of 10 original songs every year if there’s no inspiration and passion to compose new material. But there is a happy medium somewhere that Tyler Childers is missing, and seems to be trying to fill with cover songs, and songs he probably should have released years ago, and songs that are sometimes or often worn out in the audience’s ear well before the studio version is released.

And then of course there is the political tone that Tyler has set now for not just one, but two of his albums, and not through the song material itself exactly, but videos that have accompanied them. Instead of letting Long Violent History speak for itself as Childers said he wanted to do and was his initial impulse, he included a video that despite it’s praise from allies in the media, came across as preachy and unnecessarily polarizing to much of his fan base, not underscoring his message, but eroding its potency.

Similarly, the video for Tyler’s “In Your Love” has been praised to the rafters by allies and people in the media and elite circles, but has seen mixed to negative results from some of the people who the music of Tyler Childers naturally appeals to, and perhaps those who need to be reached by the message the most.

To those who feel offended by the portrayal of a gay couple in a music video, they need to just get over it. Heteronormative portrayals of love are commonplace, and there’s no reason why gay ones couldn’t, or shouldn’t be either. We’re 25 years beyond Will & Grace, and gay marriage has been the law of the land for a nearly a decade. You don’t have to love it, but there’s no reason to not accept it, and accept everyone for who they are.

But for some, it’s not the video content specifically. It’s the preachy, didactic nature of how all of this stuff comes across to them. It’s the way the press and elite society speak down to people, and virtue signal often to shield themselves from their own trespasses, bigotry, or hypocrisy. Is the mixed reception for the video the fault of bigoty? In some instances, yes it most certainly is.

But this is the challenge presented to artists who want to reach through people’s preconceived filters to stimulate the actual change they want to see in the world. Often when this enterprise is undertaken, it ends up being counter-productive to the intended targets of the message, and pandering to those who are already receptive to it.

The video for “In Your Love” won’t stimulate the questioning of ideals and the softening of hardened hearts in audience members that it hopes to, except perhaps in some rare case. It has stimulated anger in these people—anger from some that is tied to bigotry and homophobia that they need to address on a personal level.

But for others, their issue with the video is simply tied to not wanting to be moralized to. In truth, Tyler Childers isn’t directly moralizing anything in the video, but that’s not how it’s being perceived, and by both sides of the issue. Some people run to music as a reprieve from the polarization of society. And some not only won’t let the message of the “In Your Love” video into their hearts, they will swear off the music of Tyler Childers in its entirety, isolating them from all the messages he looks to convey through all of his music.

All of that is a shame, because despite the short run-time and reliance on previously-heard material, Rustin’ In The Rain is a great little album full of quality country songs and performances by Tyler Childers and the Food Stamps. It’s the most cohesive and straightforward work from Childers since Country Squire.

Tyler Childers has his. He’s selling out arenas now, and making 7 figures off his music. Your boycotts and bad attitudes about his music will only make a difference at the margins. The only person who is really being injured by not listening to the agreeable portions of the catalogs of Tyler Childers, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson is you the listener by allowing the extraneous noise to get in the way of what is often great country music.

And Rustin’ In The Rain is great country music.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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