The Ballad of the Laid Back Country Picker and “Go West”

Welcome to the world of the country music underground and general audio oddities, eastern Kentucky edition. Making your way to Louisa, Kentucky and Lawrence County on the West Virginia border, you enter the habitat of the one and only Laid Back Country Picker. Those who’ve spent ample time sniffing around the Tyler Childers universe beyond listening to “Whitehouse Road” on repeat may already be familiar with this character to some extent, if they haven’t dove head first into the Laid Back Country Picker experience, which is definitely a deep dive.

For those who are perfectly unfamiliar with this man though, the release of his latest album Go West might be a good on ramp. With his pronounced mutton chops, cowboy hat, embroidered pearl snaps, origin story in rural Kentucky, and wife Honey’s muumuu and curlers, you may be quick to assume this some sort backwoods version of throwback hillbilly music. But that’s not exactly what’s going on here. In fact in some respects, the music is secondary to the story, or at least equally as important and intriguing.

One quick way to describe the Laid Back Country Picker and the new album Go West is to say it’s like a cross between Unknown Hinson and the Flat Duo Jets. Similar to Unknown Hinson, the Laid Back Country Picker can shred on guitar, and has never released his music to streaming or download services, until Go West that is, which makes its way onto the dirty internet via Tyler Childers’ Hickman Holler record label. Previously, the only way to procure the Picker’s music was through a personal PayPal transaction, or out of the back of his trunk.

So how did some old mutton-chopped Kentucky guy end up on Tyler’s record label? It all started when Tyler Childers walked into his 9th Grade government class at Lawrence County High School, and was introduced to his teacher Mr. David Prince, who happens to be the civilian version of the Laid Back Country Picker. Legendary in eastern Kentucky as a 20-year social studies teacher, in 2010 Mr. Prince was the Kentucky Council’s Social Studies Teacher of the Year.

Oh, and to add yet another nickname into the mix if you already aren’t confused enough, many of David Price’s students, friends, family, and fellow faculty members don’t call him Mr. Prince or Laid Back Country Picker. They call him “Chico,” probably due to ’70s actor Freddy Prinz who starred in the sitcom Chico and The Man. Chico is one of those teachers every student (and their parents) wants to have, because he’s cool, and actually cares about teaching kids.

Understanding the long history now with Tyler Childers going all the way back to the 9th Grade, it may make a little more sense why you saw the Laid Back Country Picker and Honey in a recent unboxing video for Tyler’s recent album Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven, or opening for him at select shows, or how Tyler was cast as slick record executive Shadrack Boggs in Act 1 and Act 2 of the straight-to-Youtube movie Laid Back Makes a Deal from 2019.

But the story goes even deeper than that. David Prince grew up just outside of Louisa, Kentucky, learning to play banjo and other acoustic instruments at an early age. Country music was likely the way his life was heading when a neighbor friend who’d moved from Ohio introduced young David Prince to AC/DC and rock n’ roll, and his musical world made an abrupt 180-degree turn.

The rock n’ roll career of David Prince got pretty serious at one point while he was a member of the group Night Train. They got big enough to make some noise across the United States and toured in Europe. Night Train eventually dissolved though, yet Prince still kept on going in various projects. It was during a semi drunk night on the 4th of July in Texas while on tour when his wife snapped what at the time seemed to be a pretty innocuous photo of Prince in a cowboy hat.

The inside joke became that the photo personified the “Laid Back Country Picker,” lifted from a Waylon Jennings track cut during the Lonesome, Onry, and Mean sessions in the early ’70s, but only released on the deluxe edition of the album in 2003. David Prince put the image on a T-shirt and wore it to a Tyler Childers show. It was such a hit, he made 20 more. All of a sudden the legend of the Laid Back Country Picker was born, and yes, it began as an inside joke on a T-shirt that predated the music.

The sound of the Laid Back Country Picker grew out of what David Prince envisioned the guy on the T-shirt would play, which was a mix of Prince’s country roots and his rock n’ roll disposition. Though the genre wasn’t specific, the era of the 1970s was. His wife “Honey” (aka Teresa Prince of the Luna and the Mountain Jets) acquired a wardrobe of flowery house coats and out-of-date sunglasses, and she joined the band as well, first playing bass and acoustic guitar when it was a 4-piece, but today playing drums in what has been slimmed down to a 2-piece power duo.

Early Laid Back Country Picker music was much more country in its sound. The new album Go West is probably best described as a guitar-and-drum project (though bass is in there too), with David Prince showing off his strong rock guitar skills with fills and grooves acquired from decades of playing, with some twang and country slide blues sounds stealing in and out upon occasion. The lyrics often feel a bit like placeholders or pedestrian, though a little wit is shown in the title track and in other spurts.

But the music isn’t the only reason you’re paying attention to the Laid Back Country Picker. It’s not that it’s superfulous either, but it’s not the reason he’s become iconic in certain circles. It’s everything else that comes with it. It’s the Vaudeville of it all, and the reminder to not take everything so damn serious. He’s the social studies teacher that shreds, and also can play pedal steel guitar.

Over time, the Laid Back Country Picker has become iconic in Kentucky, with documentaries made about him, The Bitter Southerner profiling him, and the character becoming the de facto mascot of the Tyler Childers universe. The Laid Back Country Picker is a piece living Kentucky folklore and roadside Americana.

In the current era we’re living through in country music, the Kentucky roots music insurgency is very much driving the story. The Laid Back Country Picker is an unusual, but in many respects, essential part of that story.

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