Tyler Childers Headlines 3-Day Healing Appalachia Fest 2023

photo: Brian Turnwald

Editor’s Note: This review was written by freelance journalist, and long-time Saving Country Music reader/commenter Matthew Bashioum.

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A healthier community is a better community. Your neighbor’s health and mental well-being affects you and how your community functions. Sometimes, all it takes is listening to help someone in need take that first step towards recovery.

Last Thursday through Saturday (Sept. 21-23) over 16,000 thousand people came together at the State Fair Grounds in beautiful Lewisburg, West Virginia to celebrate recovery, raise awareness and promote education, and share a music experience over a 3-day (and sometimes all-night) Hope in the Hills “Healing Appalachia” Benefit Concert.

What started off as one-night concert in 2018 to raise money to combat the region’s opioid crisis has grown into a super fundraiser with 41 health organizations on site, over 500 volunteers from 5 neighboring states, and some of the best Country, Americana, Rock & Roll / R&B artists from the Appalachian region taking the stage.

Festival producer and Lewisburg native Charlie Hatcher has meticulously nurtured and procured this benefit concert since its infancy with the vision of using music as a path to better health and second chances. Even before the 4th edition of this benefit concert kicked off last week (two-year Covid pause), Hope in the Hills has raised $400,000 for recovery organizations in the region and helped break the stigma of addictions and combat the opioid culture created by Big Pharma’s pill mills that abused this region as an unbridled middle-class testing lab for decades.

From the stage, Tyler Childers has been the face of the Healing Appalachia concert from its inception. Shortly after Childers and Senora May started dating, they made Lewisburg, WV their home. You can hear this region’s influence his lyrics of “Universal Sound” (“Up in Pocahontas, near the Cranberry Glades”). Along the journey, Childers himself has found emotional clarity and creative freedom through recovery.

Shortly after 10 pm on Saturday, Childers casually walked to the center of the stage wearing a Carhartt jacket and a camo “Turkey and the Wolf” hat, sat in a chair with his guitar and opened his much-anticipated show with 3-song solo, acoustic set. The powerful, Appalachian anthem “Nose on the Grindstone” was followed by his love letter to his wife “Lady May,” then closed out by the effervescent “Follow you to Virgie.” All three songs were accompanied by an adoring 16,000+ choir.

The Food Stamps then joined Childers on stage and kicked off the full experience with “Way of the Triune God.” From that point on, it was standard fare (setlist below) with only “Percheron Mules” and “In Your Love” making it onto the night’s setlist from newly released Rustin’ in the Rain.

What’s fast becoming a favorite concert moment is when Childers grabs his fiddle and he and the boys pound out the trippy instrumental, overdrive jam “Cluck Ol’ Hen.” It was followed by a rousing and inspirational version of “Old Country Church.” One overall recurring theme of the event as explained by Healing Appalachia President Dave Lavender is spirituality—in music, in medicine, in recovery—and during “Old Country Church” everyone felt in in kindred spirits with their fellow concert goers.

After local-inspired fan favorite “Universal Sound,” Childers brought back out Phish front man Trey Anastasio to jam out to the late Charlie Daniel’s “Trudy.” Many have expressed how they wish this cover would be retired. Even the bluegrass version with the uber-talented Travelin’ McCourys felt flat at Del Fest. This did not. Fans have learned to never question Childers creative choices. He (and God) both have bigger plans.

Childers lively set came to an unexpected, emotional, and gut-wrenching ending. I struggled with how to write about it. Part of me wanted to leave it in the hills for everyone who experienced it in person (like in a recovery meeting), but I was tasked with covering this event. It was the Cory Branan a cappella “Sour Mash” toast that’s usually at the beginning of his concerts.

After playing “Heart You’ve Been Tendin’,” the band exited, and Childers retrieved a shot of moonshine (which he always spills out at the end). For the next 6 minutes a very emotional Childers explained how “Heart You’ve Been Tendin’” was the last song recorded for his “quasi-religiously gospely album” – the last his dying hippie, moonshiner, dear friend, Mike, would hear.

He elaborated that the song is about how this voyage of life is a long car ride and once you are in the car, you are in the car and that all you have with you are the things you have worked on internally. The day before the Hounds album was released, Mike was put into Hospice and the message of the song was heavier and more meaningful.

Senora planned on playing the “Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?” album for Mike continuously until he left (passed away). A very thankful-to-be-home Childers did one better and got to sing for Mike one last time: “one of the biggest gigs I got to play.” On the way to the hospital, Branan’s “Sour Mash” played and “it lended itself well to an a cappella version.”

A choked-up, emotional Childers ended the night with the toast to his dear friend while 16,000 people wiped away tears.

Thursday night headliner Jason Isbell also made a similar connection with his fans in attendance when he talked about his road to recovery; “I never really talk about it, because I sing so much about it all the damn time.”

Backed by his incredible tight and polished band, The 400 Unit, Isbell leaned heavy to a fault on the songs of the newly released Weathervanes. Although Isbell did recognize the 10th anniversary of Southeastern and recycled a couple songs—“Stockholm” and “Flying Over Water”—back into the setlist to mark the occasion, he missed an opportunity to play more from the landmark album.

A great moment happened when Isbell handed off front man duties to Sadler Vaden and they joyfully rocked through a version of Drivin’ n’ Cryin’s “Honeysuckle Blue,” flashing back to those early Drive-by Truckers’ concerts with Isbell playing the role of support.

After an encore of “24 Frames,” “If We Were Vampires” and an extended version of “This Ain’t It,” Isbell clocked in a little over 2 hours and the longest set of the 3-day concert.

Make no mistake, the first night belonged to West Virginia’s native-boy-done-good, Charles Wesley Godwin (who due to transportation issues rode in a U-Haul box truck to make the gig). Opening with “Cue County Roads” and ending with “Country Roads” flanked by Hope in the Hills volunteers on stage, Godwin delivered one of the most sincere, honest, high-energy sets of the festival and outside of Childers, drew the largest crowd.

Godwin’s performance came on the eve of the release of his new album Family Ties. In between showcasing new songs, fans were treated to “Lyin’ Low,” “Temporary Town,” “Shrinks and Pills,” “Hardwood Floors,” and an acoustic version of “Seneca Creek.” Flawlessly performing “Jamie” without his buddy Zach Bryan got the crowd believing it’s finally Godwin’s time.

Saturday night was for Rock n’ Roll and belonged to true Guitar Heroes Marcus King and Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule. Saturday night was also the first of two Late Night Stage shows. If there is a time to cut loose and get a little rowdy at this event, it’s in the dancehall that hosts these late shows. 49 Winchester headlined both Friday and Saturday Late Night shows taking the stage at 1:30 am.

49 Winchester front man Isaac Gibson looked like a man who mistakenly grabbed the horns of a wild bull and didn’t know what to do next when the late crowd matched his energy and shouted back “Who’s White Trash and Pretty” during “It’s a Shame.” After twice stating they had “one more song,” I saw Isaac’s dad raise his finger another “one more time” and the band broke into a funky cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” …. at 2:30 AM.

Maybe 49 Winchester is too rowdy for the main stage at a benefit concert (where they belong) or maybe they will whip the large crowd into an unmanageable frenzy, but there’s no denying no other artist could match their enthusiasm at 2:30 AM in a dancehall.

Arlo McKinley’s also performed a late-night set. McKinley is a three-time Healing Appalachia concert participant (last year in the time slot right before Childers on the main stage) and it’s evident he has developed a strong bond with the Healing Appalachia volunteers. The admiration is mutual as they sang back every lyric during his set. The night prior, McKinley jumped on the late-night stage during Jeremy Short’s set and collaborated on “Waymore’s Blues” by Waylon Jennings, and he was seen all over the fairgrounds Saturday.

The schedule release for Healing Appalachia has become an event within itself. Every artist is thoughtfully procured and lends itself to some great artist discovery. If you like Eryka Badu, H.E.R., or old school Arrested Development (“Tennessee”), check out the immensely-talented Amythyst Kiah from Chattanooga.

Amythyst Kiah

Ritch Henderson kicked off the first Late Show with an insanely rowdy, unhinged set. He then followed that up on the main stage Saturday with a thoughtful, touching abbreviated acoustic set, accompanied by his mom for the song “The Fall.”

There’s no box big enough to contain Henderson. His voice reminds one of early Rufus Wainwright and modern-day Evan Felker, but he looks like he could front a motorcycle gang. Henderson is a father, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He drops endless F-bombs on a Friday night and kisses his momma on the big stage the following day. He’s happy to be making music with his band of misfits in a time when the real music is rising to the top and the industry rules have been shattered. He also has a keen business sense and doesn’t run from the Americana label. Check out his song “Finally Comin’ Round.”

The Healing Appalachia concert over-delivers and miraculously accomplishes all its missions, but leaves little room for error. Unfortunately, that all came crashing down on Tim Goodin’s set Saturday night. On paper, someone had the idea of letting “up and coming” artists perform acoustic sets in between set changes. It did not work. The set-up people were distractions, though the artists muscled through. On top of that, Saturday was inflicted by the endless sound check bug which ultimately derailed the schedule.

Tim Goodin’s set consisted of two partial soundcheck songs and one proper song (“Hard Times”) without the lights turned up before being ushered off the stage. Goodin took to social media to express his frustrations and apologize to his fans for not playing “Son of Appalachia” or “Pills and Poverty.” It’s hard to find a man who better represents the blue-collard people of Appalachia and tells their stories. No doubt, he deserved way better on Saturday night, but I know he’ll make a triumphant return next year.

Tim Goodin

In between sets, there were very powerful testimonials of loss, survival, paths to recovery, and celebrations of life. One person (of the many) who deserves to be highlighted is Jane Rader, who is the former Huntington, WV Fire Chief who captured national attention over the cities battle against the opioid epidemic.

There’s a 39-minute documentary on Netflix called Heroin(e) that details the battle real heroes have faced to break this culture of dependency. If you live outside the Appalachian region, it might help you understand the endless mission for people like Rader, Charlie Thatch, and Dave Lavender.

There has been a lot of noise lately around some of the social commentary from Tyler Childers. Outside of Appalachia, noise is all it is. Within these mountains, the people are too busy worrying about clean drinking water, jobs, education, and an overcoming an opioid epidemic. People from Appalachia look to people like Tyler Childers to take their cues, because corrupt government has often let them down, and industry has abused and abounded them.

Appalachians are constantly evolving, retraining, and open to social change (even if we don’t agree). We rely on our family, neighbors, and community to help invest in a better, healthier, more vibrant, and productive community. It was an amazing, fulfilling experience to see a community in Lewisburg come together in the name of Healing Appalachia to help those in need of recovery and use music as their forever shared bond.

To donate to Hope in the Hills, CLICK HERE.

Tyler Childers Healing Appalachia Set List:

1. Nose on the Gridstone (Solo/Acoustic)
2. Lady May (Solo/Acoustic)
3. Follow You to Virgie (Solo/Acoustic)
4. Way of the Truine God
5. Tulsa Turnaround
6. Percheron Mules
7. Her and the Banks
8. In Your Love
9. All Your’n
10. Purgatory
11. Cluck Ol’ Hen
12. Old Country Church
13. Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?
14. Country Squire
15. Honky Tonk Flame
16. House Fire
17. Universal Sound
18. Trudy (w/ Trey Anastasio)
19. Heart You’ve Been Tendin’
20. Sour Mash (a cappella for Mike)

All photos by Brian Turnwald

Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule
Trey Anastasio
Marcus King
Kelsey Waldon
John R. Miller
Emily Nenni
Arlo McKinley
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