Near the end of Tyler Childers’ album “Purgatory” sits a song that pins an affirmation so simple and accessible to a melody so instantly infectious that you quit worrying whether to call it country, Americana or rock ’n’ roll. In truth, the tune “Universal Sound” is all of that, outlining music that defies categorization in its story line just as the rhythm swirling around it skirts labels. One thing is for certain, though: The universal sound emanating around Childers is a fine and inescapable force. “I let it take over me from the toenails to the crown,” he sings, “’til the body that I’m in, ’til they put me in the ground and I return to the chorus of the universal sound.”
For many people outside of Kentucky (well, perhaps not that many — he performed in Europe last week), Childers is making his introduction with “Purgatory,” a record rooted in a country sound brimming with mountain roots, Appalachian soul and a country muse far more sage than one would expect out of a 27-year-old songsmith. Of course, the Lawrence County native has been a regular of Lexington clubs and festivals for years, whether through his own performances or compositions recorded by like-minded acts including local bluegrass favorite NewTown. But outside of a somewhat forgotten 2011 album (“Bottles and Bibles”) and downloadable performances from “Red Barn Radio,” Childers’ gift for country narrative and his natural feel for the roots-directed melodies necessary to convey them haven’t been presented on recordings.
“Purgatory” changes that with an exquisite 10-song selection recorded in Nashville, co-produced by another famed Kentucky country stylist, Sturgill Simpson. One shouldn’t read too much into that, save for the record’s refusal to bow to country convention. Childers’ country calling in these compositions is very much his own.
Sure, there are hints of other stylists in his work, as in “I Swear (To God),” a parable detailing a rough night out, the even rougher morning after and the almost whimsical sense of isolation that results (“Ma, I swear I’m doin’ alright, but when the evening comes around I swear to God”). The sentiments echo greats like Steve Earle, but the wordplay, along with the tune’s swing-savvy fiddle lead, point more to Childers’ own base of country restlessness.
At its best, “Purgatory” becomes prophetic in its down-home worldliness. On “Born Again,” Childers views the afterlife not in terms of redemption but as something of a comeuppance. “My soul returned to sea to come to Earth again,” Childers sings against another appealing fiddle melody, “clucking out a living as a favorite laying hen.”
“Purgatory” does end with at least one tale of salvation, a quiet but moving love song called “Lady Mae.” Performing only with voice and guitar, Childers outlines a tale where toughness is uprooted but preserved and cared for, nurturing its natural strength while preparing for the growth to come: “I ain’t the toughest hickory that your ax has ever felled, but I’m a hickory just as well.”