As with most aspiring songwriters and performers, Tyler Childers can measure his career in miles.
Initially, it was the distance separating Huntington, just across the state line in West Virginia, and Lexington, where he lived while playing clubs and bars he was barely old enough to legally be in.
That distance has expanded somewhat of late. Last week, Childers was performing for audiences in Norway, London and Amsterdam. Friday, he issues a new album, “Purgatory,” that has already earned favorable notices from National Public Radio and Rolling Stone, setting the Lawrence County native up to be the next great Kentucky country music export to gain notice outside of the country music mainstream.
But on Tuesday, with the release of “Purgatory” only days away, Childers thought back on the drives between Huntington and Lexington, as well as the nurturing audience support he found in both cities.
“I started going to open mics in Huntington when I was getting ready to move to Lexington,” he recalled. “As far as cutting my teeth playing music, that happened going back and forth from Huntington to Lexington. I was lucky to have both of those scenes to grow up in. Both of them were really welcoming. Other places I went to play in, the people were like, ‘I wish our musicians were that united in a cause.’ Whether it was rock, whether it was country, music was like an eclectic force for the betterment of the arts. That goes for Lexington and Huntington both.”
My mindset was on creating a piece that, if I had to show it to someone from outside my area, would be a good representation of what it was like inside my area.
It went for the Paintsville region, too, where Childers grew up. The music of the region is reflected in the opening notes of “Purgatory” with a rustic yarn called “I Swear (To God)” that giddily details the dead ends to fast living.
“Growing up, we were just off the Country Music Highway,” Childers said, referring to the 144-mile stretch of U.S. 23. “Everybody there takes a lot of pride in that. You can ask anybody about 23 and who comes from Lawrence County and who comes from Johnson County and on and on. Music is a big part of life to the majority of people from that area, whether it comes from harmonizing with family at church or just listening to the country music that came out of that area from Ricky Skaggs, Loretta Lynn and all these great people. Growing up in that area, their music became a big part of my life, too.
“I mean, I had three cassettes when I was 9 years old — two by Ricky Skaggs and one by (comedian and Grand Ole Opry star) Jerry Clower.”
Childers got a Kentucky boost on “Purgatory,” as well. Producing, along with David Ferguson (whose engineering credits include John Prine, The Del McCoury Band and the famed Rick Rubin-produced albums Johnny Cash closed his career with), was Grammy-winning Jackson native Sturgill Simpson.
“If there was one thing I took away from working with them, it was how to cut back and get to the point of a song in the most effective way,” Childers said. “They taught me about what to leave and what to get rid of.
“With Sturgill, I just played him my songs. He heard all my songs — what we were going to use and what we weren’t. We talked a lot about what we wanted sound and style-wise. With that in mind, he picked a band of veteran studio musicians (including, among others, the acclaimed fiddler Stuart Duncan). From there, he directed the whole thing.
“My mindset was on creating a piece that, if I had to show it to someone from outside my area, would be a good representation of what it was like inside my area. I feel pretty confident the tracks we chose to put together do that.”
Reflective of Eastern Kentucky roots? The music on “Purgatory” is certainly that. In its most startling song, “Banded Clovis,” Childers turns the traditional murder ballad form on its ear, dragging it into the drug-riddled present day. But on “Universal Sound,” everything unwinds into a road tune of Zen country bliss. Sonically, the record eases from gentle acoustic grace to tough knuckled variations on outlaw country.
“Songwriting … it’s a combination of things. Maybe it comes from a conversation you might have had that triggers something else, or you could be reading something that reminds you of something else. Those things might go together in a line that sends the song into something totally off topic from what you were thinking about in the first place. It could start with a melody. It could start with a word. It’s not one thing. The more you get outside of having a routine, the more apt you are to write songs for a long time.”
What’s ahead once “Purgatory” hits stores? Well, promotion and roadwork, for starters. Childers isn’t overly fond of the former, but accepts its necessity. But the latter… that’s something he knows, respects and intends to build upon. After all, his journey began with all of those trips between Huntington and Lexington. It’s just that today the scope of his travels has broadened a bit.
“There’s a fun and a not-so-fun side to all of this,” Childers said. “You have to promote what you’re doing. You have to talk to everybody. There’s a lot of shameless self-promotion. But if you don’t do it, nobody is going to do it for you.
“For now, it’s about getting the album out, playing the songs and seeing new places. But that’s been the idea ever since I started playing. From Huntington to Lexington, that was my circle. That used to be all I could afford to do. Then the circle got a little bigger and I started being able to do Louisville to Charleston. Then that got bigger and that got bigger. Now we’re just trying to widen the circle even more. We seem to be doing all right at it, too.”