When Tyler Childers was 16, he had been writing songs for a few years, "mostly about my buddies and girls," he says. "When you're 14 and 15 years old, there's not much to write about to reach a wide audience."
Then he wrote a song called The Harvest, about the lack of a harvest.
The protagonist foretells his suicide, but it's far from teen angst. It's desperation brought on by an adult life quickly falling apart.
"Won't you tell my baby sister I'll be back in the fall, 'cause it's better to have false hope than no hope at all," he sings in the song with the chorus:
I'll be meeting with my savior
To go over my foolish deeds
When he asks me why I did it
Lord, I'll blame it on the seed
'Cause it didn't grow in like I planned
And when it did it all went dry
And I couldn't stand to hear the pain
Of a small baby crying
About that same time, Childers moved to Paintsville and found a group of buddies who introduced him to a lot of music he hadn't heard. It ended up being all he listened to, he said. That music included Drive-By Truckers, Chris Knight and Lucero.
"That's when I started realizing the 'what' of my songs, what I wanted to be writing about and how I wanted to play my songs," he says.
Particularly following the inspiration of Knight, a native of Slaughters in Webster County, Childers pursued a write-what-you know course to start building a career as a vivid songwriter and compelling storyteller. With one album under his belt and another on the way, his touring schedule this week brings him back to Lexington, where he lived for more than three years.
On Friday, he opens for Virginia singer and songwriter Scott Miller, whom Childers said he has listened to since he was in high school.
"That was one of those bucket-list opening spots, in my book," he says.
Childers, 22, wound up in Lexington after a semester at Western Kentucky University. He knew he wanted to play music, but he was too young to get into bars. So he enrolled for a few semesters at Bluegrass Community and Technical College and worked jobs including at a hardwood flooring company as he got his act together.
A cornerstone of that is his debut album, Bottles & Bibles, on which The Harvest, along with other characters at various stages of desperation or inebriation. It opens with a similar tale in Hard Times, in which the protagonist foresees the newspaper writing about him getting shot trying to hold up a Texaco station.
They'll say I was desperate;
They're probably right
Childers emphasizes that what he "knows" isn't necessarily from personal experience, but also from being an attentive listener in the barber shop and observing what's going on. And not all of the once-aspiring author's songs sound like moments from Steinbeck novels.
There's the fanciful Junction City Queen, the classic country shout-out Play Me A Hank Song and If Whiskey Could Talk, which should be on any post-breakup play list.
If whiskey could talk
It'd say I'm a great guy
Or at least it ought to
For as much as I buy
But it's money well spent
Just to help me feel free
From the pain she creates
When she's cheatin' on me
The album title, Bottles & Bibles, didn't come as quickly as it might seem, but it came pretty easily when he was asked what the title was going to be.
"Well, it talks a lot about drinking, and a lot about God," Childers answered. "Bottles and Bibles."
It was the one time, Childers says, that a title begat a song, this one being about a preacher whose girlfriend leaves him.
Oh Lord, if you care
Send a spirit down here
'Cause the preacher's been drinking again
"One of the hardest things for me is naming a song," Childers says. The impetus to settle on a name often comes when producer Bud Carroll says, "I've got to call this file something."
Bottles & Bibles has been out about three years, and Childers is finishing up a new album that he hopes to have out early this summer. Folks who have followed Childers over the past few years will probably recognize a lot of the songs on the new album, he says.
Listeners will probably notice a bit more instrumentation than on Childers' first album, which mainly consisted of him and his guitar.
"Not too much," Childers says. "We've put in a little fiddle, pedal steel, percussion; just things where they need to be."
Where Childers needs to be right now is Greenbrier County, W.Va., where he recently moved with his girlfriend, who got a job there.
"She got a job with working with AmeriCorps, and I'm a pretty mobile person," Childers says. "I can go about anywhere."
But his songs will never stray too far from home.