Tyler Childers delivered a dose of mountain music and a breath of fresh air at the Fillmore Wednesday night.
A rural Kentucky native, Childers is “bringing it up,” as one fan noted between the “I love you, Tyler” screams of a few young girls in the front row. In a world where country radio is populated by catchy, repurposed riffs and pop sensibilities, “bringing it up,” so to speak, is a herculean task. Childers is not alone in the vanguard of substantive songwriting, however, and joins artists like Colter Wall and Sturgill Simpson in a country counterculture that is gaining steam.
Childers’ breakout 2017 album, Purgatory, was produced by Simpson and engineered by David Ferguson of Johnny Cash and John Prine fame. It conveys stories of young love and cutty backwoods characters with hearty instrumentals and vocals that are, at times, pained. To see Childers perform feels both familiar and strange. Homespun folk influences instill a sense of nostalgia while dark and occasionally funny lyrics vignette a foreign Appalachian culture many have only seen on a screen.
A self-described “hilljack,” Childers has managed to hone a sound that is at once modern and traditional, pulling inspiration from what he calls mountain music. The title track of Purgatory features a jug band tempo and jubilant bluegrass picking while his standout single, “Feathered Indians,” is a crossover hit that could win over lovesick fans of any musical genre.
Supporting Childers at the Fillmore, Blank Range offered up a tight, vintage feeling set, smudging the boundaries between country and rock. The camo-clad Nashville foursome (who have also been billed below Margo Price and Drive-By Truckers) might have had a little self-referential fun writing their song “Opening Band.” Previewing a track from their upcoming album, In Unison, the highlight of Blank Range’s set was a Kurt Vile-esque number about falling “in love by proximity.” They stand on the big shoulders of 70’s southern rock, but find a red thread with Childers in their earnest delivery of melancholic tales.
The struggles of addiction, poverty and blue-collar labor pepper many of Tyler Childers’ songs, and paint a stark picture of life in the eastern Kentucky hills. Yarns of cocaine, pills, and coal mines have all the makings of country music clichés, but somehow, Childers seems to pull it off. It’s unclear whether each song is written from personal experience, but as NPR’s Ann Powers points out, “they feel lived in, and that’s what matters.”
Beneath the blue lights of crystal chandeliers, Childers’ Fillmore performance was solid and free of frills. His rough-hewn persona has a charm that shines through without feeling put on. Onstage he appears humble but self-assured — a balance many young artists fail to strike — and it’s easy to envision him as an anti-hero in an industry that could use a few more.
It was “an extreme honor to play such a historic place,” he said to a packed Fillmore house. And for many frustrated country fans, it was a hopeful sign of the changing of the guard.
Photos by Gina Teichert