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Tyler Childers - Country Squire Music Album Reviews

The native Kentuckian shows a flair for rough-hewn honky-tonk and piercing details on his latest release, produced by Sturgill Simpson.

If you’ve ever caught a whiff of a paper mill, you know it’s a sticky, acrid smell, mostly chemical with a bit of death mixed in, like sour milk churned with ammonia. And you know it’s inescapable, seeping into your car or house. So when Tyler Childers sings about being downwind from a paper mill on the first line of the first song on his new album, you know he’s in a woeful spot. Country music thrives on down-and-out characters in tough situations, and Childers, a native Kentuckian who sings with a scuffed-up twang, takes what might sound like a mundane detail and finds a new and wholly unromanticized way to sound hard up. The song, “Country Squire,” is about playing gigs and saving money to refurbish a trailer for himself and his wife, and the introductory detail adds a desperate dimension to his mission: Childers wants his country version of a castle, but also some walls and a roof to try to keep the stench of the world out.

He has a remarkable facility with telling details, which pepper Country Squire as vividly they did his 2017 breakout Purgatory. When he remembers getting forcefully rejected by a classmate on “Bus Route,” he ends up lying “face down in the gum on the floor,” and there’s a smirk in his voice, as though he’s relishing the tactile quality of the memory. And who else would start a song about touring and missing home with a line like, “They got my favorite lotion here, something in a hotel I admire.” On the jumpy, jangly “Everlovin’ Hand”—which may be the most bittersweet song about masturbation ever written—Childers takes you right to that Red Roof Inn.

Perhaps that’s why he’s become such a prominent figure in roots country in such a short time. Not two years ago, he was another unknown, one of a wave of excellent country artists coming out of the hollers of Kentucky. Born in Lawrence County and raised in Paintsville, he gigged around the area for years, eventually roping Johnny Cash’s engineer David Ferguson and friend/fellow Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson to produce Purgatory. That album found an immediate fanbase, racked up startling streaming numbers, and soon Childers was opening for John Prine on the road and Margo Price at the Ryman.

Country Squire doesn’t stray too far from the modified honky-tonk sound (or the butt-ugly cover art) of Purgatory. In fact, he’s been road-testing most of these nine songs for a few years now, sharpening their hooks with each performance. Again he rustles up Ferguson and Simpson to produce, and again he leads a rough-and-tumble band of veteran session players, most of whom are schooled in bluegrass. Rather than going for a high lonesome sound, they sound more like a grizzled house band at a cinderblock bar off some county road. They give “All Your’n” a ramshackle majesty and “Creeker” a wary tension, and Stuart Duncan’s fiddle reinforces the small-town details of “Matthew,” about simply trying to make ends meet while enjoying a little bit of joy in between the trials. That’s a theme common to country and folk music, yet on Country Squire Childers invests it with enough insight and immediacy to make those hardships sound perfectly present tense.

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