A conversation between friends
Interview by Michelle Hanks
I first interviewed Tyler Childers in Dec. 2013 for Nine Bullets (though it didn’t post till Jan. 2014) after one of his intimate Black Sheep Burrito & Brews shows in Huntington, WV. He’s come a long way since then, having now released his third record, Purgatory, which was co-produced by Sturgill Simpson and David Ferguson. Childers was on his way back home to Kentucky when we talked, preparing for his homecoming show at Moontower Music Festival in Lexington and looking forward to being reunited with his wife, Senora May.
How are you feeling now that your month-long tour out west is winding down?
Every day and every gig is bringing me closer to being back home. I’m looking forward to it. I’m not in a rush to get back home, necessarily, but I would like to see my family and friends and maybe have some time to be by my lonesome, be with Senora, and have some time to write. I’ve got a lot of things coming and going, and I’m looking forward to having some time away by myself to write. It’s kind of hard to get some time alone on the road, you know.
I can imagine. You’ve been really busy touring lately, and your career and new album are getting a lot of recognition right now. Is that sort of buzz distracting for you?
I mean, it can be, if you allow it to. You can’t lose sight that this is the time to focus and to work and a time to focus on more things than just the writing. Right now, it’s time to work and play shows. It’s “road dog” mode. [laughs]
[laughs] Sure. Well, how’s your reception been on this tour in general? I know you’ve not been out that far west before.
No. I’ve always wanted to, but there wasn’t an opportunity before. It’s been exciting to see new territory and to meet up with a lot of people from back home that have moved away. That’s been one of the greatest things. And for that I really have to thank people like Shooter Jennings for playing my music really early on on Outlaw Country on Sirius… people like W.B. Walker and his podcast [Old Soul Radio Show], being as well-respected as it is… people like you and your work with Nine Bullets, you know, sharing my stuff on a bigger platform… You know, all these people standing behind my music for a long time and getting it out there when I physically couldn’t get out there to play it.
You mentioned looking forward to being able to get some time to write once you’re home. What does your writing process look like?
Well, I’ve written songs in a lot of different situations, from the back of the van full of equipment and bandmates and my manager to, you know, my front porch. I’ve written in all these different places, but I do look for time alone away from outside influences and distractions, a place where my mind can be free to wander. Sometimes a song comes out of nowhere, though, and needs to be written at that moment. I just have to adapt to the situation and write.
Which songs have you written that have come out of having to adapt?
I wrote “Banded Clovis” in the back of the van from Fayetteville to Huntington, but it was so loud from the hum of the road and no insulation in the van, I could barely hear anybody anyway, so it was like I was by myself. [laughs] Sometimes I get lucky and write a song in a couple hours like that, and sometimes I have to put one on the back of the shelf and come back to it years later. “Tattoos” was one that hung out in the closet for a little while before I finished it. But it’s always important to try to come back to those songs, to either fix ‘em or finish ‘em. John R. Miller said one time, “You gotta write all of ‘em, even the bad ones.”
“Universal Sound” is one that means a lot to me and seems to mean a lot to other people, as well. I envision you having written it out in nature. How far off am I on that?
That was one that kind of evolved over time. The idea started when I was out by myself in nature, yeah, and then was slowly pieced together through other experiences.
I’ve spent a lot of time reading Ram Dass, and that’s kind of where a lot of the ideas in the song came from. He talks about… I don’t know how to explain it… a kind of “God core” that we all share… that we’re all part of a bigger picture, and I like that. The lyrics “I’ve been up on the mountain / And I’ve seen his wondrous grace / I’ve sat there on a barstool and I’ve looked him in the face” come from that. He [Dass] goes so far as to say that we’re all God in drag. I don’t know if I get behind that exactly, but it’s an interesting notion as to how you should handle people and treat people and how you should respect each other and take every moment and experience and be fully in it, you know. We’re all entitled to those beliefs that get us through, whatever they may be.
For sure. What other songs have you written that weren’t on Purgatory that you intend to record on future records?
Everything I feel good about going out and playing in front of people, I intend to put down on a studio album at some point in the future. That’s kind of how I test out what I keep and what I don’t. If I sing it over and over and over again, night after night, and it still means something to me, and I can still sing it with conviction, then I know it’s got something that makes it worth keeping. We’ve been doing a lot of two-hour gigs on the road, and Purgatory is just 38 minutes worth of stuff, you know. There are a lot of things I intend to get to over time. Just one thing at a time, I guess.
That’s all you can do, really. So, I’d like to actually talk more in-depth on your parents and your home life. Your mom is a nurse, and your dad worked in the coal industry in some form or another over the years. Those are both hard industries. How did seeing that growing up impact you, if at all?
It definitely instilled the worth of a dollar in me, and, you know, working hard for what you’ve got. They both worked really hard to put food on our table. I was very lucky to have a very close-knit family, too, that helped me see that, you know, I have to do things for myself. Nobody’s going to do it for me. That inspired me to get out and get on the road and play my music, because I wanted it to be heard. I wanted to have an opportunity to pursue this for as long as I could, to see if it would be affordable and realistic to provide for me and mine. That kind of “go get it” attitude they instilled in me fueled what I needed to do, and I’m really grateful.
I bet. It also seems like you were granted a lot of freedom in your youth to pursue your musical endeavors.
Yeah, it was kind of, like, I got my license and my first set of keys, and I was able to play shows. I got a lot of guidance from both my mom and my dad and my grandparents – I spent a lot of time with my Papaw. There were a lot of rules and restrictions growing up, of course, but at a certain point, they just trusted that they raised me right. [laughs] I had some experiences after that, messed up a time or two, but I always had freedom to make mistakes, as well as their support. Again, I’m just really grateful for that and to be where I am.
Childers resumes playing shows starting Sept. 8th in Madisonville, KY and will be opening for the Drive-By Truckers in Hazard, KY on Sept. 24th. You can also catch him during his residency at The Basement in Nashville and on tour on various other dates now through Dec. 2017.