When looking up Tyler Childers’ debut album “Purgatory” (released August 2017), the words “Sturgill Simpson protegé” soon follow. Simpson, along with GRAMMY-winning engineer David Ferguson at his Butcher Shoppe Recording Studio, helped produce the record.
Then 25-year-old Childers had a collection of songs about being in the mountains. He wanted a gritty mountain sound with a modern twist a younger generation could connect to. Older but none the wiser, the recently turned 26-year-old is quiet and reserved as he recounts his time in the studio.
“As a whole, the experience was something I really enjoyed about having Sturgill and Ferguson all in the same room together,” he tells. “These songs I’ve been playing—some of them for five years—had kind of gotten to the point where it was just the same old song and dance and had to put some fresh life and look at them.”
Sturgill helped Childers achieve the sound he was going for in “Purgatory,” and found a better way to represent the story and meaning—at least, on a complete record.
“He helped get the songs’ whole point across the best way possible,” Childers adds. “I was playing ‘Universal Sounds’ solo at pretty up tempo, and he thought maybe it needed to be slowed down a little bit. It’s a song about meditating and focusing on breathing, and the way I was playing it, it really flew by, and it doesn’t really lend itself to get the point across all the best.”
Childers (vocals, acoustic guitar) recorded “Purgatory” with a full band, including Simpson (acoustic guitar, background vocals), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Miles Miller (drums, background vocals), and Russ Pahl (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, pedal steel, Jew’s harp), among others.
Though he’s touring solo without his recording band, Childers plays songs like “Universal Sounds” and others just as he originally wrote them. “Purgatory” was more or less an opportunity to play and explore different versions and angles.
“The album is 38 minutes or so of a moment,” he iterates. “You get to listen to an experience one time but each show is its own thing, so if I’m playing a solo set it’s not going to sound like the arrangements on the album.”
Childers is on tour now, opening for the likes of Parker Millsap, Nikki Lane, Sammy Brue, and Yonder Mountain String Band, which lands at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on Sunday. The music of YMSB is what he grew up on, essentially, as a boy from the holler.
Originally from Kentucky, Childers had his “hometown heroes,” like Ricky Skaggs and Larry Cordle. By the time he started high school, he fell in with some friends who were Drive-By Truckers fans.
“That was a huge influence for me,” he says. “I love the Truckers, and I get to open up for them on September 24, so I get to check that off my bucket list. . . . It’s in Hazard, Kentucky—so pretty close to home. It’ll be a special evening for me and my buddies because they’re all coming out.”
Most songs were written between Childers graduating high school and starting a life of his own. He spent his late teens and early twenties kicking around and playing in bars while trying to settle into being an adult, so to speak. The title track is about his journey through uncertain times, “just trying to make something happen.”
“We all have to have a place and need to have something as far as a career path,” he continues. “I was older and being out on my own—trying to start a career of sorts. Everybody’s gotta do something, and I was trying to make my ‘doing something’ by playing music.”
But “success” is a relative term. Childers would phone home to tell friends and family about his exciting new gigs and tour dates. Most of which he was lucky if he broke even monetarily.
“Doing more than breaking even is even harder,” he observes. “I feel like coming to terms with that meant realizing this is what I want to do regardless. Living a lifestyle that coincides with that made it possible to keep playing.”
Newly married, Childers and his wife, Senora May, spent time living on a farm where they worked for rent. Childers built fences and held down a job at a local brewery between tour dates. “I’d bust my ass,” he says, “play four or five shows and come home. But, ya know, everybody’s gotta eat.”
May is also a singer-songwriter and an all around artist, painter, photographer, etc. Childers hesitantly admits there could be a husband and wife collaboration one day. “Later,” he adds. “We’ve got plenty of time.”