Tyler Childers is back, and taking chances
Tyler Childers has thought a lot about what it means to be an ally. "Even if you have the privilege of walking through this world unfazed, it's more important than ever to stand with and for and up for things, to be vocal," the grassroots country star said during a recent long conversation.
Childers was sequestered with his wife Senora and new son at home in Kentucky when the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic inspired a nationwide outpouring of protest. A period of self-assessment led the songwriter, known for his richly detailed portraits of contemporary rural life, to become more explicit about his beliefs. First came Long Violent History, a bluegrass album framed by a stirring anthem decrying racial injustice. Then a triple album with his band The Food Stamps, Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven?, confronted religious intolerance while holding on to the joy of worship. Now, Childers has enlisted his good friend, the noted author and Kentucky poet laureate Silas House, to write a video for his new song, "In Your Love," that tells a sweeping story of love between two men.
As he announces his new album, Rustin' In The Rain, coming out Sept. 8, Childers is determined to make his perspectives clearer than ever. The video for "In Your Love" (directed by Bryan Schlam) features gay Hollywood stars Colton Haynes and James Scully as two miners who build a life together in a Kentucky holler. It's a bold move for a musician whose fan base crosses lines of identity and political belief. Childers and House recently sat down with me in Nashville to talk about their friendship, representing rural life in their art and the glory of the '90s country music videos that inspired their collaboration. House described their motivations, and the point behind Childers' allyship, succinctly: "The antidote to shame is seeing yourself in the world."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ann Powers: The way you've made your recent albums into interventions feels very considered. Long Violent History addresses race and racism; Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? tackles religious freedom and tolerance. Now this video shows your empathy for LGBTQIA+ folks. I don't know how thought out this is, but you're making a whole volume of stories to guide us through these issues.
Tyler Childers: [One] reason that I wanted to do this music video was my cousin growing up, who's like my big brother, is gay. And he graduated from Northern Kentucky, went to Chicago and never came back. He taught me so much about singing; he was my first tough critic. And just thinking about him not having a music video on CMT that spoke to him.
On Take My Hounds the front cover is made to look like a church hymnal, but I made the spine black, because I have this idea in my head that if you're a Tyler Childers fan and have the whole collection on your shelf, they would all be one color. Because all of that is part of me, and it all ties together.
Silas House: I think one of the things that makes Tyler such a great artist and such a great friend is that he's so empathetic. He wants to tell a story like this because he has friends and family who are members of the LGBT community, and are part of the story of Appalachia, too. These are human stories, not political stories.
Why this particular story? It's a period piece, a very classic romance.
House: Tyler and I talked a lot about the older men in our lives. The farmers and working people. Maybe that's about how much Tyler and I both love Wendell Berry. [In the video] they go from working for somebody else — from the mines — to working for themselves with the land. We talked a lot about that sort of thing. Beyond the love story, we wanted that Appalachian representation too. We looked to our family pictures from this period, and used those pictures in helping shop for costumes, and for set design.
There's a scene in the video where the couple — do they have names?
Childers: Jasper and Matthew.
So Jasper and Matthew have friends to dinner. That resonated with me. Queer people in the South do live normal lives, they are part of the larger community.
House: We often have to create families. But I think even bigger than that, if you look at the way rural, working class and poor people, Black people, gay people are portrayed, especially on TV, it focuses a lot on the despair and not enough on the joy. We wanted to have the joy in there. Because that's what makes a full life, right?
Tyler, I wanted to talk about how the song lands in the video, and you performing it. Were you thinking about how songs appear in movies? I thought about Dooley Wilson singing "As Time Goes By" in Casablanca...
Childers: Our guiding light was to make a '90s music video. Like, I wanted a music video from when I was a kid. There's Tim McGraw in "Don't Take The Girl," where he's like in this other place, almost like a warehouse with a bunch of lights but there's a storyline going somewhere else. Then Tim in the warehouse, then back to the story. Or Trisha Yearwood's "She's In Love With The Boy" — it shows her leaning on a chair in the middle of the street singing, then there's a farm scene that's clearly nearby, and then there she is again, singing, and back to the story taking shape. So I reconsidered. We had an opportunity to tell a really beautiful story, and all of that fun '90s cheesiness would take away from the impact. But we needed to have a spot where we did make an appearance. How could we do that? And Silas and Jason [Kyle Howard, House's partner and a collaborator on the video] decided that having us perform in the club was the best way.
In that scene there's a brief moment where Matthew and Jasper clearly feel threatened by another man who's watching the band. Why is that important?
House: The threat is there in the bar. But they've also shown him they're not gonna take it. They've stood up for themselves, knowing the time and the culture they're living in. They're desperate to touch each other while they hear this beautiful love song. But they also know, to some degree, they have to be careful.
Tell me about casting Matthew and Jasper. You made an interesting choice — they're real Hollywood hunks.
House: Well, we used a photograph of my uncle and my grandfather as reference. They worked in the coal mines, but on the weekend they went out dancing, and they looked like Elvis and James Dean. Also, I wanted an actor who was a really well-known gay icon. Colton Haynes is a performer LGBT people identify with — with his coming out story and his relationship story and his family story and all that. So he transcends just being an actor; he's a public figure. We were also really lucky to get James Scully, who'd just come off his breakthrough role in Fire Island. They both put in so much for this video from early early morning to really late at night. I just couldn't believe how hard they worked.
Childers: We found a limestone mine and made it look like a coal mine.
House: It was a big production.
People always think about Appalachia and mining together, but why was it important to have that element in this video? Why not just make them farmers?
House: Both of us come from families who have worked in the mining industry. But for me, the main thing is it's just such a quote-unquote masculine thing. Historically they kept women out as much as they possibly could, to the point of women having to sue to go into the mines. There's just little layers to it. And then the most beautiful part of it is that metaphor that you get about coming out.
You acknowledge the consequences of a life in the mines when Matthew becomes ill with black lung.
House: Which my grandfather had. But that was actually the director's idea.
Again, you could say it's a cliché, but it's also true. Tyler, this is something that comes up in your work a lot — when you're looking at the landscape and the culture where your work is rooted, how do you refer to its touchstones while avoiding cliché?
Childers: If I want to use the imagery of something, it's a tool to put you in a place. Like, I don't make the prop the character. Often in commercial country they're pitching you on that prop, like, "We're in our truck." Not, "I was in my particular truck to go to do a particular thing." The truck's just there to paint the picture. And I just try to see how it fits in the song and keep the cheese out of it.
So the truck might run out of oil, or have a squeak. You want us to feel the truck. It's not just a signifier.
How do you think mainstream country got away from those particulars? In a Merle Haggard song, you'd feel the truck. Not now.
Childers: Merle Haggard grew up dirt poor, working his tail off. And you can grow up like that, and work your way out of it and understand the weight of where you're at now. And you're never going to forget how hungry people are. I think a lot of times now, if you look at the songwriters in country, where do they live? Nashville is an extremely necessary town; everybody's got to meet somewhere, and this is a heck of a meeting place. But there's this hard disconnect. The writers didn't necessarily grow up in a rural setting, but the nostalgia for that way of life resonates with them in some way. So they're working within these stereotypes of this nostalgia that they might not even have any reference point to understand.
My mom loved me to death, and my dad worked his tail off. I didn't want for nothing. But it came at a price. Time away from family — they worked very hard to take care of us. They instilled in me to work and understand the weight of that. I grew up in that community. And then I lived in that community.
Having the lived experience is crucial. But I also think that not everyone who has that lived experience can be you.
House: I've been thinking while listening to you both talk that what makes you avoid cliché is zooming in on the specific. Tyler told me when we started talking about this video that the only thing he asked was that there would be mules in it. He's been working with mules and studying them, and is really interested in the way that they affect the ecology of a place. And you know, there's one little moment in the video that moves me deeply. It's right at the beginning. The elderly Jasper is plowing and he sees a clover. And he pauses. And then as he holds the clover, he runs his hand down the side of the mule. The mule is his companion. It's not just a tool. It's his friend, and he loves it, and it's shown so beautifully. Specific moments like that rescue you from cliché. You get so much in two seconds.
How do you develop that sense of specificity? Tyler, when you were a kid, did you look around and notice things a lot? Was that natural to you?
Childers: I just read a lot and knew what I liked and how I wanted to tell stories. I read a whole lot of Kerouac. I went somewhere with my mom, and there was a Penguin Classics paperback and it said something about sex, drugs and jazz on the back. I was 13. She was like, "Absolutely not." So then I only wanted it more — I didn't know what it was but I had to have it! Then I went somewhere with my aunt and found it again. I asked her if I could have it and she said, "Yes, of course!" The beat generation and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg consumed me for a while. Then when I was a senior in high school I was taking this literature class down the road at the community college and we just read Appalachian literature. That's how I got turned on to Silas and James Still. I saw all of these people who were taking the things that I appreciated about On the Road — like running through the countryside and just taking it all in — done from a place of my raising.
House: To see yourself in art is a really important thing, especially when you're from an "other" place. You rarely see LGBT people in rural settings in a positive way. You often see them getting murdered there, or escaping from there, but that's it. That's why this [video] matters, especially for country music.
What do you think is the place of Appalachian stories in America in 2023, in this post-Trump era?
House: In my experience as a novelist, I know that readers really crave stories from the region. At the same time, there's a little baggage connected to it. And sometimes even when people will love a book of mine, they will still take stereotypes away from it that I don't intend. Just because of what the culture has taught them their whole lives. It's a reminder that most of the time when people do have stereotypes, they're not necessarily being malicious. It's just the way you're conditioned as an American.
Childers: Growing up, both of us, in the places that we did, there was constantly that idea that people are going to put you down. I had people in my graduating class that ran as far away from all of that as possible. But it shaped me as a person. There are things that need to be shed, but you don't have to throw away everything. There are beautiful parts of that lifestyle. Taking pride in that and sometimes reclaiming those things is important.
On Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven? you reclaim the music of the church. What motivated that project?
Childers: I've always had a mind that I was going to come out with an album like that. It just seemed like the right time. I was trying to collect the songs together, I guess. "Take My Hounds" is an old song; "Old Country Church" is the first song I learned how to play when I was five years old.
I really needed to make that at that moment. And I was really, really scared. I told Silas my biggest fear was that this would be taken and used for other means that I didn't necessarily intend it to be. I was just praying that it didn't get taken for some Christian nationalist idea. But I think that the other songs and the music video we made helped show that isn't how this is.
Tyler, I'm also curious about how Appalachia influences the sound of your music? So many music writers come from the English major side and focus on the words. But are there sounds that connect with the land for you?
Childers: I was talking with a fellow the other day about this, like, the terrain of a place and the topography, like, influencing the sound. He listened to Texas swing, this big, sweeping sound [from] a place where you can just see for miles. Whereas in the mountains, if you're hunting, 40 yards or 50 yards is a long shot, and you're in these deep hollers where everything's just on top of you, so urgent and close it creates this driving punchiness to everything.
Give us a little scoop. What were the circumstances of recording the new record?
Childers: We recorded this one in the same place we recorded Hounds — in my bandmate's studio above his garage. James plays pedal steel and electric; he went to Full Sail Academy for recording and sound engineering. And during COVID, he finally had the time to finish out his studio. That was our jam place. That's where we got together and started practicing. And it was like home. We all had our stations and little places set out and so we felt real comfortable and we had a really good result. If it ain't broke don't fix it.
Does the album have a thematic thread running through it?
Childers: I don't know if it was the algorithm ... or the Elvis movie coming out, but I just became inundated with Elvis stuff [on my streaming feeds]. I started thinking a lot about Elvis and I was like, I'm going to try to collect some songs that I'd written, and some covers that I would want to pitch to Elvis. So the songs that I wrote, I was writing like an Elvis impersonation.
Wow. What period Elvis?
Childers: Like Graceland Elvis. The later years.
So it's like love songs, this record? Happy marital life, young father, your heart's in a loving place.
Childers: There's a Christmas song, based on Luke 2:8-10: Now there were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And then this sentient being popped out the sky and said, "Don't be afraid." And everybody said OK? The song's about the shepherd looking up and just being scared to death. Then there's "Barn Burner." "Rustin' in the Rain." That one's definitely a love song.
House: But it also rocks.
Childers: Yeah. Angsty. It [also] has all these allusions to horse-drawn equipment and pieces of harnessing. I was spending a lot of COVID time working these two mules. My grandpa grew up as a tenant farmer in Lawrence County, and always kept a horse up until he passed. And his favorite brother Lucian, lived down the road and he worked mules up until the '90s. And so it was a part of my history. And then the world shut down. I was like, no better time than now. And that was a lot of fun, so that was kind of where my head was at. The album has a lot of love songs, but if there's a thread, it's the mules.
I feel like it's the time of the donkey right now. Four Oscar-nominated films had donkeys in them last year. It's a domesticated animal that we can love or fetishize or treat badly. But it's still an animal; it's fundamentally different from us. I remember reading an interview with the director of EO and that's what he said, that recognizing that there's a gap between us and the animals matters. We have to recognize our differences.
Childers: Understanding the animal, or as Joel Salatin would say, "the pigness of the pig?" Yeah. Working with the team of mules was a learning experience. Not being timid. You are constantly giving off this vibe, even when you're not necessarily aware of it; even things you do unintentionally put out some sort of intention.
And Silas, in your latest novel, Lark Ascending, one of the most important characters is a dog.
House: I was just thinking that when I wrote from the point of view of the dog, the major thing I had to do was not assign him human qualities, which we tend to do. If a dog licks you, we think, "Oh, he's giving me a kiss." He's getting that last bit of meat off your lips. Be realistic.
All this talk of being in touch with animals makes me think of other political work both of you have done regarding the natural resources of your region. You have both been outspoken about the damages mountaintop removal and other industrial practices have wrought on Appalachia. I'm circling back to the question of the political and how it integrates into your art. As Silas says, it all comes from lived experience. The stories you tell can help people think about change because of their specificity. Is that something you could see happening in country music right now?
Childers: I think that people are doing it. Margo Price is very vocal and outspoken in her music. Steve Earle's been that way for years. There is risk in it, though. The good old boys and people that I run into — to them, Steve established himself with these songs, and [now] they're just like, "Ah Steve, he's just barkin'." Is it possible to be taken seriously? I do think so, if you're coming from a place that's less preachy and more real. That's what I hoped to accomplish with this video.
Another way to ask the question for someone like you or me as cis-het people, is, what does it mean to be a good ally working in this space? How do we support the people whose very essence alienates those good ol' boys that you mention?
Childers: I could pander in a way that was completely disingenuous to how I feel, selling off myself in this demeaning way, giving them what they want, right? Or I could just hide in my hold. And that's not helping anybody. We did see what happened with the Chicks. Everybody deserves an apology there.
Childers: Growing up in that era, when that was happening, it was like: Don't Chicks yourself. Watch out for the Chicks Effect. Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia — even if it is this beautiful place with beautiful people — you're kind of told to get out of here. Work really hard, move away. And in all of that constant thinking about how music is my ticket out of here, it was like well, don't be too outspoken. You're going to cut your feet out from under you. I kept my head down and worked. But now's the time that I need to give my tithing — my offering — to the world that I hope to see and think can be.
I love that you call what you're doing a form of tithing. It's coming from your heart. How do you deal with knowing that there are people who love your music who are going to stand against these messages? How do you maintain your fearlessness in that position? Or maybe you don't. Maybe there is a little fear.
Childers: I don't know. The first time that I've ever really put myself out there was Long Violent History. I was digging out my foxhole and really hunkered down and scared to death. And I was pleasantly surprised with how well that was received. That doesn't mean that I didn't get any awful messages sent to me, some things that were just pure ugly. I got cussed out one time when I went to get some shotgun shells. Getting a tongue lashing in a gun store is pretty unnerving. I had to process things like that. But the record did have a lot of positive impact.
I did get a lot of messages where people were like, I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to have this really tough conversation with a family member that I really care a lot about. For all the ugliness that it's going to bring out that just can't be helped, this video is going to make real conversations possible. This is a story of two people sharing their love and living a life together and experiencing loss. That's pretty powerful. Once you take away the flash card phrases and like the knee-jerk reactions, how does that make you feel? How are you going to feel when you get to those points in your life? And what are you going to need when you're going through loss? Are you going to need people to be hateful with you, when your partner in this world dies and you're alone?
When I was younger, sometimes I didn't think that the way some people were telling me things were was necessarily how they were. Then somebody I looked up to helped steer me in a way that made it clear that things could be different. Maybe this video will do that for some people.
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