I attempted to write about Tyler Childers once before, back in the early days of MoonRunners. I wrote about how he was maybe the most promising young songwriter in the United States and how his debut album was essential listening for any Jason Isbell fan. Ultimately, though, I opted to not publish the article. I thought at the time, "It's just his debut album. What if it's a fluke? And, besides, the kid's only 20 years old. Why burden him with expectations he may never live up to?" So instead of telling you guys about the album, I convinced Shooter to include a song from it on the third XXX compilation.
It's been almost two years since that unpublished review. Tyler has played a lot of gigs (and now counts Ray Wylie Hubbard among his fans), I've heard a ton of new artists, and now that he and his backing band have a new EP out, Live On Red Barn Radio, I feel more comfortable saying what I should have said back then: Tyler Childers is the finest songwriter to emerge from the Bluegrass State since Chris Knight and should be mentioned in the same breath as Fifth On the Floor, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapelton, and others who are currently leading the most notable renaissance of Kentucky music since Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs took Music City by storm 30 years ago.
As demonstrated on the EP's four tracks, the 22-year-old Paintsville native is an extremely intelligent and literate songwriter, drawing influence not only from such modern heavyweights as Jason Isbell and Old Crow Medicine Show or folk-country pioneers like Prine or Van Zandt, but also the new strain of dark American literature led by Donald Ray Pollock and Frank Bill (who gets a shout-out in the liner notes). He also has a thorough awareness of country music's better days and the folk traditions of his own state and melds all of these influences into a sound that is as pure and genuine as music gets.
From the relationships-in-turmoil of "Shake the Frost" and "Deadman's Curve," to the hard living of "Charleston Girl" (the best track here) and "White House Road," this is music that manages to sound both brand new and somehow familiar. And why shouldn't it? If you're one of those folks who manages to get by in today's fucked up world but, nevertheless, sometimes think you were born a few generations too late, this is the soundtrack to your life, performed live in front of a jury of your peers at one of Lexington's premier roots radio programs. You say you want "Americana"? Hell, this is the America I know, presented in all of it's harsh beauty by the type of songwriting talent that only comes along a few times in each generation.
But let's not give Tyler all of the credit here. While his first album, 2011's Bottles and Bibles. found him performing solo for the most part, here he is backed by an excellent acoustic ensemble (featuring guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and upright bass) who compliment his songwriting style perfectly. In fact, if I have one complaint about this EP it's that the solos are a bit too few and far between.
In closing, I would be willing to bet my bottom dollar that one day Tyler Childers will get a gig opening for somebody like Justin Townes Earle and the next thing you know, he will be signed to Rounder or Sugar Hill and more mainstream writers will plagiarize everything I've just said. Your NPR-listening cousin will drive up in his Prius one day, holding a Starbucks, and tell you about the "new" artist he just "discovered." Tyler's talent is too great for all of that not to happen, but it's also too great for anyone reading this to pass up right now. Do yourself a favor and buy this EP, then get his debut album and go see a show if he comes your way. Take my word on it: this isn't a fluke. It's the future of real, independent country music.