- 18 Jan 20
The Kentucky Headhunter. A lesson from one of country music's rising stars. Report/Picture: Pat Carty.
Although he released an album, Bottles And Bibles – go off and try to think of a better country title than that – in 2011, it was Purgatory, arriving in 2017 and produced by no less a luminary than Grammy-winning, country-saviour Sturgill Simpson, which gave Tyler Childers his breakthrough. The man from Lawrence County, Kentucky followed it up with another winner in the form of last year’s great Country Squire record. This, of course, is a different kind of country music than the stuff wearing the bigger, less-scuffed hat that you might witness at the Country 2 Country festival further out towards the port in March, Childers’ brand has a little more oil on its clothes and dirt under its fingernails. It's taken a few knocks and seen a bit of road.
It’s a bit of a coup for The Grand Social to get - and hold on to - a rising star of this calibre. Danny McElhinney from The Mail and myself took a drink with venue booker Keiron Campbell Black before the show and he revealed how calls and emails and outrageous offers of compensation had been coming in all week, looking for tickets that were long gone. Keiron also spoke eloquently and with a poetry seldom heard about the support act The Local Honeys, recalling booking them before, and describing their music – and I’m paraphrasing here out of necessity as I just don’t possess the erudition his talk shone with – as akin to coming across these women by chance in a forest only for them to tend to your wounds with song. We were hypnotised by his mellifluous chat to such an extent that we actually managed to miss their performance, but Keiron’s imagined review could surely never be topped anyway.
“Good to be here, gonna play some music for ya!” Childers says/mutters and the Food Stamps Band kick into ‘Whitehouse Road’, where “red” hits the moonshine, the rotgut whiskey, and the cocaine and ends up “higher than the grocery bill.” The pedal steel cuts the licks, there’s a fine piano solo, the sound is impeccable, and we are away in a hack. “It’s a damned good feeling to run these roads,” as he says himself.
There’s no pause, the big guitar player on the right, known as The Professor, has switched to fiddle for a run at the old (1969/70) Great Speckled Bird – folkers Ian & Sylvia go country - song ‘Long Long Time To Get Old’. The band pause briefly then for one of Tyler’s first musician introductions. I’d love to tell you what was said but he half-talked, half-chewed the microphone in the manner of an auctioneer at a particularly busy cattle sale, so I couldn’t make it out, although I do know the riff from Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Pusherman’ was playing as he introduced his keyboard player.
The title track from Country Squire – one of last year’s finest country albums – sounds marvellous, driven by the ride cymbal and another pedal steel lesson as Childers details the rebuilding of his RV. A saw at the fiddle brings us another transport story in ‘Bus Route’ wherein Childers works a song out of the school bus run. The pedal steel player is now on a Telecaster and it’s his blues licks that take us into ‘Creeker’, the vocals straining nicely, recounting a drinking-alone-in-a-God-forsaken-town situation.
The rollicking ‘House Fire’ gets an extended intro – Childers on his Tele, banjo, fiddle, a lead guitar sound straight from the kind of FM station that used to play a lot of Waylon, and even the bass gets a solo before the song comes in proper. There’s a beautiful Hammond organ swirl behind the guitar break and the whole thing slows down in a pleasing manner before it comes to its end, nodding back to the riff before it goes. The bass player is next up to be introduced – Craig something, maybe. Again, I can’t catch what’s being said but it is worth stopping to admire the head on him. Picture in your mind the haircut that Adam Sandler went for in The Wedding Singer and then multiply that by ten. Spectacular.
A quick note here on the crowd who seem for the most part to have been bussed in from a particularly boisterous wedding party. I’m surprised that a lot of them are quite young and they certainly know the music, singing along to the deep cuts. Others, unfortunately, seem to be here just to shout at each other which necessitates a bit of moving round on the floor to get our of earshot. It was a good time to make the move too because the subtle playing on the quieter sections of ‘Born Again’ – Rodney Elkins’ rim shots for a start – would have been lost to the over-refreshed roaring.
Things get serious with a cover of Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s ‘Tulsa Turnaround’ originally from way back before Rogers did whatever he did to his face. Our man on the bass gets way down, the guitar gets dirty, the piano pulls into a honky-tonk, “a man who eats fried chicken is going to get greasy”, and the band’s heads nod in unison like a Kentucky version of The ‘Quo as the drums pound out the ending.
A snatch of Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’ plays as the “funky beats and the Colgate smile “ of Elkins at the back are lauded and then it’s into ‘Red Neck Romeo’. Childers remembers how his Momma said he could get a tattoo of anyone’s name when he was young and he came up with the plan to put a tombstone around that name if things didn’t pan out. ‘Tattoos’ goes into the two-steppin’ waltz of Purgatory’s opener ‘I Swear (To God)’, the fiddle calling us all out to move.
‘All Your’n’ actually managed to dent the US country charts on its release last summer and pick up a Grammy nod, and rightly so. The combination of the Rhodes, the piano and that keening pedal steel – topped with a knock out hollered chorus - is hard to resist. He pauses to tell us how great it is to be in Dublin, he was here before – at the airport – but this is better. He plays ‘Lady May’ totally acoustic, including stepping away from a microphone which is giving him a few problems. Despite a few “shushs” from different sections of the crowd, the boozed up bonhomie make this very difficult to hear. It doesn’t matter though as we all whoop and yeeeoww to ‘Nose On The Grindstone’. It’s an obscure number, not featured on either of Childers’ recent albums, and the fact that a lot of the audience know and sing along to every word is damned impressive.
“Feathered Indians’ is a love song with one leg in the bed, although his intentions are nearly thwarted by turning up at her house stoned. Still, when he tells her ”he’d run across the river just to hold you tonight” it sounds sincere. ‘Honky Tonk Flame’ sounds exactly like its title, Tyler adding a sweet bit of acoustic guitar soloing as the pedal steel climbs as the bass notes descend, and the fiddle dances on top. This crack band are making it look easy, allowing ‘Universal Sound’ to work better here than it did on Purgatory, where its over-egged production seemed at odds with its surroundings.
Before he goes, Childers thanks us for coming out. “We had a blast,” he reckons, and “of the 110 things you could have done with your evening,” he’s glad we picked him. “This is the last time, until the next time” He throws out a bar or two of Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ as – thankfully - a joke before the band stretch out to finish with Charlie Daniels’ ‘Trudy’. Tyler roars about John Lee Walker and being stuck in a Dallas jail while his mates veer from funk to country to rock n’ roll in a display of skill that would warrant hats been thrown in the air if we had only thought to bring them. “Tyler Childers, folks!” shouts a band mate as The Kentuckian leaves the stage. The roars have it, it’s a job well done. If the big hats and pickups brand of country that tends to get shoved at us is your thing, then good luck to you, but Tyler’s brand is both a throw back and a step forward, and a most welcome one at that.