Earlier this year, when Canadian country singer Colter Wall released his self-titled debut record, it felt like someone had caught lightning in a bottle. How was it possible that this young, 21-year-old kid could produce the kind of booming, haunting baritone voice he sang with? How could he get closer to sounding like Johnny Cash than anyone in Nashville, when he’d only been seven years old when Cash passed away? It felt like Wall had the kind of once-in-a-generation voice that was going to make him a country music legend. And then you got to the penultimate track, a take on the old German folk song “Fraulein,” and heard another breathtaking voice stealing the show.
That voice belonged to Tyler Childers, an unheralded (at least until now) singer/songwriter hailing from the state of Kentucky. Like Wall, Childers is young. He’s 26 now and has been touring the southern and midwestern United States since he was 20. But Childers doesn’t have Wall’s cavernous baritone voice. Instead, he’s got a gritty, versatile tenor, equally adept at selling loud honky tonk rave-ups and tender, lovelorn ballads. It begs the question: what kind of deals with the devil did these two young troubadours have to strike to get such distinctive instruments so early in their lives? And if country music has these kinds of remarkable young talents hiding around the fringes, then why the hell are we putting up with nothing vocalists like Jason Aldean and Thomas Rhett?
Even just hearing Childers for a few minutes on “Fraulein” was enough to get me to do some Google detective work and find out who he was. He sang with such feeling and vulnerability, and when he and Wall harmonized, it was bliss. But Childers only had one full-length—from all the way back in 2011—and I figured he was destined to join the ranks of all the lovely voices I’ve heard on duets over the years and then never heard again. I didn’t expect his name to pop up on NPR nary a month later, announcing a new album called Purgatory, and I certainly didn’t expect to see that the co-producer on his record was none other than Sturgill Simpson. After all, Sturgill—despite his recent Grammy nomination for Album of the Year—is an elusive character who has, up until now, only produced one album: his own A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, the album that earned him that Grammy nod.
But somehow Childers managed to wrangle both Sturgill and David Ferguson (a celebrated engineer with credits ranging from Johnny Cash records to U2 albums) to help him craft his new LP. The result seems almost guaranteed to be one of 2017’s biggest breakthroughs in the country music genre—and not just because of the guys behind the boards. On the contrary, even with Sturgill Simpson lending production, guitar, and backing vocals, Childers blazes his own trail here, crafting an LP worthy of his grit-and-honey voice.
Childers is a traditionalist to Sturgill’s journeyman, which means that all the Dap Kings brass that Simpson brought on board for Sailor’s Guide stays out of the frame on Purgatory. Instead, Childers and company fill in the arrangements with fluttering fiddles, rollicking upright bass, and pedal steel whines. Like Colter Wall, Purgatory sounds gloriously out-of-time. But Wall’s record was built around narratives that seemed ripped straight from old time Americana, with songs about killers and outlaws who wouldn’t have been out of place in a classic western. Childers’ record seems more autobiographical, a firsthand account from a reckless lost boy just stumbling toward adulthood. Opener “I Swear (To God)” finds the protagonist waking up at noon and feeling the after effects of the previous night’s bender. “I only had a couple drinks last night,” he proclaims defensively, before admitting that, yes, there might have been some weed there too…and maybe even a bit of cocaine.
The recklessness continues throughout the first side of the record. In the gorgeous “Feathered Indians,” he miscalculates in epic fashion, going to a girl’s house expecting a hookup but realizing her strong religious proclivities don’t align with his plans—or his intoxication. “Looking out over West Virginia, smoking Spirits on the roof/She asked ‘Ain’t anybody told you that those things are bad for you?’” Tyler sings in the second verse. Like the smooth-talking rebel he is, he turns the exchange into a pick up line: “Many folks have warned me, there’s been several people tried/But up ‘til now, there ain’t been nothing that I couldn’t leave behind?” At least, it rings like a pick up line at first. But “Feathered Indians” is genuinely sweet, hitting a chorus where Tyler proclaims: “I’d run across the river just to hold you tonight.” There’s an ache of first love here, with the protagonist considering giving up his bad behaviors to win the heart of the girl.
It doesn’t work out. In the wistful “Tattoos,” Childers pines after a girl whose left him behind, mourning what used to be. “The past is fading over time/But it’s still hanging on for life.” Ain’t that an apt statement about nostalgia? After that, the protagonist spirals, turning back to substances he should probably avoid (the outlaw surge of “Whitehouse Road,” the closest this record gets to sounding like a Sturgill Simpson LP) and maybe murdering his best friend (“Banded Clovis,” where two restless junkies go digging in the Kentucky dirt looking for buried treasure).
Eventually, though, Purgatory winds away from its outlaw ramblings and toward growing up. The last two songs on the record are the strongest, as well the ones that really give the LP a complete, satisfying arc. The gorgeous “Universal Sound” is the album’s peak, a meditative epiphany backed by a flickering U2-esque electric guitar. Initially more of a bluegrass rave-up, “Universal Sound” got its slower and more deliberate pacing thanks to Sturgill, who told Childers that the speed of bluegrass and the calm of meditation just wouldn’t mix. The song is all the better for it, lending a deep note of regret to Tyler’s words when he sings about his past mistakes (“I think about tobacco juice and mason jars of shine/I think about the vices I’ve let take me over time”).
The album’s closer, the sweet acoustic lullaby of “Lady May,” completes the transition from youth to adulthood. Much of Purgatory is probably highly fictionalized, to fit within the canon of the larger-than-life narratives that often populate concept records within the country genre. Suffice to say that there is probably a little less blood, drugs, and booze in Childers’ past than there are in these songs. But “Lady May,” at least, rings 100% true. “I came crashin’ through the forest as you cut my roots away/And I fell a good long ways for my lovely Lady May,” the song concludes. The majority of the record really is about crashing through the forest of youth: loud, reckless, dangerous, and littered with wrong turns and bad decisions. As often happens with rambling men, it’s the girl that comes to the rescue and leads the way out of the brambles and thorns.
I’ve always been drawn to records that chart the journey from freewheeling youth to the responsibility of adulthood. The Springsteen catalog is magnetic to me for this very reason. Purgatory, with its self-contained song cycle about youthful transgressions and inevitable growth, is a powerful and honest depiction of that transitional moment in life. Tyler Childers recognizes the universal appeal of these coming of age stories, but he also understand that they are sometimes ridden with stumbles and false starts. Growing up doesn’t happen by flipping a switch. It’s more like pulling a rusted lever that will only start to budge if you throw your entire weight behind it. The songs on Purgatory showcase the growing pains and awkwardness of these years, when you’re no longer young enough to write off your own mistakes or bounce back quickly from rowdy nights out, but still young enough to remember when those nights felt carefree and filled with possibility. The resulting LP is arguably the most “complete” country record of the year, and easily one of the best. Don’t miss it.