Hailing from Lawrence County, Kentucky, Tyler Childers is a musician and songwriter whose music is steeped in the Appalachian region’s traditions, themes, and modern struggles. Appalachia is a sprawling area (spanning 13 U.S. States), most commonly associated with the coal industry’s rise, boom, and sharp decline.
This unforgiving reality has bred a distinct style of music, one defined by its acoustic, string-heavy sound and honest, direct lyrics that touch on the history, conditions, and narratives of the working-class families occupying this beautiful but misunderstood part of the country.
While the majority of Appalachian music goes unheard, Tyler Childer is one of the tiny few to break through these regional confines in recent years. He’s now a globally recognized artist who brings his intimate and often devastating mountain ballads to massive audiences and packed stadiums. Here’s our favorite pick of the bunch.
11. Bus Route
‘Bus Route’ is the second track on Childer’s third studio album, Country Squire. It’s a simple song about a boy who gets rejected by his crush on a school bus. But he winds up impressing her eight years later with his smooth talk and very own pickup truck. The song embodies Childer’s ability to take a small, commonplace story and draw out every ounce of raw emotion through vivid lyrics and a haunting tone. The guitar work in this track is awesome, too.
10. Whitehouse Road
Childers is a master of capturing both the gentle and rough sides of rural living. While he has many great, tender songs, ‘Whitehouse Road’ certainly falls on the hardened side. The song comes off Childer’s breakout album, Purgatory (co-produced by the brilliant Sturgill Simpson), and covers the daily struggle of a man nicknamed “Red,” who lives in the Appalachian mountains. The simple but painful story outlines the burdens of managing grocery bills, substance abuse, and the difficulties of taking life day by day.
9. In Your Love
‘In Your Love’ is a song off Childer’s Rustin’ In the Rain album. It’s a ballad about two 1950s coal miners. A testament to true love and life in the mines, the song relays a common Appalachian tragedy, as the music video shows one of the minors becoming inflicted with black lung, a disease that takes the lives of miners to this day. However, it’s also one of Childer’s most progressive songs, displaying a romance between two men in the video. Tyler explained that the song’s inspiration came from his cousin, who is also gay and was one of Childer’s first singing instructors.
8. Charleston Girl
‘Charleston Girl’ is from Childer’s 2018 live album, Red Barn Radio. The song illustrates the couple’s relationship with substance abuse, feeling the need to get sober, and fleeting dreams of escaping one’s hometown. The rough-cut lyrics perfectly balance the raw acoustic sound and Childer’s pure, unfiltered vocals. Altogether, it’s one of his most impressive and complete songs. It also helps understand the author’s own issues, as less than a year after the album’s release, Childers himself announced that he had given up drinking, having battled with alcohol abuse from a young age.
‘Purgatory’ is the titular song of Childer’s breakout album. Childer’s revealed that the song was written about a girl he once dated, who was Catholic. He explains how she introduced him, a protestant, to the doctrine of Purgatory, hence the title. It’s one of Childer’s snappiest songs and draws out his admiration for bluegrass, as it incorporates quick, clean instrumental breaks. It does this while telling the impactful story of a man who grapples with his religious guilt, inevitable death, and belief in hell.
If there’s one object that symbolizes Appalachia, it’s a hunk of number nine coal. Childer’s song, “Coal,” from his first studio album, Bottles and Bibles, relays scenes from the life of a coal miner and the desperate and hopeless conditions it produces. The song also pays homage to historic Appalachian songs, like Merle Travis’s 1946 song “Dark as Dungeon.” Overall, the solo acoustic sound provides a simple but dramatic backdrop as he comments on the often trap-like nature of the coal mines.
5. Lady May
Tyler Childers isn’t necessarily known for being an incredibly happy songwriter. Even the majority of his love songs are cast in a shadow. But his song, ‘Lady May,’ off of Purgatory, is an exception. It’s written about his wife, Senora May, whom he married in 2015. There’s a reserved joyfulness about the song, as it uses many unforgettable metaphors to display his admiration for the woman he fell in love with.
4. Shake the Frost
‘Shake the Frost’ places you directly on an Appalachian porch step, looking out into a hollow at dawn. From the beginning to the end, the bittersweet lyrics blend with Childer’s mournful voice to spin a tale of lost love and one man crying out for it to come back. The imagery of mountain life, tragic nostalgia, and lonesome verses are mesmerizing, making Shake the Frost one of Childer’s most personal and emotional songs.
3. All Your’n
Now we’ve come to the only song Childer’s has ever received a Grammy nomination for. In terms of sound, it’s one of Childer’s more production-oriented tunes. It layers in various instruments, from fiddle to piano to tambourine to the peddle steel. Musically, the song is intricate, but the lyrics are just as simple and full of life as anything else he’s put out. “All Your’n” is another one of Childer’s uplifting songs, also dedicated to his wife.
2. Nose On The Grindstone
After the decline of the coal industry, throughout the late 1960s, 70s, and 80s, many Appalachian towns descended into extreme poverty. Shortly after, drugs flooded in, taking an untold number of lives and devastating communities. ‘Nose to the Grindstone’ is about a man remembering his father’s dying pleas for his son to avoid a life of substance abuse. It’s one of Childer’s most emotionally charged songs, and his voice, along with the lone acoustic guitar, creates a sound to match the bleak conditions that are still prevalent in Appalachia today.
1. Feathered Indians
Of course, popularity doesn’t automatically crown a song number one. But there’s a reason Feathered Indians sits atop our list of Tyler Childers tunes and why it’s his most-played song on Spotify, with over 300 million listens. Feathered Indians has got to be one of the most impressively composed songs of the century. It gives intimate but playful snippets of a young couple finding love in the mountains. Here, Childers incorporates certain symbols – like a belt buckle or a cigarette brand—to provide a true-to-life montage of what it’s like to fall for that special person. It’s Childer’s at his lyrical best.