Tyler Childers is one of country and Americana's finest storytellers, period. If 2017's Purgatory didn't convince you, his brand-new album, Country Squire, will -- and if it doesn't, well, there's simply no hope.
The album's lead single, "House Fire," while a whole lot of foot-stompin' fun, is a bit misleading when it comes to the project's overall content. So is the sweet "All Your'n" and its trippy music video. Childers doesn't trade in generalities, nor does he particularly go the love song route. But if you want characters, Childers has got 'em in spades.
There's a bit of sonic experimentation on Country Squire, but Childers and producers Sturgill Simpson and David Ferguson keep it pretty country. Gorgeous fiddle lines run throughout the project, with a hint of the psychedelic dropped in there every so often.
“I don’t know how to explain it any other way but I wanted it to feel like an upper,” Childers says. “I was listening a lot to Allen Toussaint’s Southern Nights and Jim & Jesse’s Diesel on My Tail. You listen to that album all the way through and it’s driving, it’s going, and it’s not stopping.”
Country Squire is best taken in somewhere quiet. Even if you're focusing on the lyrics on the first listen, like with any good story, you'll find new details each time through. These are tales that need to be digested -- but these five are our early favorites.
The title track of Country Squire is part love song, part daydream, but it's entirely ripped straight from Childers' life. Four years ago, after getting married and living with his parents to save up some money, the singer and his wife, Senora May, bought a used camper, which previous owners had named -- you guessed it -- "Country Squire."
The rest of the story is in the lyrics: Childers worked multiple jobs and gigged in bars, "turnin' them songs into two-by-fours / Dreamin' 'bout the day that I'm sittin' by the fire / Huddled with my honey in a country squire." At once, he both romanticizes the situation and lays bare its wholly unglamorous details.
In vivid detail, Childers recounts his first experience with unrequited love: "This is where we dropped off the prettiest little girl, same grade as me / I tried to kiss her once in the aisle of the bus and she walked right over me," he sings over a bouncy melody. "Face down in the gum on the floor, I was hopin' that she'd change her mind / But I swear as she walked down the stairs, she didn't even wave goodbye."
Don't worry: He gets the girl. "I held onto hope for eight long years / And by the time that I turned 16 / I wasn't awkward, was a real smooth talker / With my very own pickup truck," continues Childers. "I'd take her home, and if her parents weren't around / She'd bring me in and give me some."
Concurrently, "Bus Route" tells the story of tough-as-nails bus driver Ray Dixon who could quell a school bus full of rambunctious kids with "a glare in the mirror / And a paddle that he carved from pine." Needless to say, this story works out better for that lovelorn 8-year-old than for ol' Ray.
The instrumental opening of "Creeker" conveys both the disorientation and despair that inspired it. Childers wrote the song after an Uber driver dropped him off in the wrong spot in Chicago, Ill. -- which doesn't sound all that awful until you learn that he was exhausted and hungover, his phone was dying, and he had only $5 on him.
Those are rather first-world, 21st century problems that led to the dramatic line "He'd rather be dead than alive one more minute in this godforsaken town," but really, who hasn't felt that way, for both legitimate and less-meaningful reasons? "When he was a kid, oh, he'd never have dreamt it / All the ways that the city can bring a country boy down" is a far more poetic way to say that "adulting" is hard sometimes.
"Ever Lovin' Hand"
"Ever Lovin' Hand" is the best roots song about ... er, "self-love" since John Prine's "Donald and Lydia." Whereas Prine's 1971 classic leaves the punchline until the end, though, Childers' new track clues listeners in right away: "They got my favorite lotion here," opens "Ever Lovin' Hand."
The Childers in this song is ready for a sleepless, wild night, armed with racy pictures of and raunchy text messages from the woman he's missing, a hotel room to himself and a late bus call time. "This one here goes out to you / Oh, wherever you may be," he sings. "When you're reaching for a fruit / I pray you fondly think of me / It gets so hard out on the road / But I go it alone 'cause I'm your man / I have got you on my mind / And my ever lovin' hand."
The beauty of "Ever Lovin' Hand" is that it walks the line between dirty and funny thanks to Childers' phrasing and keen eye for detail. The lively fiddle helps too. Still, let's just hope he put the "Do Not Disturb" sign up.
"Peace of Mind"
A worn-out railroad worker father who's ready to retire and "smoke himself to China" to ease his stress. An Avon-selling mother who sneaks cigarettes and "wonders what the hell she was thinking" when she, in high school, broke up with someone who's now a music star. A daughter who can't seem to stay away from a guy her daddy hates. Childers says the characters in "Peace of Mind" aren't based on specific people, yet they're still instantly recognizable: universally specific thanks to those little details.
"Oh, the days are dark down in the holler / Waiting for the sun to shine / On the back you've been breaking / Trying to earn peace of mind," Childers sings in the song's chorus. They're constantly searching for it, but they'll likely never find it. After all, as the saying goes, life's a b---h, and then you die.