Tyler Childers surprised fans with his fifth studio album and fiddle debut, Long Violent History, on September 18. To provide context for release, the artist shared a video statement. The moving message makes Childers one of only a few male country artists to condemn institutional racism as it currently stands in the United States.
After announcing his first six months of sober clarity, Childers claimed no soapbox before he began to address his cult-following of fans through a clearer lens.
“I feel undeserving of the grace this world has shown me,” he explains. “And I would find it a waste if I were not to try and use it for some good.”
The 29-year-old Kentucky native speaks directly to his people —calling out to the hills and down into the hollers of Appalachia with a message he knows some don’t want to hear. Humbly he asked his white rural listeners to consider a shift in mindset. He draws comparisons to unite our humanity as Americans, flipping narratives, encouraging an empathetic journey in fellow citizens’ shoes.
“What if we were to constantly open up our daily paper and see a headline like ‘East Kentucky Man Shot Seven Times on a Fishing Trip?'” he asks. “Or a headline like Ashland Community and Technical College nursing student shot in her sleep? He further urges.
“What form of upheaval would that create? I’d venture to say if we were met with this type of daily attack on our own people, we would take action in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia. And if we wouldn’t stand for it, why would we expect another group of Americans to stand for it? Why would we stand silent while it happened?”
“Or worse,” he adds, “get in the way of it getting rectified.”
Childers creates a list of “other ways to preserve our heritage outside of lazily defending a flag with a history steeped in racism and tension.” On it are a few options: grow a garden, fish, make a quilt, or learn an old fiddle tune, much like the first eight tracks on this album.
He is a purveyor of American and “Old World” tradition by popularizing regional music, deeply rooted in an often forgotten corner of America. Though Childers considers himself a country singer, shying away from the term “Americana,” his music outlines a clear historical lineage. More so than the synth-filled sounds of Nashville’s “country music.”
Jesse Wells, his fiddle player, and guitarist is an instructor at the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music operated by Morehead State University. He’s also responsible for The Traditional Music Archives of the institution.
Together they curated a modern string band known as “The Pickin’ Crew” specifically for this project. This group of stellar Americana artists included Don Flemons, five-string Kentucky banjo specialist John Haywood, mandolinist Andrew Marlin, guitarist Josh Oliver, upright bassist John R. Miller, fiddler Chloe Edmonstone, and cellist Cecelia Wright.
“The century old songs presented on this record represent a time capsule and a musical artifact,” says Don Flemons in his album introduction. “Tyler’s tintype photograph on the cover transcends the modern era and harkens back to the birth of American Popular music of the 1920s when songsters and Tin Pan Alley songwriters created hits for Broadway. These songs are meant to last another hundred years, yet it is supposed to tell a new story about the struggles that lie within our generation.”
The record opens with a fiddle-driven rendition of “Send in the Clowns.” The show tune was written in 1973 by Stephen Sondheim’s for the Broadway musical A Little Night Music. Desirée Armfeldt sings this emotional ballad as she attempts to reveal her feelings for Fredrik, her former lover. In the years following, Frank Sinatra recorded a cover of the song; in 1975, Judy Collins’ recorded a cover that went on to win a Grammy Award for Song of the Year.
It’s a reference to the old showbiz trope of distracting audiences with slapstick when everything else on stage fails. Sondheim told The Guardian in a 2003 interview that the show is “about flirtation, the wasting of time and the manipulation of people.” About the song particularly, he adds, “I knew I was writing a song in which Desiree is saying, ‘Aren’t we foolish’ or ‘Aren’t we fools?’ Well, a synonym for fools is clowns.”
Many of the selections point back to the Civil War. Track two, “Zollie’s Retreat,” is named for Confederate General Zollicoffer, who fell at the Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky, in 1862. A notable recording of the tune by Kentucky native and old-time’s safe keeper, Clyde Davenport, keeps the context within reach. Frank Davenport, his fiddling grandfather, was a Union soldier who fought at Mill Springs and witnessed the Confederates’ defeat and retreat after their commanding officer was killed.
According to one interpretation of the history, “Squirrel Hunter” pays homage to a group of woodsmen who stepped up to ward off the Confederate army from their planned attack on Ohio. In West Virginia, the presumably Pennslyvania-born track is known as “Dan Friend’s Piece.” In the mid-west, it’s filed under “Yankee Squirrel Hunter.” John Hartford popularized the tune to the outside world on his 1996 record, Wild Hog In The Red Brush.
A widely-told story of “Camp Chase” is set in West Virginia and told by the Carpenter family, one of the first settled in the state. Sol Carpenter was released as a prisoner from Camp Chase by winning a fiddle contest, as legend has it. All of the fiddlers had to play the same song, so he added extra notes to impress the judges. In return, they allegedly gave him his freedom. He taught the tune to family members like his son Tom, who taught his son French Carpenter, who, in turn, taught others like John Morris, who continue to pass it on.
Carpenter was confirmed as a prisoner at Camp Chase. The prison was established in 1861 six miles outside of Columbus, Ohio, as a training camp for volunteers. Initially, the prison held mostly Confederate sympathizers arrested for political dissent. By 1863, it held over 8,000 men. During the war, over two thousand prisoners died at Camp Chase due to disease and starvation.
Like many of these folk tunes, there are conflicting histories behind “Bonaparte’s Retreat.”
According to the American Folklife Center’s founding director, Alan Jabbour, “Bonaparte’s Retreat” is probably Irish in origin (“The Eagle’s Whistle“). It also points to the British Isles, adapted as a celebratory ballad about Napoleon’s defeat and exile after his disastrous retreat from Russia in 1812.
Samuel Bayard cited the tune as a military march during the Civil War. Bill Stepp, better known as Fiddler Bill in his Kentucky home, recorded a version of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” in 1937 that offered a different take on the traditional tune. Stepp’s performance made an impression on Aaron Copland, who incorporated it in his music writing for the “Hoe-Down” movement in the ballet Rodeo.
After picking through the long, violent history American folk music outlines so well, Childers steps in with his own contribution. The title-track envelops his observations at a critical moment in American history.
He sings, “Now what would you get if you heard my opinion conjecturing on matters that I ain’t never dreamed/ In all my born days, this white boy from Hickman, based on the way that the world’s been to me/It’s called me belligerent, it’s took me for ignorant but it ain’t never once made me scared just to be/ Could you imagine just constantly worrying, kicking and fighting begging to breathe?”
“How many boys could they haul off this mountain/ Shoot full of holes, cuffed and laying in the street/’Til we come into town in a stark raving anger/ Looking for answers, and armed to the teeth.”
Balancing protest with a bit of patriotism, the song closes with a screeching nostalgic bit of “My Old Kentucky Home.”
When addressing his fans with the release video, Childers’ final call-to-action was to vote.
“Chances are, the people allowing this to happen are the same people keeping opportunities out of reach for our communities that have watched job opportunities shipped out, and drugs shipped in,” says Childers. “Eating up our communities and leaving our people desperate, in what some folks would deem a food desert.”
Proceeds from Long Violent History benefit these underserved communities he is speaking to in his statement via Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund. Childers and songwriter-wife Senora May established the fund this year, per the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee website.