Hailing from Lawrence County, Kentucky, Tyler Childers has become the latest in a line of "new Amercicana" singer/songwriters that includes the likes Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. In fact, Simpson has co-produced Childers' breakthrough album, Purgatory, released in August of 2017.
New Zealand audiences will get a chance to check out Tyler Childers up close as he travels down under to open for the legendary John Prine for three NZ dates next year. Listen to, or read, the interview Radio 13's Marty Duda conducted with Childers as he reflects on the impact Prine had on his songwriting.
MD: So you’re coming to New Zealand supporting John Prine who from my understanding is someone that you’ve looked up to for a quite while, so maybe you could you tell me a little bit about your relationship with his music.
TC: Absolutely. I grew up playing baseball and my 8th grade year coach was driving in his car and he had the windows down was blaring Please Don’t Bury Me and I looked out from my field and asked, ‘Coach, what is that?’ and he said, “You’re telling me you’ve never heard of John Prine?” and so the rest of that season I bring my guitar, well usually I take my guitar everywhere with me. So if there practice after school chances are I had my guitar with me and my coach would show me how to play different John Prine songs, so yeah, ever since I was in middle school I was a huge John Prine fan and it was kind of crazy, you spend all this time idolising a songwriter and you actually get to meet him and he’s just as cool as you’d hope for him to be.
MD: That’s good to know, and what was it about John Prine’s songs that drew you to them as opposed to anyone else’s?
TC: They said a lot without having to say a lot. It wasn’t using any lofty or weighty words, it was just plain spoken but it immediately, like there’d be lines like ‘oh, I know exactly what you’re talking about’. I know that guy or I know that feeling. He can really tell stories. It reminded me a lot of where I grew up, where his people are from. He’s a good storyteller and everybody likes a good yarn and tell a good tall tale and it just reminded me of home.
MD: When did you realise you needed to write songs?
TC: I started writing songs around the same time when I was learning to play guitar, I always enjoyed reading and writing my own short stories and stuff like that. As soon as I started playing guitar it just seemed like the next logical thing to start writing my own songs.
MD: And how has your songwriting evolved? Obviously they must have been quite primitive at first. I’m curious as to your approach to songwriting because it seems to me that the type of songs that you write are generally known as Americana and it’s different to what you hear on pop radio these days, so it’s a more classical kind of songwriting I guess. Would you agree?
TC: I think it’s a more practical type of songwriting. I think that a lot of times what gets the most airplay on pop radio or pop country or whatever, that’s more in the business of writing jingles, in the sense that - just come up with a catchy line, mostly let’s worry about a really catch melody and then let’s make some dance music and then move on to the next song. Often times there’s no craft in the songwriting, and there should be content and poetry- that’s what songwriting is, so you’re telling a story or conveying an emotion through the use of words, I would hope that my songwriting is about those qualities.
MD: I’m sure it has. And the other thing that’s noticeable in your music is that it’s very much rooted in where you are from. I’m just wondering for folks here in New Zealand who may not be familiar with where you are from that you can maybe explain a little bit about what your place that you’re from was like so that they can understand your music a little better.
TC: Well, I’m from Lawrence County, Kentucky originally, nestled in the foothills of Appalachian Mountains. The industry there was coal at one time, that’s what fuelled the railcars and put people on train tracks, piling coal and mining it and everything was about coal. Then slowly over the last few little bit, that’s not the case anymore. It’s getting harder and harder to find job opportunities so it’s just a small East Kentucky town. Just stuck between a rock and a hard place at the moment I suppose.
MD: Yeah sounds like it. What would you be doing if you weren’t writing songs and playing music?
TC: Well since there’s no jobs back home I would probably be looking for a job elsewhere, moving to Georgetown to work for Toyota or get on some line crew clearing telephone lines.
MD: Right. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania which is not dissimilar from what sounds like your situation is as well so… fairly bleak at the moment around there. So when you arrive in NZ for touring, are you playing solo or are you bringing a band? What is the plan when you come here?
TC: It will be me and my guitar.
MD: You and your guitar, excellent. And playing mostly songs from Purgatory or have you been working on some new stuff since then? What’s the status of the setlist and your songwriting?
TC: As far as the setlist goes I go wherever the spirit leads me on that. I’ll play some stuff off of Purgatory, I’ll play some new stuff, some old stuff. I’ve got songs, so I’ll play ‘em.
Tyler Childers and John Prine tour New Zealand next year:
Wednesday 27th February - Auckland, Bruce Mason Centre
Thursday 28th February - Christchurch, Isaac Theatre Royal
Saturday 2nd March - Wellington, TSB Arena