“You lucky son of a bitch, I’d kill to see Tyler Childers again for the first time.”
I move back to my previous position between Thomas and Stanley. It’s been occupied by a man, dark-skinned and twice my size, handler of yet another flavour of the ever-flowing local liquor. His grand status is less intimidating as it enchanting and, he too, has been possessed for the endorsement of Childers, envious of what I’m told I’m about to experience. Stanley’s wife, Emily, is at my ten o’clock, having replaced the Bud Light Balancer, front and centred for the headlining set. She flashes me a smile, eyes wide in anticipation for my reaction. Countless Kentuckians have sung high praise for the native, confidently. Being beyond his years, a confounding presence, and innate musicianship are descriptions marking the man as some type of godhead. My personal interaction with Childers was no more extraordinary than wonted, simple and pleasant. He comes off as genuine, personable, but there is evidently a connection I oversee. He assumes his position to a brief introduction by Roberts, an element of respect directed from the crowd, a hush that has moved in. He associates himself with his predecessors, opens with a tranquil cut of “Rock, Salt & Nails” – Utah Phillips’ weary lyric and Childers somber delivery. He opens his throat and his chords distort, without amplification the notes would soar to the hill’s reaches. Two women watch him from the tops of their eyes, brows raised and faces angled towards the dirt. For every man shaking his head up and down, out of rhythm to the performance but in accordance with their own flow, another is moving his side to side – as one responds to a lofty sermon. Agreement with the word. The solo waltz like gospel. Childers ends on a single chord and a moment of silence separates his completion and the audience’s approval. There is a fixation between the two parts, Childers and not Childers. One watching the other as intensely as being returned. How a collection so outwardly expressive minutes ago is now completely centred in their higher selves like a calming universal energy rested itself upon the collective consciousness. Childers brings peace.
He inflicts a vocal break prior to phrases customized to his own style but reminiscent of Hank. This distinction bends into the words ‘Charleston Girl in a darkened room’ and once fans in reverence are popped like a shaken bottle of Ale 8. Line by line, communal vocals – the educated, singing in harmony. Emily has her eyes closed with an arm accenting the syllables, releasing her pep like carbonation. With the set’s third piece I’m drawn closer to the devotion, Childers sings of West Virginia and Kentucky, the hills, their austerities. He wears the hardships on his arm and is vulnerable, representing the collective through his own experiences. ‘Harlan Road’ is another group effort, complete with reference to pines, cotton, clover, and tobacco fields. Childers is a regional voice.
As a writer I pick up in his word usage. Subtleties in options, choosing a lyric ‘I used to ride a mustang’ in reference to a car, breathing life into the subject. He ran that thing on high hopes, till they raised the price of dreams so high he couldn’t pay. His words, a pallet, colours specific to the region. He’s a student of a greater english language beyond local slangs and dialect but stubborn to the territory. Rhyming patterns tampered, expecting a closing word and receiving another, strong practice. I rob him blind. Childers is a poet.
A Shel Silverstein cover and he calls The Wooks back to the stage, his band, The Food Stamps, step off. A tag. Childers writing translates and his songwriter-honkytonk is now embedded with bluegrass. His comrades lending a capacity for interpretation further evolving their distinct sound, not to mention their collaborator. A thirsty and married man, Childers’ wife delivers the drink and as he partakes encouragement eventuates, all onlookers reaching for the nearest mason jar to emulate their darling. Once again, I challenge my temperance and am convinced – the moment is one to be engaged in. It would be more rewarding to drink the ‘shine with my newfound community than to be able to say I’ve been three months sober. I strain my eyes and neck into the dark searching for the hooch, at peace with my decision. A hundred jars rampant, no longer. A jug sits empty, desperate thoughts of sucking the bottom dry to get a hit. I resist. I want a pull, a good pull, two with a breather. I look to Stanley, he stands without. Thomas, without. As I can see, Childers drinks the last of the communal bond and then averts my hankering. A meditative guide in real-time speaking my story. Lyric: ‘My mind’s a mile a minute, my mind it barks like hounds, I’m focused on my breathing and the Universal Sound. I think about my darling girl sleeping all alone, I pray the stars’ll shoot’er all the wishes she can hold, on the day that I return I aim to lay her down but right now I’m focused on the Universal Sound. I think about tobacco juice and mason jars of shine, I think about the vices I let take me over time, I recall when I’s a baby I didn’t need nothin’ around but a little-bitty rattler and the Universal Sound. I close my eyes, it was all so clear, it was all right then, it was all right here. I been up on the mountain, and I seen his wondrous grace, I sat there on a barstool and I looked him in the face, he seemed a little haggard but it did not slow him down, he was humming to the neon of the Universal Sound. I focus on my breathing and the Universal Sound, I let it take me over from the toenails to the crown, the body that I’m in ’till they put me in the ground, and I return to the chorus of the Universal Sound.’
Childers is a Sage.
Unattended campfires and cookpits smoulder, flickers of light burn in and out along the treeline. Rising embers against the dark backdrop are eyes, the interdimensional, crossing planes to watch the wonder of our own. The malevolent mollified by the muse, an alternative crowd hidden just enough. Cryptid Cats sitting high in the bows of the oaks having crossed the balds of the meadowlands. The White Things of West Virginia with their sheep-like wool, ram horns and saber-teeth. The Yayho, its reek, the bipedal humanoid crouching on a slope with its relatives the Wood Booger and Wildman – in from Tennessee, their brotherly Sasquatch unable to attend. Monstrosities with mice at their feet. Squirrel, rabbit, weasel, and ‘munk. Beaver, bear, ‘possom, and skunk. Sapsuckers, flycatchers, ‘peckers and hawks. Copperheads, salamanders, turtles and frogs.
This rarity of The Food Stamps line up is due to a guitarist, stage right, twice Childers’ age. And as introduced, he foresaw the talent as an early enabler. David “Chico” Prince, a Lawrence Country teacher fostered the vision of Childers and joins him tonight loaning licks and providing leads. In classic country fashion his partner, Teresa, intervals a harmony. The collaboration is class. Childers beams as he creates with mentors. The Prince’s mirror. Teresa leaves the stage, and myself with an affection for my teachers. A trio, I’m indebted.
Barbara Bruce, Jeanette Cross and Lynette Kaminski.