Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Tyler Childers Goes There, Challenging Fans On Black Lives Matter And The Confederate Flag

Tyler Childers / YouTube

Country songwriter Tyler Childers is selective about speaking for the public record, and when he does, he lands his punches, leaving people astonished and stirred up. He’s probably never sparked so much intrigue as he did over the weekend by releasing a surprise album, a powerful protest song and a video message aimed at his “white rural listeners” expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

The album, Long Violent History, would have been its own radical gesture even without its final song. Having released two of the most acclaimed lyrical tour de force albums of recent years - Purgatory in 2017 and Country Squire in 2019 - the Paintsville, KY native put his recent efforts on the fiddle to the test, tracking eight old-time tunes with the relaxed atmosphere of a bonfire picking circle. Then rather suddenly, the title track evokes our national strife, asserts his own need to be heard at this time and poses a scenario in which power roles, and episodes of abuse, were reversed.

“Could you imagine just constantly worryin' Kickin' and fightin', beggin' to breathe?”

The song asks how his peers would react under such strain, speculating that it would involve violence, and tying that violence to a Civil War that in the minds of some has never ended. In essence, he calls out those who’d demand “Don’t Tread On Me” but not stand by that principle for everyone.

The six-minute video tracks the same thematic beats but leaves a lot less room for interpretation. Childers explains why he feels the need to speak out and says that the album was conceived as a concept to be that voice. The fiddle tunes were “intended to create a sonic soundscape for the listener to set the tone to reflect on the last track, which is my own observational piece on the times we are in.”

Then, with a blade of emotion in his voice, Childers offers a kind of liner notes commentary on the song. “We’ve all witnessed violent acts of police brutality from around the nation that have gone unaddressed,” he says, observing that the demonstrations and riots in their wake have left many he knows angry at the political movement behind it. This he critiques as an “inability to empathize with another individual or group’s plight.” He fleshes out the scenarios of injustice he suggests in the song, putting white rural people in the sights of police brutality cases pulled from the news.

“If we wouldn’t stand for it, why would we expect another group of Americans to stand for it,” Childers asks, before his blunt conclusion. “We can use our voting power to get rid of the people that have been in power and let this go unnoticed,” he says. “We can stop being so taken aback by Black Lives Matter. If we didn’t need to be reminded, there would be justice for Breonna Taylor, a Kentuckian just like me, and countless others.” Taylor is the 26-year-old emergency medical technician who was shot in her sleep during a no-knock police raid in Louisville in March of this year. And in perhaps the most emotionally charged passage, he challenges Southerners to preserve their heritage by making culture (canning food, learning a fiddle tune) instead of “lazily defending a flag with history steeped in racism and treason.”

When this landed on Friday evening, it was one of those rare moments in modern folk music where you could hear a kind of stunned silence, a unified attention, if only for a moment before the cacophony broke out.

Childers is 29 years old and rocketing to remarkable heights in American popular music. Without support from the country radio format, he’s topped the country album chart, sold more than 100,000 albums and headlined a sold-out four-night run at the Ryman Auditorium early this year. His Long Violent History commentary video was endorsed by celebrities and country stars, and by Sunday night his Facebook post version had drawn more than 38,000 shares and 10,000 comments. While overwhelmingly positive, angry and defensive posts were easy to find.

“Drinking that leftist kool-aid and pushing a false narrative now, huh?,” wrote one. “Sounds like Tyler’s millions have gone to his head and he’s joining the Marxist group BLM,” wrote another. It’s worth observing here that all proceeds from Long Violent History’s sales, be they millions or less, will go to the Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund, a philanthropy founded by Childers and his wife to support rural communities in need.

While numerous roots musicians have written social and political songs and spoken out as activists in the Trump years (and before to be sure), Childers is a special kind of dissident and outlaw in modern country. His large and growing fan base is fiercely enthusiastic and culturally diverse. His words will reach thousands of red state partisans who’d not be listening to the likes of Mary Gauthier or Will Hoge. It will certainly spark private conversations that have a chance of being more constructive than his Facebook feed.

The first time Americana-world took note of Childers’s fearless free speaking, it came amid an awkward moment not of Tyler’s own making. A presenter at the 2017 Americana Honors & Awards, CBS broadcaster Anthony Mason mispronounce his name twice in a matter of minutes (it’s CHILL-ders by the way). Then, on accepting the Emerging Artist of the Year Award, the irascible Kentuckian said, “As a man who identifies as a country music singer, I feel Americana ain’t no part of nothin’. It is a distraction from the issues that we are facing on a bigger level as country music singers.”

That caused some ruffled feathers in a community that takes pride in its sense of mutual love and support, but many of the same critics of his alleged ingratitude are also fervent fans of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver, whose greatness is inextricably linked to their refusal to always abide by standards of politeness and decorum. Childers is a signifier of a new southern masculinity, one that’s as stubborn and self-possessed as an old tree but capable of reflection and empathy. His voice could really matter in the months to come. Yet it’s a safe bet that what he doesn’t want is for the community to parse this as a “win” for one political side. His final words in his video are: “Love each other. No exceptions. And remember. United we stand. Divided we fall.”

Tyler's full remarks and the song follow:

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org