Like many great Southern storytellers, singer-songwriter Tyler Childers has fallen in love with a place. The people, landmarks and legendary moments from his childhood home of Lawrence County, Kentucky, populate the 10 songs in his formidable debut, Purgatory, an album that’s simultaneously modern and as ancient as the Appalachian Mountains in which events unfold.
The album, co-produced by Grammy Award winners Sturgill Simpson and David Ferguson, is a semiautobiographical sketch of Childers’ growth from wayward youth to happily married man, told in the tradition of a Southern gothic novel with a classic noir antihero who may just be irredeemable. Purgatory is a chiaroscuro painting with darkness framing light in high relief. There’s catharsis and redemption. Sin and temptation. Murder and deceit. Demons and angels. Moonshine and cocaine. So much moonshine and cocaine. All played out on the large, colorful canvas of Eastern Kentucky.
Childers had been searching for a certain sound for his debut album for years as he honed his craft, and was finding it elusive when his friend, drummer Miles Miller, introduced him to Simpson, the Grammy Award-winning musician and fellow Kentuckian. Childers sent Simpson a group of his songs, then went to visit him in Nashville.
“And he said, ‘There’s this sound. I know what you’re trying to get at, the mountain sound,'” Childers recalled. “‘So I asked, ‘What are you doing?'”
Intrigued, Simpson enlisted the aid of Ferguson, the Grammy Award winning sound engineer. They assembled a band that included multi-instrumentalists Stuart Duncan, Michael J. Henderson and Russ Pahl, bassist Michael Bub and Miller on drums, of course, and helped Childers make a debut album of consequence that announces an authentic new voice.
“I was writing an album about being in the mountains,” Childers said. “I wanted it to have that gritty mountain sound. But at the same time, I wanted a more modern version of it that a younger generation can listen to — the people I grew up with, something I’d want to listen to.”
Waldon was 13 when her parents divorced and, inspired by the music surrounding her, she started playing guitar as a means to make it through her teen years. Upon her arrival in Music City a few years later, Waldon toiled away 45+ hours a week in a minimum wage job and played gigs in any bar that would let her in the door and on the stage. Once she had a pocket full of songs, she released her debut album in 2014, The Goldmine. The set was met with open arms from both critics and lovers of the kind of country music that she makes — the kind born in bars and raised in honky-tonks, the kind leaning on pedal steel and driven by Telecaster.
As solid as the effort was, its follow-up isn’t just a next step, it’s a forward leap. After all, when you’re a songwriter, a couple of years can contain a lifetime of lessons. And that wisdom is what seeps through on her sophomore effort which, like The Goldmine, was produced by Michael Rinne. For Waldon, “It’s a transition in letting go and also being absolutely comfortable in your own skin.”
Indeed, the newfound confidence and compassion with which she inhabits her place in the world comes through loud and clear on original cuts like “All by Myself,” “Don’t Hurt the Ones (Who’ve Loved You the Most),” and “Life Moves Slow,” as well as her arrangements of Vern and Rex Gosdin’s “There Must Be a Someone” and Bill Monroe’s “Traveling Down This Lonesome Road.
Perhaps because it was one of the first songs Waldon wrote this go-around,”All By Myself,” in particular, stands out as something of a thesis statement for the rest of the album, if not for life, in general. As she explains, “It is not a lecture, or a sermon, or a statement from me. I want it to be a statement for everyone, as a whole: The power is only inside of ourselves.”
Because no country record would be complete without a proper kiss-off cut, Waldon scratched out her own entry in that milieu with “You Can Have It.” That kind of personal empowerment comes up time and again across I’ve Got a Way. In “Let’s Pretend,” that power emerges through the act of focusing on the good and choosing the kind as part of what Waldom describes as “a ‘Storms Never Last’ mentality” to relationships.
Closing the collection are “Traveling Down This Lonesome Road,” which stands as her hard-edged hat tip to Bill Monroe and the music she grew up on, and “The Heartbreak,” which shows she can deliver a weeper, to boot. But this isn’t the standard woe-is-me fare. Here, too, is a message of empowerment and empathy.
So, how does Waldon turn her messages into the country music that is so much a part of her? “Lay it all out, and sing it from the heart, way down deep,” she says. “If you do it that way, you don’t need gimmicks.”