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Review: Tyler Childers, 'Purgatory'

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Tyler Childers, <em>Purgatory.</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Tyler Childers, Purgatory.

In an interview about the memoir he recently published about his parents, the novelist Richard Ford offered an interesting definition of an overused term. "It was authentic. It wasn't a learned response," he said of the way his mother put her fists to her brow when she discovered that his father was dying of a heart attack in bed one day. "That's what she did. She put her hands to her temples because she just couldn't imagine it." Ford's simple explanation cuts through the thicket of debate about authenticity, especially as it applies to art. The gesture his mother made was human and unplanned in a way that stands separate from the creative process of art-making. In choosing to write about that moment, however, and in cultivating similar ones throughout his fiction, Ford calls for an authenticity that doesn't overly define or call attention to itself, instead arising from within the life stories that are different for each of us, even though, at some point, they involve all of us.

Tyler Childers, at age 26 already a seasoned traveler on the Southern Americana music circuit, has a gift for incorporating such authentic images into his story songs. They can be simple, as when his lover dips her feet into a creek in the lyrical ballad "Lady May," or dramatic: In the tense "Banded Clovis," a hardscrabble addict who shoots his friend over an arrowhead they find sifting through snow-hardened dirt on a Kentucky mountain, searching for treasure that might pay for their pills. "I was fiending so fierce, I was broke ass and busted," Childers sings of the moment. In both cases, Childers sets his eye for detail on a familiar form – the love song, the murder ballad – and pushes it into the present with specifics that are utterly plausible and seemingly unique.

Since he was 20, Childers has gained a reputation for his vivid music by touring incessantly from Ohio to Tennessee and onward throughout the South and the Midwest. He worked on his blend of bluegrass and hard country with his band, The Food Stamps, and sometimes performed with Sonora May, the lady whom he eventually wed, and whose grounding influence he celebrates throughout Purgatory.

"Well, my buckle makes impressions on the inside of her thigh / There are little feathered Indians where we tussled through the night," he sings in his slightly rough, slightly sweet low tenor on "Feathered Indians," one of several songs that celebrates physical love and the emotional connection that comes of it when it's treated right. Purgatory is supposed to be a concept album about Childers' growth from young troublemaker to centered, married man. But the frame's not really necessary. His stories may be autobiographical or not; they feel lived in, and that's what matters.

The frame that does make a difference on Purgatory is the production — this is the first album that Americana's reluctant hero, Sturgill Simpson, has produced beyond his own work, and his co-pilot, David Ferguson, is just as notable for his engineering work with Johnny Cash and Rattle and Hum-era U2. The two seasoned studio masters surround Childers with crack players and solid, clean arrangements that recall both Simpson's classic Metamodern Sounds In Country Music and the essential Americana touchstone from a few decades back, Steve Earle's Copperhead Road.

Childers is a vocalist muscular enough to carry an outlaw rocker like "Whitehouse Road" and agile enough to roll with a cosmic meditation like "Universal Sound," a road song that ends up as philosophical as Simpson's best work. Top Nashville cats like guitarist Michael J. Henderson and fiddle and mandolin player Stuart Duncan, along with the steady and inventive Miles Miller on drums, add musical details to the mix that enrich Childers's already evocative storytelling. Like many young Americana artists, Childers makes his nods to history explicit — he interpolates the gospel classic "Working on a Building" into one song and borrows the melody line from "In the Pines" on another.

But this album isn't an exercise in artisanal recreation. Childers manages to really live within the stories he tells, having learned how to be unlearned and as authentic as possible.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.