Self-produced project featuring eight tracks performed in three different ways.
There can’t be many reading this who don’t know of Tyler Childers. Following his second album ‘Purgatory’, Childers was named emerging artist of the year at the 2018 Americana awards. In the years since, he has continued to honour his country and bluegrass roots while developing themes that highlight the unique cultural landscape of Kentucky.
There is often such defiance and toe-tapping hope in his songs, think ‘Whitehouse Road’ or ‘House Fire’. Sometimes you still see what looks like fear in his eyes when he’s performing, as if he can’t quite believe he has this gift to entertain and move people. Having the unbelievably talented Food Stamps supporting him hasn’t hurt either.
This album is his first new music since 2020’s Grammy nominated release, ‘Long Violent History’, packaged as an old time fiddle album that had a sting in the tail. It was discreetly, yet powerfully, released with just a six minute video message from Childers. He wasn’t preaching. He was asking for reason, compassion and solidarity among his fellow Kentuckians and across the states, at a time when America was splintering.
When interviewed in 2019, he was promoting his album, ‘Country Squire’ and the conversation touched on his religious upbringing. Religion sits up front in ‘Can I Take my Hounds to Heaven?’ But a triple album with only eight tracks? Only four new songs, three covers and a reworking of ‘Purgatory’.
The first of this conceptual trinity is, ‘Hallelujah’. It captures Childers and The Food Stamps playing live in a single room over the course of two days. And some of it is brilliant. It kicks off with a Hank Williams cover, ‘Old Country Church’. Already, there’s something in Childers’ voice that suggests he only yearns for the past because life was easier when he didn’t question the dogmas of his faith.
There’s an instrumental Southern gospel cover, ‘Two Coats’, before a reworking of ‘Purgatory’. The lines, “But I’ve heard a tale of a middle ground , I think will work for me”, revisit the inner torment of being Baptist. Can he find favour with a Catholic girl and ride on the coattails of her faith?
On ‘Way of the Triune God’, Childers sings, “I don’t need the laws of man, to tell me what I ought to do.” This message of a second coming has an infectious jazzy beat. God forbid it leads to dancing. ‘Angel Band’ is marvellous, with Childers questioning the status quo. If every faith congregates at the pearly gates, why they’ve been fussin’ the whole time. ‘Jubilee’ is an instrumental Jean Ritchie cover. The inclusion perhaps a respectful nod to the Appalachian community.
‘Heart You’ve Been Tendin’ closes the set. As Rafferty wrote, “Whatever’s written in your heart, that’s all that matters”. The canine God Anubis was responsible for weighing a person’s heart to determine whether they entered the afterlife. All faithful hounds are surely welcome.
The second in the trinity is ‘Jubilee’. The Jubilee Baptist Church believes that “in the Bible, the year of Jubilee is a time when God commands freedom for captives, citizenship for immigrants, the return of stolen land, and the cancellation of all debt. Today, when a lot of us find ourselves in the lonely wilderness of debt, alienation, exclusion, and subjection to powers that grind our lives down, we think God calls the church to love as if a world like the Jubilee is possible. But, @sometimes this means conflict with the world as it is@. They explicitly use words like struggle and liberate. A doctrine but also a working people’s manifesto. Is this what Childers is implying with his choice of tracks? Like music, the old and the new should be reworked to make faith a vehicle for galvanising people into action. It’s not wrong to challenge the dogmas of your faith if the principals belong in the past.
But is the music worth hearing again? It’s ‘Hallelujah’ but with added horns, strings, lyrics, background vocals and an array of worldly instruments. The barking dogs are perhaps excessive.
There’s a fuller version of ‘Angel Band’, the video reviewed by Ed Donnelly back here in September. ‘On Way of the Triune God’ there’s an increased risk of dancing. Seek out the video from Appalshop. ‘Jubilee’ now has backing vocals from Teresa Prince from Luna and the Mountain Jets. These three tracks are definitely taken to new heights. ‘Jubilee’ versions sound like Childers and the band working out a great live show with the ‘Hallelujah’ material.
The final part of the trinity is ‘Joyful Sound’. It consists of remixes created by DJ Charlie Brown Superstar (Brett Fuller) and includes samples from eclectic sources such as cultural shows, theologians and church service excerpts pulled from the Kentucky Centre for Traditional Music archives. Mostly instrumental. Joyful sound it isn’t. If this is the soundtrack to heaven, “I’d rather load my dog box up and go to hell with all my friends.”
If you don’t have the disposable income to add this to your collection, have little opportunity to catch him and The Food Stamps live, or ride shotgun with the man himself – play your phone through a car stereo enjoying the best of ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Jubilee’. A glorious EP can be mined. Anyone who can write “He’s rattling a Werther’s, On his dentures in the pew, He’s holding down the bass, It’s a little out of tune” is blessed. An outstanding album? Red, we can wait.