‘Purgatory’ serves as a perfect building block to Tyler Childers’ career

Artwork for Tyler Childers’ ‘Purgatory’, courtesy of Hickman Holler Records.

It’s official, Tyler Childers is taking us to church. 

Childers is a country, folk, and bluegrass artist from Lawrence County, Kentucky. He has been releasing music since he was 19, with his first commercial release being Bottles and Bibles back in 2011. He then released Purgatory in 2017, Country Squire in 2019, and most recently, Long Violent History in 2020. In recent years, Childers has been thrust into the limelight, with many patiently hoping for a new album.

On Friday, September 2, Childers posted on his instagram for the first time since the release of his 2020 album, Long Violent History. In it, we see the man from his “All Your’n” music video, one of the singles from Country Squire. The man is laying on the ground in the forest, and he gets up to face the sunlight, squinting through the trees. Another piece of the puzzle was revealed on Tuesday, with the man coming out of the forest, being greeted by Tyler Childers and his band, The Food Stamps. It is revealed that the man had agreed to help the boys build a barn that day, and he begs them not to make him work. Finally, on Wednesday, we find out what all of this has been leading up to. A new single was released on Thursday September 8 from Tyler Childers’ attempt at a gospel album, Can I Take my Hounds to Heaven?, which is to be released September 30. 

With this exciting news, I want to take a look back at Tyler Childers’ career-making album, Purgatory, which was released back in August 2017. Purgatory is the project that really threw Childers into the limelight, with several of his most-streamed songs still being from this album. 

Purgatory celebrates a change from an unsettled and irresponsible young man to a settled, married person. This album is about as close to perfection as one man can get, with the meaningful, tender lyrics being perfectly held by rich and beautiful instrumentals. 

We begin with the quick and fun “I Swear (to God)”, which sets up the scene for Childers’ change of character later in the album. Childers awakes, in a daze from the previous night’s drug use and partying. We understand that Tyler Childers is a frequent drug user, citing use of alcohol, marajuana and cocaine. He has a headache, a black eye, and he feels terrible, yet his habits do not change. In fact, he tells his mom, “I’m doing alright / But when the evenin’ comes around / I swear to God.” These lyrics provide a perfect beginning to Purgatory, illustrating the habits and behaviors Childers is bound to end. 

Track two, “Feathered Indians” is Childers’ most streamed song of all time. This is where Childers’ change begins to appear, as he meets a woman who he realizes is worth settling down with. We begin as Childers describes his sexual encounter with this woman. He admits that had he known this woman was religious, he would not have come to her house under the influence. In the second verse, Childers is smoking a cigarette on the rooftop, when his woman asks if he knows how bad they are for him. He says many people have told him he should quit, “‘But up ’til now, there ain’t been nothing / That I couldn’t leave behind.’” The lyrics in this track paint such a wonderful picture, as by the end Tyler Childers reuses the term “Feathered Indians” to describe the way his heart feels for this woman. “Well my heart is sweating bullets / From the circles, it has raced / Like a little feathered Indian / Callin’ out the clouds for rain / I’d go runnin’ through the thicket / I’d go careless through the thorns / Just to hold her for a minute / Though it’d leave me wanting more.”

Pure poetry. 

Tyler Childers is now asking for his love to stay with him, begging for her to give him the reassurance he needs to stay with her no matter how hard it may get, claiming he would “run across the river just to hold [her] tonight”. 

We move onto track 4, “Born Again”, is a big, loud tribute to the changes that Tyler Childers’ new woman has brought to his life. Childers himself refers to this song as a “redneck commentary on reincarnation.” He begins by explaining where he was before, frequently drinking and smoking. He describes his relationships, stating how he stayed with a woman for the winter, until the spring came, when he would hit the road to perform. This cycle repeated itself for years, until he met the woman who caused him to be “Born Again”, and make the changes he needed to be able to settle down. “On and on, down the line / I’ve swam canals and bore the hide / Plenty births along this ride of being born again.” Tyler Childers has done a lot for 

Purgatory’s title track, “Purgatory”, serves as the seventh track on the album, and is the first truly bluegrass song that Childers had released up until this point. With the fast-paced wailing of a fiddle holding the loud and exciting voice of Tyler Childers, this track is like no other found on Purgatory. With this contrast, “Purgatory” leaves something to be desired, especially from the title track. Childers’ voice is somewhat lost in the loud instrumental, and the stark difference between “Purgatory” and the rest of the album can be quite jarring. Purgatory is the Catholic belief of a place where the souls of the dead can be purified and repent for their sins before being accepted into Heaven. As Tyler Childers was raised baptist, and his newfound love is Catholic, the existence of Purgatory is one that Childers found comfort in, as he feels that he doesn’t deserve to be sent to eternal suffering in Hell, but is not good enough of a person to be sent to Heaven. Throughout the song, he repeatedly asks, “Catholic girl, pray for me / You’re my only hope for Heaven,” in hopes that her prayers will lead to him being sent to this middle ground, Purgatory. 

As we move toward the end of this great change and rehabilitation from Tyler Childers, we reach the ninth track on Purgatory, the calm, peaceful, and pleasant “Universal Sound.” As probably the most tranquil-sounding track on Purgatory “Universal Sound” serves as a reflection of Childers’ life up until his connection with his woman. The song depicts Childers heading up into the hills of Kentucky in search of some peace and quiet, away from the hustle of everyday life. He reflects on himself and everything he has done to reach this point in his life. He thinks about his love, and prays that all of her wishes will come true. He recalls himself as a child, “I think about tobacco juice and Mason jars of ‘shine / I think about the vices I’ve let take me over time / I recall when I was a baby, I didn’t need nothing around / But a little bitty rattler and the universal sound.” Childers finds peace in the “Universal Sound”, the birds in the trees, rustling of leaves, and sounds of nature that surround him allow him to reflect on the man who he once was.

We finally reach the final track on Purgatory, “Lady May.” This song is a truly amazing love song, dedicated to the woman who sparked this change in Childers, Senora May. May and Childers are now wed, and are expecting their first child in the coming months. The love that Childers has for this woman can be heard in every beat of “Lady May.” Held by a tender yet intricate guitar riff, the lyrics are really what set such a beautiful scene for this song. “I’m a stone’s throw from the mill / And I’m a good walk to the river / When my workin’ day is over / We’ll go swim our cares away.” The song goes on to describe the way that May makes Childers feel, like a long-awaited spring after a cold and dark winter, and most beautifully, a hickory tree, being cut down by her love. “Now I ain’t / the toughest hickory / That your ax has ever felled / But I’m a hickory just as well / I’m a hickory all the same / I came crashin’ through the forest / As you cut my roots away / And I fell a good long ways / For my lovely Lady May.” 

We’ve all been there, Mr. Childers.

With Tyler Childers soft, almost whisper tone of voice, this is one of the most sincere, heartfelt, and truly elegant country songs of the 21st century. 

Tyler Childers brings something to the table that most modern country artists cannot. ‘Stadium Country’ has become the norm these days, with white men singing about beer, tractors, and dirt roads. In Purgatory, however, it is clear that Childers writes these songs for himself, rather than to curate a billboard hit. His vocal and instrumental versatility allows him to create such a variety of songs, even within one album, and it has yet to get old, even in the five years since its release. 

The instrumentals on Purgatory are also breathtaking. Produced by country legend Sturgill Simpson and David Furguson, who also has worked with some seriously important names in country music, including Johnny Cash and John Prine. This combination of modern and classic country and folk music creates a sound unlike any other. With his use of the acoustic guitar, lap steel guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle, Childers creates vitally country songs with the influence of both old and new music. 

Childers’ real talent, though, is his songwriting. Purgatory is nothing like the country music heard booming from the cabin of your neighbor’s brand-new F-150. These songs feel intimate, worked on, and loved by Childers himself. It is clear that he pours his heart into his work, and has a real connection to each and every one of the songs he releases. From “Feathered Indians” to “Lady May”, the lyrics on Purgatory are some of the best in all of music. The stories Childers has the ability to tell, the pictures he is able to paint, are unmatched in the industry today. 

I love Purgatory, and it is some of the most quality and impressive projects of the past five years. Childers left very little on the table with this album, and I will be counting down the days until Can I Take my Hounds to Heaven? releases on September 20, 2022. 

Jackson Wezeman is a staff writer for Oswego East’s online news magazine The HOWL

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