Tyler Childers is a creature of habit. It’s in his roots, in the eastern Kentucky soil he grew up on and still calls home. So when we meet to discuss his new LP, Country Squire, the state of country music, and red Solo cups, we meet at a pinball arcade in a small town 20 minutes outside of Austin. “We were here for South by Southwest two years ago, and the motel next door was the closest we could find that wasn’t booked up and was reasonably priced. We decided to come back,” he explains, before revealing his real reason for choosing this spot: “I also really like pinball. We were here for a whole week in 2017 and I spent far too much time playing games. Happy hour is two bucks for a well drink, the draught is cold, the bar food is pretty legit.” What else can you ask for?
The arcade bar (the name of which we’re redacting here because honestly there are only so many of these joints outside of Austin and the musician is a private person, to say the least) is populated with the sort of people Childers writes songs about. There’s a lot of camouflage, some Timberland boots, a bunch of Carhartt. Big mustaches run untamed and 3:00 p.m. means beer time.
By hanging here, espousing the glory of cheap food and cheaper shots, Childers is—intentionally or otherwise—playing into the myth of his art, although after spending time with him, it’s clear that this is just the kind of guy he is. He likes cold drinks and nice people and fresh air—preferably away from crowds. He’s like all of us, just with the weight of traditional country music atop him. He’ll be the prodigal son, but how ‘bout a shot and a beer first?
After explaining the various rules at the pinball spots he frequents (the one up in North Austin is BYOB) and waxing philosophically on the patience it takes to play the sport (“Sometimes you get the pinball machine and sometimes the pinball machine gets you”), we move onto Country Squire, the 28-year-old’s third LP, and his first to reach the top of Billboard’s country charts. Childers sings songs about people, giving humanity to the shapes that mainstream country stars sketch. To paraphrase Childers, mainstream country talks about red Solo cups; Childers talks about the guy at the factory who makes them, returning home after a 12 hour shift.
By Childers’s own estimation, the album has grown significantly since its August release. It’s his second collaboration with Sturgill Simpson, who handles production and serves as a mentor of sorts. Childers pedals in a softer style of country than Simpson, but the latter’s knack for unique phrasings within the traditional country canon is pervasive throughout. He likes to jam these songs live, turning his folk-skewed ballads into something harder and sharper—more attuned to psych-rock than the quiet ache of his studio work. One thing both artists share is a penchant for shit talk and a rabid defense of country’s roots. “Hopefully, by tending to my own self and getting out there and playing my music for people, they hear what artists like myself are putting out,” Childers explains. “Then, they have to sit and critically think about what it is and why it’s better than the shit on the radio.”
GQ: Do you generally like to stay out of cities when you play shows in them?
Tyler Childers: Not necessarily. I just really like this spot in particular. I’m a creature of habit.
Is it hard transitioning from the road and then returning home to small town Kentucky?
There’s an adjustment period, but that all depends on how the tour goes. Certain times of the year it feels pretty sporadic. We’ll do two or three shows, and then have three or four days home, and then two or three more shows. When it’s that kind of situation, you’re never in either of them constantly enough to get the hang of them. When it’s two weeks on, two weeks off, it’s a little easier. The first two or three days are always filled with laying around and seeing buddies in the area. During the summer, the third or fourth day is generally grass-mowing day. When the first week is over, I’ve got everything back into place enough that I feel like I’m living at home again.
What’s your writing process like? Do you sit down for long periods and hack away or is it more fluid?
It comes in spurts. You might get a melody or a couple lines you like. It’s ever-changing. You just have to be open to it. I don’t sit down and say, ‘Today I will write a song.’ I know a lot of people that do that, but if I’m not in the mood, what’s the point of beating my head against the wall? Hank [Williams] Sr. once said, ‘If you can’t write it in 10 minutes, it ain’t worth writing.’
I think I took that to heart at some point, because I appreciate the sentiment. There’s no point in trying to get something to come out. If something is genuine, it should come pretty genuinely. I may take more than 10 minutes, though.
What’s your relationship with Sturgill like as a producer?
He asks me what songs I wanna play and I bring them to him. We talk about ‘em and go from there. [Laughs.] He picked out the band for Purgatory. I was pretty hands off this time. We just talked out what I was trying to accomplish, which was in that vein of the stuff that I grew up with—bluegrass country like Ricky Skaggs, J.D. Crowe, Keith Whitley. Sturgill’s from the same area as me so he got what I was trying to do. He picked a top notch band, players on some of those albums.
This time, there was a lot more conversation about which players I really wanted to work with again and what things we could try differently. Like, I really wanted to play with the keys player again [Mike Rojas].
I’ve always wanted to play piano but I’ve never really been around one. Growing up in church, that was the primary instrument. That sound was something I wanted to play with.
You're not a religious musician. Do you mean in the way that music sounds?
Yeah, Southern gospel. Country music spawns from that. It’s bluegrass gospel, something like that.
Are you a big fan of Southern literature? It seems like your narratives take some inspiration from that scene.
Yeah, I read a lot of Flannery O’Connor back in high school. I’m not sure he’s a Southern writer, because he’s from Ohio, but Donald Ray Pollock is in that Gothic vein. He’s sick. Frank Bill, out of Indiana, too. I love Pollock because he writes really dark stories with embellished traits. It’s almost believable. It’s really good writing and it’s very descriptive.
You’ve been pretty outspoken regarding mainstream country music and Nashville. Do you feel a responsibility to rail against the country music machine?
It’s just something I’m asked about. It doesn’t hurt my feelings if you listen to shitty country music. That’s your fault. What I consider country music doesn’t make it the end all be all, but if you ask me my opinion, that’s what you’re going to get.
A lot of commercial country does speak to people in some way. It’s more of a ear worm or a melody that’s really catchy. That’s something that you certainly want, but it’s only one piece of the criteria for a good song. What are the lyrics that we’ve opened ourselves up to by enjoying that hook or melody? Is it a song that is relatable because we’ve been through that? What is the song really about?
A lot of times, you’ll be flipping through country radio and there’s just no substance. Like I’ve said before, it’s all about props: Solo cups or whatever. It’s not about a dude’s work day or someone that lost a good friend or relative. There’s nothing to hold onto when you’re going through something. That’s what music is supposed to do. It’s supposed to help people out. Anybody can listen to what they want, I just don’t have the time or patience for it.
You’re a country artist. Is part of it to make sure people know that your definition of country is different from mainstream or commercial country?
I would prefer not to be lumped in with that. If you wanna listen to that and what I’m doing, that’s cool, but if I think something’s garbage I’m gonna say so.
But Country Squire hit the top of Billboard’s country charts, and a lot of the albums you’re probably talking about did as well.
For sure. Country Squire is 100% what I consider “real” country. We have to share a space that’s been taken over—infiltrated, in a sense—by pop country. If you’re going to be in that space, on those charts, you’re going to share the space with those people. But that’s the only way to take the lunch table back.
It all filters down. Because “pop country” is now just “country,” everything else is now outlaw country or Americana.
That’s true, and also, it lessens the agenda for Americana. It weakens the genre over time. What I’ve done with my last two albums is country. I feel that in my heart. What Margo [Price] has done in the past is country. What Kelsey Waldon’s doing is country. What a lot of these artists are doing is country, but we’ve all been pushed over by the wayside into Americana. What happens is that, if we meet each other, and I say I listen to country music, you may be like, “Aw man, I can’t stand country.” And then I go, “Well, I don’t like radio country. I like the good country.” Well, what is good country then?
Nowadays, Americana is synonymous with good country. I say Americana, you just think “good country.” Through time and habit, Americana now sort of means good country. Then you’ve opened yourself up to things that aren’t pop country, but aren’t exactly good country songs, either. They get pushed in there, and it waters down Americana too. Now, pop country is infiltrating the Americana scene as well.
Is there anything to be done about it other than to keep making your music and speak on it?
I’m sure there are things that could be done. I know what I’m willing to do about it.
If someone asks me to speak my mind. Other than that, it’s just walkin’ with my Bible—which is country music. The biggest testament you can be is action. That’s more important to me than sitting around and bitching about it. There’s nothing I can do about those artists being around. There’s nothing I can do about people listening to those artists.
Why is country music worth fighting for?
It’s a big part of my identity. I grew up with it. I grew up on 23, country music highway, which is a stretch of road where Ricky Skaggs and Dwight Yoakam and Loretta Lynn played. Driving up and down that on the way to school—to baseball games, to anywhere—you see all these signs commemorating these artists. It was a point of pride for my area growing up. That’s something I saw everyday and was exposed to. Plus, a lot of the early music I heard outside of church music was this kind of country music. To be able to be part of that community—not only because of my birthplace—as an artist, is special. To be able to communicate with that and hopefully further that means a lot.
I also think that whether you like it or not, you speak for a lot of people from there. You have a voice. Whether or not that’s a pressure you want or reject, your stories will still be about the people from your hometown.
I don’t feel any pressure. [Laughs.] I’m doing what I’m doing and it just so happens that it speaks to the people from my area. That’s where I still live. That’s where I get my inspiration from. The goal of a writer in any situation, be it songs or novels, is to speak to the people in the setting they write about. It means a lot that people take to my music and are touched by it, but I don’t feel pressure.
If tomorrow I decided I was gonna move somewhere else, it would still be my writing voice, but it’d sound different. Now, I’m writing as a kid from eastern Kentucky who’s seen the world. If I moved, I’d still be a wayward hillbilly, but I’d be looking somewhere else.
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Originally Appeared on GQ