Written by Cody E. Lambert.
Footnotes at the bottom of the page.
On the tail of Tyler Childers’ first Grammy nomination, the whole Huntington-Tristate area is celebrating. Its a culmination (but not completion) of years of work from a very talented local artist. A guy who started as background noise at the old Black Sheep Burrito and Brews is now mentioned in the same breath as Blake Shelton, Tanya Tucker, and oh yeah: Willie-freakin-Nelson. And as someone who has also spent an exhorbitant amount of time as background noise in both Black Sheeps, this is especially exhilarating for me. Still, I find myself dealing with a new kind of stress, a tension between my excitement and some kind of weird resentment.
During the year that I tried (and failed) to make it in Chicago, I was shown many kindnesses by my friends from back home. None, however, were greater than when Ian Thorton supplied my broke ass with tickets to see Tyler Childers perform. Nate and I Ubered across the city in mid-November. It was already reaching the single digits some nights so we were bundled up. That was one of the biggest culture shocks I felt living in Chicago. Wherever you went, you wore your winter coat and gloves and toboggan and hung them up on a coat rack when you went inside. There was an honor among thieves agreement that only the lowest of the low would steal someone’s winter coat in Chicago. We walked into the venue with our free tickets like nervous middle schoolers touring the high school for the first time.
This anxiety hung, for me at least, until we got a chance to talk to some old townies. It wasn’t a situation where I got teary eyed and for a brief moment lost myself and thought I was back at the V Club (this Chi-town venue was not near divey enough to replicate that feeling) but it was nice. I got to see Thorto, and Craig and we gave John R. Miller his first drink of Malört, to which he responded “I don’t think I’m old enough to drink that.” It was a good time.
But as the unpretentious “Yee Bub” that I am, I was a little put off by the way the Chicago locals talked about Tyler. I heard a group of DePaul grad students puffing on Juuls say “He’s Sturgil Simpson’s little buddy.” It was all I could do to not yell, “No, he’s not! He’s Jimbo’s little buddy! Yes, Sturgill is cool…but that doesn’t matter. You go to a private college in Chicago, this isn’t for you!” It was a rough patch for me.
I would like to take this time to say I am not saying the good people of Chicago can’t like Tyler Childers. Chicago is arguably America’s greatest blue collar town. A city of ten million people living on the shores of a wind-swept inland sea. The whole place is a frozen hellscape five months of the year. A city of factory workers, meat packers, truck drivers, and weirdos. A city that, in my time there, I grew to love. The guys that worked at the auto shop which also doubled as a pizza stand deserved Tyler’s music. The lady scraping ice off of the inside of her little glass window as she took the toll out to Rosemont deserved Tyler’s music. The first generation college student doing their homework on the train back from the Chi State campus deserves Tyler’s music.
That said, an alarming number of people at this particular show were clearly there for the aesthetic. They were children of privilege who grew up in the suburbs and adopted a bohemian air for young adulthood. A type of half-decade-long costume party where they posture as someone whose parents don’t make six figures. In short, not many of the people there had ever eaten anything they found in the woods.
I tried to remember that this was objectively a good thing, that Huntington, Ashland, and Appalachia in general needed the type of success that Tyler was on the precipice of. If the rest of America could fall in love with a scraggly, sometimes awkward, redhead singing honestly about the real Appalachian experience, then maybe we can start the process of transcending an image created by Baldwin-Felts agents fighting unions and New York Times writers looking for an easy story. Still something felt inauthentic about hearing a room full of neutral accents, not singing (it wasn’t intimate enough to be called singing), but chanting the lyrics from every song from the Purgatory album.
That’s when Tyler broke from the script and threw “Charleston Girl” into the set and I went out of my freaking mind. I started screeching every lyric, not missing a beat. It was a beer hall full of three hundred people, with only three singing– Tyler, me, and an unknown person in the back who I assume to be a fairly drunk William Matheny selling merchandise in the hallway.
Charleston Girl isn’t even a deep cut– you’re two youtube recommended videos away from it at any given time, but that’s not the point. It wasn’t what the people knew, it wasn’t what they expected, and it required straying from the path of the predetermined chic. No subtle hip influencer had passed the word on to their friends that any Tyler Childers music existed before Nashville. They had no way of knowing that the best shows aren’t “Tyler Childers,” it’s “Tyler Childers and the Food Stamps” (and that the Food Stamps aren’t complete without Molly playing fiddle) and they didn’t care to ask.
I recognize that this is very easily interpreted as an “I knew them before they were famous,” kind of story, which, in some ways, it is. I’m clearly drawing on my tertiary closeness to someone famous, hoping maybe you’ll pay closer attention to him. Tyler was already reaching regional fame when I first saw him, and even though I’ve been introduced to him several times, every time we meet again he looks at me with that confused stare you give someone you had one or two high school classes with: you know you should remember their name, but there were a lot of people in that class and a lot of names to remember. *As an aside, to anyone reading this, a “Weird Huntington” yearbook would be a wonderful art project.
Back then I was taking part in something so real, so genuine, that maybe the only other people still alive that could understand it lived in Seattle in the early 90’s when a sickly frail kid named Kurt Cobain was screaming into a mic in some gross basement show.
When Tyler sang “God made coal for the men who sold their lives to West Van Lear,” you could just as easily change that to Logan, or Madison, or any of the dying towns that dot the space between the Big Sandy and the Guyandotte. And while my family was a lot more fortunate than most in my hometown of Branchland, you don’t live in Lincoln County and get away from poverty.
Up until my Mimi had a stroke, you’d be hard pressed to find a meal my family shared that didn’t include something from the garden. My dad, and especially my uncle, hunted deer every fall. Most years when they shot one, we didn’t actually eat the meat ourselves. Dad would later tell me it was because they would give it away to families further down the river who did depend on the meat to make it through the winter.
I remember when the people walking down U.S. Rte 10 started to stop looking cherry red and a little swollen with a plastic bag full of Natural Ice beer and started to look pale and sick and shuffle along in a trance on the shoulder of the road. I remember how there used to be fewer and fewer of them. I grew up watching my home go from being a small town you could pull from a Bruce Springsteen song to something else. The pillars of the community were left to rot. The local high schools, which were much more than places to learn, were closed; and people stopped being involved.
This all coincided with country music, music that was born from the collective pain of rural poverty, started to become sleek and shiny and lazy. Garth Brooks, who I love and am in no way blaming for this, reached levels of fame hitherto unimaginable for country singers and the seeds of its ruin were planted. People realized you could make money, real money, LA money, off of country music and it became easy to grab a kid from suburban Pennsylvania whose parents were Pittsburgh orthodontists that just wanted to be famous, throw them in Wranglers jeans and a cowboy hat and tell them “talk like Bo Duke.” All of a sudden you have turned a pop singer into a country singer. It doesn’t matter that they haven’t lived any of the vast experiences that could justify and inform them as a country singer if the song vaguely references beer, trucks, or backroads, it will play.
As I did for the city of Chicago I will now apologize to the good people of the mainstream country music community. I absolutely understand that not everyone who likes, or even performs “pop country” is some kind of poser. It would be arrogant and wrong to say that. I know for a fact there are loads of people who live an authentic appalachian life, many even more so than me, who love the top twenty country charts. I’m sure that music has helped and spoken to lots of people, and I’m certain it has saved a few lives. But I can’t honestly in my heart feel as if it’s genuine in its intentions.
This is why songs like Charleston Girl are so important. When Purgatory first came out I was a little disappointed that song wasn’t on the track list. I knew it had been released before, but as my personal favorite Tyler song, I’d hoped it would get cleaned up and find its way onto an album just to see what it would sound like. I know that there were dozens of people who were complaining about the lack of rawness on the album. For me that wasn’t a big deal, I get that artists who suddenly have everything in the world at their fingertips will want to experiment and use those endless means to do things that were literally impossible to try and do before. I also know that if you want that rawness, go to a live show. Tyler is still around Huntington a lot (more importantly there are phenomenal artists not named Tyler Childers that perform in town all the time). I just wanted to hear what Charleston Girl was, what it meant to me again.
Then I started to think about what Charleston Girl was about; not the story in the lyrics, but what it meant to me. The song was indicative of that period when the pressure around Tyler was building; when you had to squeeze into the V Club and find your friends pressed against the back wall. When every weirdo in town was sure to be out back and they all felt the same excitement that you did. It was a two year long pause between hearing a firecracker launch from the ground and waiting for the shower of sparks. It was magical and everyone who was a part of it was lucky, and will have that time and those songs forever.
Things will never be exactly as they were at that time again. For Tyler (and those of us who’ll never stop watching him) the venues will be bigger, the crowds will be different, and the songs will be more polished. But they’ll be good. For the dive bars back home: something else incredible will come and some new excitement will build.
The time before Tyler blew up, but when we all felt the pressure building, was magical and we will probably never see anything like it again. The good that is coming in the aftermath of his ascension, might not be noticeable yet but is already present. And most importantly, we, as the people who have lived with the same burden that Tyler Childers did, have to learn something. We need to accept what his growth and a changing Appalachia may mean: people we don’t necessarily want to like this thing we hold dear buying into it.
Will it be for them? No, never. But can it be enjoyed by them? Certainly.
The Charleston Girl will always have raven hair and skin so fair. The old Steele Brothers will always have Tyler’s money, if only in that time. We’ll always live with the knowledge of what being Appalachian is. And even if Tyler wins a thousand Grammys and becomes ten times more popular than the Beatles and the richest kids in America start wearing Carhartts to take on some working class hero imagery, it will still be ours and we will always be its originator.
Besides, maybe the real Charleston Girl is Appalachia and her culture and people? If so, like Tyler, we can confidently say to the rest of the world “You don’t know her like I do.”
- Nate is my writing partner, former roommate, and best friend; whom I owe a lot.
- Appalachian word for a really thick beanie. The kind that folds down around your ears to provide cranium wide warmth, not sit slightly ajar at the top of the skull to both hide thinning hair and let the world know you shop at Zumiez.
- A Chicagoland liquor that tastes like battery acid mixed with whatever Dumbledore drank in Half-Blood Prince.
- A colloquial term for someone from Lincoln County, WV. Seriously google it.
- These people were too well off to be stained by the nasally taint of the goose-like Chicago accent.
- Two rivers that wind their way through the heart of WV coal country.
- People who don’t live out in the boonies will never understand how damaging school consolidation is to students, but that’s a whole different article.
- The image of a country singer is as varied as the geography the music aspires to represent. Rural Appalachia shares little with West Texas, but according to corporate radio, their music is exactly the same.
- I don’t want to start a border war, but coincidentally, all his best songs reference West Virginia.
- Young Tyler Childers sure didn’t bother keeping those names a mystery did he?