The Curmudgeon: Musical Voices from Rural Kentucky

Music Features The Curmudgeon
The Curmudgeon: Musical Voices from Rural Kentucky

Ever since Donald Trump won his surprising 2016 victory (in the Electoral College if not the popular vote), blue-state journalists have been trying to explain the mysterious mindset of red-state voters. For newspapers and magazines, these writers have interviewed waitresses, coal miners, nurses, steel workers and farmers to understand why they voted as they did.

These exercises are often unsatisfying, for the interviewees are rarely analytical or articulate enough to shed much light on the question. Perhaps it would be more helpful to hear from the region’s best songwriters. After all, they’re speaking to and for those voters, drawing from a common set of experiences and talking in a common language.

This year two singer/songwriters from rural Kentucky, Mitch McConnell’s base of support and one of the reddest regions in the nation, have released records that get inside the skin of Kentucky’s working class better than any expense-account journalism ever could. Tyler Childers’ Country Squire and Chris Knight’s Almost Daylight draw portraits of their neighbors that are likely to defy the expectations on both the left and right. The characters in these stories harbor desires too earthy and frustrations too maddening to fit anyone’s theory.

On “Bus Route,” for example, Childers recalls riding the school bus as a kid in Lawrence County, on the border with West Virginia. Over a bouncy, hillbilly two-step, his narrator describes the terrors of the bus driver’s hand-carved pine paddle and the attractions of “the prettiest little girl, same grade as me.” When they turned 16, he and the girl lost their virginity in her bedroom while her parents were gone. It’s good they were gone, because her daddy would have “killed me in a minute” and fed the corpse to the hogs, who’ll “eat anything you give ’em.”

What’s fascinating about the song is how Childers doesn’t pass moral judgment on any of these characters. The driver was right to paddle his wild-ass passengers; the teenagers were right to act out their lust, and the father would have been right to feed the boy to the pigs. Rural America, in this view, is not a monolithic place, where everyone agrees on everything. It’s a complicated place, where conflicting desires get sorted out through subterfuge and violence.

The album’s title track describes the dream of owning a Country Squire, a high-end mobile home, an ambition so cut down that it’s heartbreaking. On the cry-in-your-beer ballad, “Peace of Mind,” Childers’ narrator explains how elusive that title can be. In our fantasies, country living is synonymous with peace of mind. But the reality is different if you can’t smoke pot because you want to keep your railroad job, if the vodka can’t drown out the wife’s long phone calls with her high school boyfriend, and if you’d like to feed your daughter’s boyfriend to the hogs, but you just can’t find the time.

Sometimes the conflicts aren’t between people but inside one person. On the trad-country “Gemini,” Childers admits that half of him wants to settle down with the woman he’s singing to, but the other half can’t “kick the urge to roam.” The album ends with the minor-key ballad “Matthew,” the portrait of a man who could “play like Clarence White,” the Byrds’ legendary guitarist, “if Clarence had a real job.” Matthew has such a job as night watchman at a missile silo, glad to have raised his “youngins right,” all the while wondering, What if?

Country Squire marks a major leap forward over Childers’ 2017 breakthrough second album, Purgatory. The earlier project relied too much on frank talk about different ways of getting high as a way to avoid the paradoxes of rural life. This new recording, by contrast, confronts those contradictions head on, yielding songs of greater drama and deeper psychology.

The songs have certainly struck a chord with rural listeners. Country Squire topped Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, an achievement that neither Vince Gill nor Billy Ray Cyrus matched this year. Like its predecessor, the new album was produced by fellow Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson, who adds a few psychedelic touches but mostly puts Childers’ live arrangements into vivid focus with the help of some Nashville session musicians.

Simpson himself has abandoned rural instruments and rural themes on his own new album, Sound & Fury, a 1970s arena-rock retread much like the Raconteurs’ Help Us Stranger, only with fewer hooks and sillier lyrics. Simpson is a better singer than Childers, but not nearly as interesting a songwriter, and now that Simpson has abandoned his ambitious remake of country music to become a retro-psych-rocker, he matters less and less.

When Childers previewed three of the new album’s songs at Delfest on May 25, the crowd in trucker caps, overalls and cutoffs yelled back in affirmation that they knew exactly what he was talking about. The festival, hosted by Del McCoury and located on the Potomac River between West Virginia and western Maryland, drew an Appalachian audience for Appalachian music, and Childers was in his element.

With his newly trimmed, bright-orange beard, his bushy mustache and rolled-up sleeves, Childers aggressively pushed his view of rural America as far more complex than it’s given credit for. When he introduced the new album’s “Creeker,” the tale of a Southern man in a Northern city, Childers added a raspy edge of disgust to the line, “He’d rather be dead than spend one more minute in this ga-a-a-wd-forsaken town.” His terrific backing band, the Food Stamps, was a two-guitar-bass-drums quartet that could double on fiddle and pedal steel guitar, creating just the right mix of hillbilly tradition and rock ’n’ roll power.

When someone in the audience kept asking him to sing, “almost heaven, West Virginia,” Childers retorted, “I can guaran-fucking-tee you we’ll never play ‘Country Roads.’ I hate ‘Country Roads.’” After all, West Virginia isn’t “almost heaven,” and it would be a lie to say that it is. On the other hand, neither is it “almost hell,” and Childers is determined to explore the middle ground of knotty realism.

Lurking behind these stories is a pervasive economic shortfall. The money brought in by jobs that grind one’s “hands to splinters” isn’t enough to keep up with “the bills the bank keeps sending.” Childers doesn’t voice political opinions on the album, but he does imply again and again that a person who works hard should be able to pay the bills, buy a house and send the kids to college. It’s doesn’t work that way in rural Kentucky, however, and that fuels much of the album’s anger.

At times Childers sounds fatalistic, as if these injustices are just part of the Kentucky landscape, as unchangeable as the steep slopes and shadowy hollers. If you’re willing to accept that as inevitable, you can afford to be apolitical and not worry about who your neighbors are voting for. But if you think those injustices can be altered—as they were by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society—then you have to confront rural America’s political reality as fearlessly as you take on its psychological complexity.

Chris Knight (Courtesy of All Eyes Media)

Chris Knight still lives in his hometown of Slaughters in western Kentucky, just two counties over from the Muhlenberg County made famous by John Prine’s “Paradise,” a song Knight often played as a fledgling teenage musician. Prine not only wrote “Mexican Home,” the final track on Almost Daylight, Knight’s first album in seven years, but also contributes a duet vocal on the final verse and chorus.

Knight’s other principal role model has been Steve Earle, and Earle’s longtime studio partner Ray Kennedy produced Almost Daylight, his fourth collaboration with Knight. Frank Liddell, the Nashville exec who gave Knight his first publishing deal, is represented by his wife Lee Ann Womack, who sings close harmony on the R&B-flavored “Send It on Down.” And Dan Baird, the Georgia Satellites’ chief singer and songwriter, adds lead guitar after producing two Knight albums himself.

While fiddle, banjo and mandolin can be heard on most of these tracks, Baird’s guitar and a rock ’n’ roll rhythm section occupy the foreground, making this a louder, punchier record than Childers’—and than Knight’s own earlier outings. While Knight’s songs don’t offer details as mind-tickling as Childers’ corpse-eating hogs and missile-silo security guards, Almost Daylight does deliver a similar message: rural America is a lot more complicated than either its critics or its champions are willing to admit.

The album begins with “I’m William Callahan,” the tale of a man who “started poor as Kentucky coal,” left at 17 for Birmingham, struck it rich in Denver, lost it all and nearly froze to death in Alaska before meeting his wife in New Orleans. It’s a story with as many defeats as victories, but Knight seems less concerned with the final tally than with the journey. He and his wife, he sings, have “run the race and fought the fight; we think we did alright.” It’s less about the prizes you collect, he implies, than about the adventures you pursued.

Sometimes the adventures are voluntary; sometimes they’re not. Sometimes, you’ve got to get out of town to stay one step ahead of trouble. Sometimes you have to go “back in the woods where the law don’t go,” he sings on the bluegrass stomper “Crooked Mile.” Sometimes you have to leave the red Camaro lying on its side in a flooded cornfield and head out to Knoxville where the bank won’t be looking for you, he sings on the slow, steady country-rock of “I Won’t Look Back.” Sometimes you have to come back to Kentucky and settle things with the guy who turned you into the police and sent you to prison, he sings on organ-fueled rocker “Trouble Up Ahead.”

Like Childers, Knight just wants to be left alone; he doesn’t want to be bothered by the do-gooders from church or from an NGO. When he does discuss politics explicitly, on the song “The Damn Truth,” he offers the common-sense advice that “We oughta help the ones in need, help a man get back on his feet,” but then counters it with the dubious proposition that “You can’t believe what’s on the news.”

What you can believe, after hearing these albums from Childers and Knight, is that the residents of rural America are not living in the idyllic paradise so often described on country radio. They’re short on money and short on hope, and their attempts to alleviate that pain with alcohol, drugs, romance, religion and isolation more often than not only add to their problems. The predicament may be obvious, but the solutions aren’t.

I interviewed Knight in 1998, just as his self-titled debut album was being released. What he said then is still true now: “In a lot of songwriting today, country people are depicted as either dumb and goofy or simple and sweet. It’s all `Mama this’ and `Daddy that,’ `Bible this’ and `Bubba that.’ Bubba’s been in 500 songs since Steve Earle sang about him in `Sweet Little ’66,’ and no one else has got him right. I know Bubba. He’s a good old boy, but he’s not the dumb-ass he’s made out to be. He’s a lot more complicated than that….

“When Prine wrote about people in the country,” he added, “he sounded like he knew what he was talking about. You know how it is—you hear someone and you know exactly where they’re coming from.”

You can hear that in the new albums by Childers and Knight.

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