Long Violent History

Tyler Childers

Hickman Holler Records, 2020

http://tylerchildersmusic.com

REVIEW BY: Daniel Camp

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/02/2020

Fiddle music is American music. It plays merrily in the saloons of black-and-white westerns, it plays mournfully in Civil War museums, and it helps Ken Burns tells story after story about our nation’s identity. It evokes a time and a place that feel lost to history—a simpler time, a seemingly better time.

But in Tyler Childers’ hands, the fiddle becomes an instrument of subversion, a way to bring out uncomfortable feelings and tell uncomfortable truths in a way that will be heard instead of rejected out of hand. For Childers, the fiddle becomes a way not to evoke a sepia-toned time that never was, but to tell the story of the once and future Long Violent History we spend so much time trying to ignore.

Beginning with “Send In The Clowns,” Childers sets an eerie tone for what is to come, as he and his bandmates turn the Broadway number into an instrumental bluegrass pacesetter for what will follow. “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” the final instrumental track, similarly employs a faint reverb and the song’s minor key to set a mood of foreboding.

In between these bookends are a couple of toe-tappers, however. “Squirrel Hunter” is the kind of tune you can imagine filling an antebellum dance hall, and “Jenny Lynn” is a merry little song in its own right. “Camp Chase” is probably the highlight of these more upbeat tracks, with Childers putting his newfound fiddle prowess (he learned the instrument in the past year) to impressive use.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

But despite these brief respites, one never loses sight of the album’s foreboding title and the first impression “Send In The Clowns” leaves. Songs like “Zollie’s Retreat” and “Sludge River Stomp” keep the listener slightly off balance—when listening, you can’t shake the impression that something’s not quite right here.

It all climaxes with the title track at the album’s conclusion, the only song on the album with lyrics. And what lyrics. It’s in this gut-punch of a song that Childers finally shows his cards—this album of comforting, traditional Appalachian music has all been pointing toward this song about race relations in America. And make no mistake, he has some things to say.

“It’s the worst that it’s been since the last time it happened,” he starts (and how’s that for an opening line?) Singing from the perspective of a rural Kentuckian for whom the world has “called me belligerent / it’s took me for ignorant / but it ain’t never once made me scared just to be,” he asks listeners to “imagine just constantly worryin’ / kickin’ and fightin’, beggin’ to breathe.” Childers is doing something powerful in this song—singing a message of conviction to his people, a group unlikely to be naturally sympathetic to the messaging of coastal do-gooders.

It’s from that perspective that the song ends with a warning wrapped in a hypothetical, all designed to produce empathy: “How many boys could they haul off this mountain / Shoot full of holes, cuffed and layin’ in the streets / ‘Til we come into town in a stark ravin’ anger / Looking for answers and armed to the teeth?” It is this question that the whole album has built towards: what if America treated us like this? What would we do?

With uniquely American music Tyler Childers exposes a uniquely American problem and begs for empathy from his uniquely American listeners. With a fiddle in his hand, he draws listeners in and begs them not just to hear, but to listen. If we want to end this nation’s Long Violent History, we’ll have to start sometime.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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