There are parts of Kentucky where the ground is pruned and prettied, and there are parts where the grass just grows. During the early days of his career, Tyler Childers had one foot in both — as a kid from rural Lawrence County doing landscape work for a Lexington mill while he played country music for whoever would listen. One night, his worlds converged. Asked to perform at the office Christmas party, he dressed up in a tie and good shoes. He thought he looked sharp until an older man stopped to crack a joke.
“He told me, ‘You look like a mule looking over a picket fence,’” Childers, 32, said last month, having returned from playing a festival, powered on nicotine and caffeine. It was midday in a borrowed Nashville living room; Childers, despite his growing success, has resisted a move to Music City in favor of staying anchored in Kentucky. “I thought, ‘I’m a mule.’ I’m a poor working man’s animal, and I’m looking over the fence in somebody else’s yard. Do I even belong here?”
Childers proudly poses with a mule on the cover of his new album, “Rustin’ in the Rain,” out Friday. It’s a flip on that fateful moment, turning the animal (and the people who rely on it) into something powerful and graceful. Childers’s music, from his 2017 debut “Purgatory” and beyond, has always done this work: rewriting and recontextualizing rural and Appalachian America and the folks within it, and spreading their stories wide.
In the past few years, he’s sung about racial inequality (“Long Violent History”), made a music video telling a queer love story (“In Your Love”) and explored the possibilities of an inclusive faith on “Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?” His songs with roots in bluegrass, Southern rock and Appalachian tradition have pushed the boundaries of country music and even his own fan base, while cementing him as one of the most successful touring and streaming artists in his field — without the aid of radio. Last month, he played two sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall in New York. In December, he has a pair booked at Lexington’s Rupp Arena.
Childers grew up in East Kentucky in the shadow of the Baptist Church. His father had a job in the coal industry, and his mother worked at the health department. While the family had a double-wide trailer with running water and electricity, the neighbors didn’t, so he and his sibling were acutely aware that they were “one bad decision” away from disaster. At 15, Childers moved to a new school, where he coped with being the new kid by spending his lunch playing guitar. Eventually, his classmates took notice. They invited him to sing at parties, and introduced him to some new music.
“Drive-By Truckers became the soundtrack to my teenage angst,” he said, wearing dark jeans and a button-up despite the 100-degree weather. He started writing his own music, and quickly built a following across Kentucky and West Virginia — country fans were eager to hear fiddle and steel guitar, and his voice carried that lonesome sound of someone who’d studied both Ricky Skaggs and Kurt Cobain. When he sings live, his eyes burn with the ferocity of a preacher, and fans hang on to every word.
When “Purgatory,” co-produced by another Nashville boundary-pusher, Sturgill Simpson, was released, things happened fast. Childers went from opening shows with his band, the Food Stamps, to headlining the same venues in a little over a year. In 2020, he made his first overtly political statement with “Long Violent History,” an album fueled by his rage over the police killing of Breonna Taylor, a fellow Kentuckian. He wanted to be explicit, releasing the title track with a video statement in which he spoke directly to his white rural fans, telling them, “We can stop being so taken aback by Black Lives Matter.”
“I felt compelled,” he said, leaning forward in his chair and stiffening up as he talked. “I started looking at the people listening to me, and I was listening to them. I wasn’t stretching out in some weird, forced way — I wrote that song in 10 minutes.” Now he sees it as a responsibility not just to speak for his people, but to grow with them. “There are a lot of artists out there trying to do the work,” Childers said. “Every little effort to give someone a glimpse into that light helps put water on this fire before it boils over into white-hot rage.”
The video for “In Your Love,” the new album’s first single, features a love story between two male coal miners in 1950s Appalachia. The inspiration was personal. When Childers asked a gay cousin to be the best man at his wedding to the singer-songwriter Senora May, he started to hear rumblings about “what kind of man Senora might be marrying.” Childers welled up recounting the story, never once trying to wipe a tear or hide his watery eyes — he’s sober now, free of alcohol since 2020, and emotions come fast and easy.
To create the treatment for “In Your Love,” he turned over control to the Kentucky poet laureate, his friend Silas House. “That’s unheard of,” House said in a phone interview. “The very first thing Tyler said to me was, ‘I want to make a video for people who have never seen themselves in a country love story.” He added, “It was only ever about telling another rural story.”
Childers has long told rural stories: about people trying to get by with poisoned water or blackened lungs, about drug addiction and the impact of corporate greed on the people who tend the land — but also about the sheer beauty of these places, too, and the love within them. His allyship, especially for marginalized people out in the country, is a natural progression. He stays deeply connected to place where he was raised: hunting, gardening, tanning the hide after he cans the meat. “I’m a dial-up man,” he said, “in a 5G world.”
“Rustin’ in the Rain”is not just about love, or Appalachian life. It’s also about Elvis Presley — songs Childers could have pitched to Elvis, to be exact, a conceit he came up with while cleaning his house, a little accidentally high on some metal polish fumes. The family had just gotten a dog, a Malinois he’d taken to calling his “velvet Elvis.” “I don’t know if it was me saying that,” he said, “or the algorithm thought I was the guy to send it to, but all of the sudden there was all of this Elvis stuff around me. So I played it like a Nashville songwriter, trying to come up with songs to pitch.”
“Phone Calls and Emails” is a modern-day lonely lament, while he considers “Luke 2:8-19” his “Christmas song,” with Margo Price as the angel bearing news of a messiah. “In my Christmas play, the angel is this strong woman,” Childers said. “I was like, that’s Margo.” Said Price in an email, “As a woman in country music, just having any opinion at all is considered controversial. I’m beyond grateful he has always stood by me.”
One track, “Percheron Mules,” is for Childers’s beloved animals, and “Space and Time,” the album’s closer, is a cover by S.G. Goodman, a fellow Kentucky musician. “Tyler is writing out of a region, and he is putting back good into that region,” Goodman said in a phone interview. “For him, it extends outside of art, as a vehicle for positive change in our communities.”
“Rustin’ in the Rain” is a succinct seven songs, which is very intentional. Childers’s albums “are getting shorter as they go,” he said. “A countdown.” What happens when he gets to one? “I go home,” he said — to his mules, his wife and their baby boy, and to his farm. To his own rural story.
Just don’t tell him that his videos and country songs about racial inequality and queer love are “courageous.”
“People are like, ‘Oh, you are so brave,’” Childers said before gathering his chore coat and heading to a bookstore on his way out of town. “I think it’s sad that’s a brave thing. To me, it’s just about love. And that’s all it ought to be.”