The ascension of Tyler Childers from regional honky-tonk troubadour to country music royalty has seemingly happened over night, and has been amazing to witness. That’s because in two short years he’s gone from playing wayside bars and dives to completely selling out three nights at the iconic Louisville Palace Theater weeks before the shows took place.
Make no mistake: though still young, Tyler has paid his dues and then some. He’s been doing this almost a decade and his progression over that decade is cementing him as one of the best country artists out there. He was just 19 when his first album, Bottles and Bibles started floating around. He built a strong and loyal fan base through non-stop touring around Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia.
With fellow Kentucky country virtuoso Sturgill Simpson and David Ferguson lending a hand with the production of Purgatory; his first ‘official’ release, Tyler set the country world on fire. Since Bottles and Bibles, his guitar playing, songwriting, and composing ability has entered a different stratosphere. That’s not to say Bottles and Bibles wasn’t an excellent album; it was, especially for someone of his age. However, on Purgatory, Tyler has completely come into his own. He’s perfected his craft and is solid in his sound. What’s even more exciting is that at just 27, he’s come into his own much earlier than some of his Commonwealth counterparts, and his best years are still well in front of him.
Although I’d been listening to him for a few years prior, the first time I got to see Tyler was in September of 2017 at the Hal Rogers Center in Hazard, along with southern rock icons Drive-By Truckers. Now that I look back, that was a dream bill in a venue that seats just shy of 1,000 folks. Tyler actually opened that show and absolutely tore the house down. Drive-By Truckers were fantastic as well, but it was clear that Tyler was the reason that the place was packed. Since then, I’ve caught him in concert a half dozen or so more times.
This past summer, my wife and I caught him in the middle-of-nowhere town of Beaver Dam, KY, where he sold out a 5,000 plus seat venue. Tyler still has a true road warrior attitude and tours incessantly. For someone who puts so much bravado into their singing, that can take a toll on your voice. At the Beaver Dam show, he drank an entire bottle of honey on stage (an old mountain trick to cure a raw throat) just so he could finish the set. A few weeks later, I was lucky enough to see him at the beautifully clandestine Kickin’ It On The Creek…which will go down as the best concert I’ve ever witnessed.
Tyler’s New Year’s Eve run at the Louisville Palace Theater, to me, was the exclamation point on what he’s been able to achieve in these past few years. To be able to sell that place out for three nights in a row is beyond impressive, especially considering he’s done it without the luxury of being played on mainstream country radio. His popularity across the nation has sky-rocketed, and nowhere is that more evident than his home state. Everything about Tyler screams Kentucky; and it’s obvious that we here in the Commonwealth take a lot of pride in the fact that he represents us so well.
This was my wife and mine’s first show at the Palace Theater, and it completely took our breath away. Seating just shy of 3,000 people, it checks off every box you want in a venue. From the location to the entrance and sign outside, to walking in and being completely blown away by the high ceiling and Romanesque architecture, the first impression was as impressive as any venue I have ever been to.
The ceiling is gigantic and is completely covered in faces carved in stone. Statues are everywhere throughout the venue, and the detail in every single aspect of the décor was incredible. It was really awe-inspiring. It was like walking into a medieval cathedral in a sense, where you just get this ethereal vibe from the building. It really brought an extra aurora around a show that was already mind-blowingly good. But that was just the beginning. I was worried that, being mid-way back in the balcony section, that our seats would have a bad view. In fact, they were remarkable, and I now see why folks say there isn’t a bad seat in the place. There’s not. The domed roof was similar to a planetarium and made for unbelievable acoustics, with every note being sharp and clear.
The show we attended was the first night of the three-evening run, and the lineup consisted of Arlo McKinley, Blank Range, and Tyler Childers. One of the most admirable things about what Tyler is doing is that you can honestly tell that he cares about his friends in other bands and wants to give them a platform to showcase their talents. Other acts on this three-night run included his friends and mentors, John R. Miller and William Matheny from West Virginia, as well as country icon and east Kentucky boy, Larry Cordle, and the Blackfoot Gypsies. His loyalty to his friends and his home has been on display often as of late, as he also just completed an amazing act of charity by donating 500 cases of water to the folks affected by the Martin County water crisis, and influenced the donation of many times more than that from his fans and supporters.
During the show, Tyler also brought out his friends Charles Hatcher, Keebie Gilkerson, and Ian Thorton from WhizzBangBam! Booking and Management Company and presented a check to a West Virginia non-profit in conjunction with Hope In The Hills, which is a concert that raised money to help fight the opioid addiction here in Appalachia. Simply put, Tyler gets it. There’s nothing more Appalachian than taking care of your friends and your home.
Getting back to our show…Arlo McKinley was up first. I’ve been a fan or Arlo’s for as long as I have Tyler, and in my opinion, he is one of the most under-rated country artists out there right now. In fact, if I had to pick a “who’s next?” in country music success, Arlo is at the top of my list. Accompanied by his keyboardist Dave Faul, Arlo set the tone for the night. His voice is unmistakable, and the acoustics in the venue took an already haunting voice to another level. Although his set list was a little too short, he completely wowed the crowd. From the seats around us, we heard folks who had never heard Arlo before be converted into fans in an instant. Blank Range was next, an eclectic mix of roots rock and rockabilly akin to The Bottle Rocks. This was my first time hearing them, and I left very impressed. They had a longer set, and kept the audience engaged the entire time.
By the time Tyler came on, the crowd was excited to see both the brightest new star in authentic country music and their home-state boy. And he did not disappoint. The band got right into rollicking “Bus Route” and rolled through almost two hours of incredible music, including tracks from Purgatory and over a dozen newer tracks that have not seen the light of a studio yet (but hopefully will soon).
The entire set list for the December 29th, 2018 Louisville Palace Theatre show can be found here (https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/tyler-childers/2018/louisville-palace-theatre-louisville-ky-b943916.html).
I was happy to hear some of my favorites including “Peace of Mind” (which is about Tyler’s friends from my neck of the woods in Pineville), “Matthew,” “Going Home”, and “Follow You to Virgie.” During “Follow You to Virgie,” Tyler was accompanied by a young fan (Gunnar) from the crowd on the fiddle along with Professor Jesse Wells. It was another prime example of a person who deserves every ounce of success he has attained, and is sure to continue to set the country music world on fire for the foreseeable future.
Tyler’s success is also cementing Kentucky as the new country music mecca. We have now watched three of our own native sons breathe new life into a genre of music that had become homogenized pop with a token fiddle, and corny, cookie-cutter lines about back roads and tailgates. We watched as Chris Stapleton, then Sturgill Simpson, started exploding in popularity, largely without the help of mainstream country radio. And now Tyler has completed the Kentucky country music trifecta and caught the ear of an entire nation who is begging for country music with some soul. Well friends, we got it here in hills of Kentucky. With their success, it’s becoming easier to shine a light on the hundreds of talented artists that call the Bluegrass state home. And slowly but surely, its going to make the suits in Nashville take notice, too. Whether they want to or not.
I can tip my cap to that.
Guest contributor, Jon Grace, currently serves as Tourism Director with the Bell County Tourism in Kentucky. Jon helps organize the Middlesboro Levitt AMP concert series, providing musical entertainment across multiple genres. In his free time, he enjoys attending concerts with his wife, as well as entertain others with his Audio Outlaws broadcast every Monday from 8-10pm on WRIL. The broadcast features outlaw and classic country, Americana, bluegrass, southern rock and and blues. Jon has contributed several stories to Kentucky Country Music to help highlight the best festivals, concerts, albums, and adventures from here in Kentucky.