by Aaron Bartmess
I’ll be honest and say that Tyler Childers’ latest album, Rustin’ In The Rain, is my first exposure to his work, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. So, as I offer this review, do understand that you’re getting the perspective of someone who had few expectations going into it.
As I said, I enjoyed the album. I have found myself unselfconsciously singing more than one of the songs from this album in my head as I go about the day- for me, that’s a good thing, because I think a well-crafted song will generally stick with you. Musically, this album demonstrates a love for old-time country music. I’ve heard Childers’ music described as Americana, and also as Neo-Traditional country. I’ve also heard Childers responding to such an assessment by saying he prefers to just be regarded as country.1 He considers himself a country singer. I think we can grant him that, as long as we understand that the type of country music he brings us is a mélange of old-school country music that pays heavy respect to the sounds of the past, with flavors as varied as bluegrass, gospel-roots, hints of 50’s doo-wop, and even zydeco. And he pulls this off while still somehow anchoring himself in the present. So Rustin’ is a very post-modern dish, refreshing in its deliberate nods to the past. And those reviewers that describe his work as “Americana” and “neo-traditional” can be forgiven for thinking so. Whatever one prefers to call it, Childers’ music is worth a listen- in my opinion, today’s country music needs more of his perspective.
The title track “Rustin’ In The Rain” is one of the more modern country sounding songs on the album. It’s a good country-rock stomp. “Phone Calls and Emails” is reminiscent of when country music took a lot of cues from gospel music; the piano and the emotional slide guitar are a nod to that era. Even the topic – uncertainty over a friendship (romance?) is pretty common ground – and then it hits you he’s singing about “phone calls and emails,” and the irony of a 50’s era country song about being ghosted is a funny feeling. “Luke 2:8-10” has a country waltz vibe complete with heavy reverb guitar, plenty of slide, and even accordion. The lyrics, penned from the perspective of one of the shepherds of Luke’s nativity narrative, are humorous, because they don’t really deal with the message of the angels. The song basically answers the question “what would it be like to be a shepherd getting a visit from an angel?” And the answer is: it would freak you out: “My G*d, it’s the end of the world!” “Help Me Make It Through The Night” is a pretty respectful cover of Kris Kristofferson’s tune from his 1970 album “Kristofferson”. Honestly, Childers’ version interprets it as a soulful ballad, in contrast to the original, which has a far more jaunty rhythm. The fact that he covers the song is a big nod to Kristofferson and to the place that the song has held in the annals of country music. “Percheron Mules” is a really fun tune about … well, Percheron mules. The accordian, here, gives it a real zydeco flair. “In Your Love” is one which, musically, sounds a bit out of place on this album- only because it doesn’t sound as sonically rooted in the past. Lyrically, it fits just fine, being one of the 5 out of 7 songs on this album which are related to relationships and love. It’s a song which expresses determination to make a relationship last. The music video that accompanies the song tells the story of two 50’s era homosexual coal-miners. “Space and Time”, a cover of S.G. Goodman’s classic, closes the album. As a nice touch, he includes Goodman on the track. His rendition here is close enough here to the original to do a real homage to the song, but there are some interesting differences. One is that this version leans more heavily into piano for rhythm, and also exaggerates the stops enough that it pays homage to 50’s doo-wop.
You can hear that Childers has a background in the church. It shows up in the gospel influence, and more importantly in the scriptural allusions he tosses around. The title track gives us: “Let your love light shine, don’t you hide it ‘neath no bushel, baby”. Here, though the context makes it clear that he’s talking about romance- not about the gospel. The most obvious reference here is “Luke 2:8-10”. Is it telling that he doesn’t focus on the message of the angels? We don’t know. The message isn’t the point of the song; It’s much more about the initial reaction of the shepherds in order to give us a picture of their fear in a light hearted way. So, Childers isn’t afraid to give us a little glimpse of his churched background, but he’s also not attempting to evangelize.
In all, the album is a fun listen; you’ll likely find yourself revisiting the music. I think he demonstrates ably that the sounds of the past are worth keeping fresh, and that they aren’t incompatible with “modern.”
1Gage, Jeff (September 13, 2018). “Tyler Childers, Rosanne Cash Sound Off at 2018 Americana Honors & Awards”. Rolling Stone.