The music industry is a very strange place most of the time. Long gone are the days of record labels signing a young band or artist to a developmental deal. Most labels want to get their hands on an already established and somewhat successful artist that way it is a quick way to recoup the funds it takes to break an emerging artist.
It’s definitely a sound business decision for them, but the industry has changed tremendously over the past few years and the days of taking chances on signing folks to a developmental deal are long gone. Few folks are actually good enough to cut through all the clutter of the bands and artists that have been empowered by technology in this day and age. With that clutter, being an independent artist becomes even more difficult. That’s one aspect of what makes Tyler Childers such an amazing anomaly. He is a once in a generation talent as far as we’re concerned around here, but it’s his journey that is so remarkable.
The music industry itself has become a shell of what it once was. Sure a lot of that has to do with iTunes making this a singles world, and streaming services have devalued music so much that people expect it for free. It’s almost like the streaming services have cheapened music to the point that music is almost just a business card. That severely limits an artist in terms of monetary growth. Essentially you’re left being in the t-shirt business on an endless tour to survive.
Make no mistake though, Tyler Childers is far from an overnight success story. He has been performing and honing his sound around the region for about eight years or so. This young man has put in the effort and paid his dues to get where he is. That should be obvious by the fact that one of Kentucky’s newest Colonels in Sturgill Simpson helped shape and produce Tyler’s “debut” album, ‘Purgatory.’
In the last nine months, Tyler’s journey has reached a level of notoriety that few independent artists can only dream of. By forming his own label with the help of the always amazing company Thirty Tigers, he has blazed his own path to a weekend that none of us will ever forget.
On Friday, May 18th, Tyler Childers made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry. An independent artist that released their debut album just nine months ago, made his Grand Ole Opry debut. Let that sink in for a second, because it’s an absolutely incredible achievement.
Wearing a tie-dyed Grateful Dead t-shirt, Carhart pants, dirty work boots and his Grandmother’s flannel shirt, Tyler took to the Opry stage. Why is what he wore important? Please allow me to explain, the music industry is all about image, Tyler is all about the music. By staying true to himself and making the focus be solely about the music, he made the biggest non-verbal statement that this young man could ever make on the most famous stage in the world of country music.
Tyler was introduced by Marty Roe of Diamond Rio. Marty grew up in Ohio, but his family is largely from Eastern Kentucky and he made the comment that Tyler and himself are likely kinfolks. Being from Eastern Kentucky myself, I can vouch that they’re likely right.
Standing center stage, all alone, scared to death, Tyler made a joke about not wanting to talk about how nervous he was. Once he heard a laugh, his entire demeanor changed. He realized that everything is going to be fine. Sure it’s the Grand Ole Opry stage, but at the end of it all, it’s just another stage. Super focused and sounding pristine, Tyler performed two songs acoustically. The first track was “Honky Tonk Flame.” As a young man who not only embraces his roots, but flaunts them as a badge of honor, this song should’ve been an obvious choice as it mentions being from Eastern Kentucky in the first verse, but many in the crowd and online were speculating what songs he would actually play.
Once finished, the crowd exploded with applause. Tyler seemed genuinely shocked at the huge response and from then on out, he was cooler than the other side of the pillow. Knowing who Tyler is on a personal level as a Kentuckian, it was of zero surprise to me that his second song was, well I’ll just share what he said, “This is a song that I wrote for my lady. It’s called Lady May.” A beautiful love song to his lovely wife, Senora May. It’s a peek into the character and heart of this amazing young man. His performance had the audience buzzing. As those around me heard me singing at the top of my lungs, they turned around or tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “What was his name again? He was great!” I do apologize for those who heard me singing, but now you get it. You see why myself and at least half of the crowd were harmonizing.
And just like that, his debut was over. Probably eight minutes to ten minutes that will likely change this young man’s life forever. Which in my humble opinion, couldn’t have happened to a nicer or more deserving individual. His debut also had two other Kentuckians on the stage. Both were influences on Tyler. Mr. John Conlee and Mr. Ricky Skaggs were hosts of their Opry segments and a fantastic addition to an already incredible night at the Opry.
Now you may be thinking, wow, what an incredible experience. Where does he go from here? I’ll tell ya what happened in the short-term, he followed that up with two sold-out shows at the birthplace of the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium. Tyler was direct support for the one and only Margo Price. As for the future, the sky is the limit and I can not wait to see where his career takes him. He is playing many of the biggest music festivals this summer, so I don’t see this train slowing down any time soon.
Next, I want to discuss the Saturday night show for a bit. On a personal level, there are three iconic venues that I have always wanted to photograph a concert at. Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado now holds the top spot on my list and now in second place is Madison Square Garden. My previous number one, you guessed it, The Ryman. The Mother Church of Country Music. Not only was I honored to be able to photograph at the Ryman, I was able to capture an incredible milestone while enjoying it with my personal favorite Kentucky artist. Tyler is the voice of my people. He is the less nasally equivalent of an Appalachian Bob Dylan. His stories are filled with the same personalities that I have been surrounded by my entire life. His words are poetic, his melodies are contagious and his voice immediately transports me back home as a much younger man when life was simpler and the world was a much kinder place, and for that I will forever be grateful.
I spoke a bit about the character of Tyler earlier, now I get the opportunity to share an example of it. This was Tyler’s Ryman debut, but he didn’t take the stage immediately. His band, The Food Stamps, did and they were the backing band for the “Laid Back Country Picker”. No one on earth would have faulted him for soaking in this moment as reward for all his hard work, instead, he honored his long time mentor. Laid Back (Who’s real name is David Prince) is a huge musical influence on Tyler. When Tyler recorded his very first album back in 2011, ‘Bottles And Bibles’, Laid Back played guitars all over that record and helped Tyler discover his voice as an artist. Tyler brought Laid Back to Nashville and gave him the stage. He also wears a t-shirt with Laid Back’s face on it quite often. The love and respect that this gesture showcases is a prime example of the kind of human being Tyler Childers is.
Laid Back Country Picker performed his newest single, “Party Line”. A track about the things he learned years ago when we all had home phones before the technology allowed for single phone lines. More often than not, a party line was used by at least two, sometimes more, families. If they were on it, you could pick it up and listen and you were forced to wait your turn. David Prince, Laid Back Country Picker, Chico or you’re that dude from Luna & The Mountain Jets, whatever you want to call him, we all owe Mr. Prince a boatload of thanks for all he has done for Tyler, as well as for what he has done for the communities that he is a part of. Be sure and check out Laid Back’s video below for “Magoffin County Cadillac”. His own personal “Magoffin County Cadillac” was parked outside the Ryman, so I had hoped we’d see an appearance and thankfully Tyler made it happen.
As Tyler took the stage, he gave Laid Back and heartfelt hug. He took to the mic to do what he does best and in doing so, used his dry humor to crack another joke to calm himself down. “I wrote a song about my bus route. It’s called “Bus Route”.” Just like before, the nervousness was gone and Tyler gave the most relaxed performance I’ve witnessed to date. You could simply see from the shared smiles and love in the room that Tyler and The Food Stamps were having a blast. Which if you’ve ever been to concert, when a band or artist does this, it’s contagious. The Ryman crowd were on their feet for nearly the entire performance.
Now, I assure you that I could write an entire book about the performance on Saturday night, but I’m gonna spare you a little time. I’ll just touch upon a few of the highlights for you. I’m going to break this down into three parts. The first section is also another look at why Tyler is special. If you’re an artist who just released your “debut” album nine months ago, you’re gonna stick to what people know. Not Tyler. He played three unreleased songs before playing anything from ‘Purgatory’. I mentioned “Bus Route” and he followed that up with his newest love song, “All Your’n” and then his tale of tough times in the holler, “Peace Of Mind”. None are recorded. None have been released. Yet 90% of the crowd were singing every single word. If that’s not a shining example of the power that this young man’s music holds, I really don’t know what is.
The next section I want to touch upon, is when a very special guest took the stage. Tyler introduced Mr. Sturgill Simpson. Sturgill is today’s equivalent of a Waylon Jennings or a Merle Haggard. Mainstream Country hates him but anyone that listens actually loves him. Much like Waylon and Merle before him, Sturgill is Outlaw Country royalty and as I mentioned, he had a large hand in ‘Purgatory’, as well as establishing Tyler as someone people should take notice of by simply attaching his name to Tyler’s project. Many in the media have labeled Tyler a Sturgill protegé. I strongly disagree with that statement, but if it allows Tyler to be put in front of folks, I’ll live with it.
As only Sturgill could, he walked onstage, plugged in his Telecaster, never said a word and blew the roof off the Ryman. He played rhythm guitar and ripped through two solos as they performed “Whitehouse Road” and “Honky Tonk Flame.” When the songs were finished, Sturgill unplugged and walked away like nothing ever happened. It was a perfect nod of respect to Tyler. He didn’t come out there and overshadow Tyler. He came out there, lent his support, respect and notoriety to once again get the media buzzing about Tyler. Yet another Kentuckian that is a class act.
The last section I want to talk about, is the “Unplugged” section, if you will. Tyler once again stood center stage. Just him and his guitar. Scanning the crowd, occasionally getting a bit wide-eyed as he presumably recognized old friends and many family members. Tyler performed four songs to close out his set. “Universal Sound”, “Lady May”, Nose On The Grindstone”, a cover of Willie Nelson’s classic, “Time Of The Preacher” and closed it out with “Banded Clovis”.
Of those four, I want to discuss “Nose On The Grindstone”. Yet another song that hasn’t been released. It’s only documented on an OurVinyl YouTube video, which I’ll post below. This song, in my opinion, was the loudest crowd sing-a-long of the night. “Whitehouse Road” was likely louder, BUT the band was playing, so it wasn’t as obvious. With just Tyler and his guitar playing on “Nose To The Grindstone”, the crowd nearly drowned out Tyler. It was absolutely stunning and that was the moment that I will remember forever. It was beautiful, it was powerful and it was perfect.
After finishing the night with “Banded Clovis”, Tyler walked off stage to a thunderous round of applause, followed by chants of “TYLER! TYLER! TYLER!”. The balcony folks were stomping their feet above my head and I wasn’t sure if the Ryman was ready for all us rabid fans. Many had hoped for an encore, but after a minute or so of the chants, the lights came up and every single person at the Ryman turned to those beside them and let out a seemingly synchronized “Holy $h!t! That was incredible!”. I certainly can’t argue with that. Holy $h!t indeed!
As I walked past an usher, he stopped me and asked a few questions about Tyler. He had two quotes that I want to share with you, because I couldn’t agree more. He said, “I have worked here for several years and I have never seen a crowd that rowdy for an OPENER.” He also added, “Make no mistake about it, this will be the ONLY time that Tyler Childers will be an opener at the Ryman.” I shook his hand, wiped away some weird liquid that had ran out of my eye and walked away as proud as I ever have.