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Tyler Childers

Purgatory – 2017 (Hickman Holler Records/Thirty Tigers)

Reviewed by Greg Yost

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CDs by Tyler Childers

Over the course of the 10 songs on "Purgatory," Lawrence County, Ky.'s Tyler Childers establishes himself as one of the brightest new songwriting stars - an insightful author blessed with an ability to capture and convey gritty snapshots of rural American life. The scenes depicted in these songs are so vivid and evocative that listeners are left to ponder if these are autobiographical stories or works of fiction.

There is no better example here than "Banded Clovis," a murder ballad that is traditional in form, but decidedly contemporary in content. The narrator of this tale is a junkie who kills a friend over a Clovis point arrowhead found while mining through the dirt on a hillside. In the moment, the junkie saw the short-term benefits of selling the artifact for money to get pills, but now in a prison cell, he has time to reflect with a clearer head. Whether describing the scene of the crime, the narrator's motivations or the jail cell contemplation, Childers attention to detail and descriptive powers make the song feel like a personal account.

Childers also impresses with the small details as he describes a tender moment shared between young lovers on "Feathered Indian" with lines like, "Well my buckle makes impressions on the inside of her thigh/There are little feathered Indians where we tussled through the night." That same song closes with some fantastic imagery conveying the longing of new love, "I'd go running through the thicket, I'd go careless through the thorns/Just to hold her for a minute, though it'd leave me wanting more."

Songwriting only accounts for part of the success. "Purgatory" was produced by the stellar team of Grammy Award-winning artist and fellow Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson and sound engineer superstar David Ferguson. The duo, along with some talented musicians like multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan, creates sonic landscapes that build upon the narratives.

Whether adding a twangy and trembling low rumble to emphasize the destructive lifestyle of the booze-swilling, drug-taking and womanizing narrator of "Whitehouse Road" or laying down a traditional bluegrass foundation, including stellar fiddle work from Duncan, to accompany the twang of the steel guitar on the title track - the album's most traditional-sounding tune - the musical decisions are all made in service of the overall narrative.

Simpson and Ferguson also shine on "Universal Sound," the most progressive arrangement. Electric guitar effects mimic other instruments and give this track a decidedly modern feel. The producers manage to pull this off without making the song feel out of touch with the other tracks.