Tyler Childers
Photo: Sam Waxman / Sacks & Co.

Tyler Childers’ New LP Evokes the Golden Age of the Nashville Sound

With Rustin’ in the Rain, Tyler Childers and the Food Stamps have dropped one of the year’s more vital pure country albums. The rich production is impressive.

Rustin' in the Rain
Tyler Childers
Hickman Holler / RCA
8 September 2023

Amid an utterly sold-out tour, including headlining spots at various festivals, some artists might succumb to risk aversion. “If it ain’t broke,” the adage goes. “Don’t fix it.” But Tyler Childers seems uninterested in conventional wisdom and safe strategies. 

At the end of July, Childers released the single “In Your Love”, a love song emoting steadfast devotion to a partner. Childers’ unique voice conveys sincerity and vulnerability, while his band, the Food Stamps, surround the words with pleading piano and guitar strings working together to craft a vista of fidelity. The track’s streaming release accompanied an arresting music video written and creatively directed by author and current Poet Laureate of Kentucky, Silas House, based on a story idea birthed by House and his partner, author Jason Kyle Howard. The intricately developing video story shares the tale of timeless love between two men mining the coal of rural Appalachia in the 1950s. That the song and video got briefly cycled into the performative outrage machine of American culture wars speaks more to the paucity of attentiveness within segments of said culture than it did about the beauty of the art Childers and his collaborators produced.

The single was the first taste of a promised album, Rustin’ in the Rain, that continues his mixture of deeply authentic Appalachian roots music, penchant for surprises and experimentation, and extensive appreciation for the breadth of country music over time. He’s historically shunned the safe route of repetition while tethering tradition to innovation. He followed up early whiskey-sotted tales and Appalachian odes with a surprise, primarily instrumental album (Long Violent History) allying with the Black Lives Matter Movement and dedicated to justice for fellow Kentuckian Breonna Taylor.

In 2022, Childers released a hefty three-CD set called Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? that wove the electric allure of Pentecostalism with psychedelic visions presenting eight gospel tunes in three different theologically themed iterations employing sampling, hip hop, and spoken word along the way. Childers spun an image of an inclusive faith, blurring boundaries that generally divide. 

Rustin’ in the Rain, with one exception, leaves the church pews behind for a lean but potent seven-song tracklist pitched to the ghost of Elvis Presley that calls to mind the musical prowess and thematics of the “Nashville A-Team” of session musicians who influenced the sound of country music in the 1960s and 1970s. Within the tracks are five of Childers’ original compositions, two covers (one of a contemporary, fellow Kentuckian S.G. Goodman, and one of outlaw country legend Kris Kristofferson), and frequent references to mules. It is a dizzying mix. 

In advance press, Childers shared details on the Rustin’ in the Rain’s connection to Presley, confessing that he “…playfully pieced together (the album) as if I was pitching a group of songs to Elvis”. It is a suggestive thought experiment that seems more directed to the Elvis of RCA’s famed Studio B era rather than the raw electrical conductivity of Presley’s brief stay at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio in Memphis. Elvis is arguably one of American music’s most adept song interpreters, pouring electricity, longing, and a lingering sadness into much of his catalog.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Tyler Childers steps into Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” without the kind of trepidation one might have approaching one of country music’s most iconic and repeatedly covered tunes. However, when he infuses Kristofferson’s line, “I don’t care who’s right or wrong,” with his trademark plaintive intensity, it is clear to the listener that Childers is more than up to the challenge. 

Within Rustin’ in the Rain’s lean tracklist, Childers continues to demonstrate that he and his bandmates are attentive students to the depth and breadth of the country music canon. Much like they did in Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven?, it is Tyler’s band, the Food Stamps, whose musicianship shines in the new album’s retro-facing admiration for the craft and production of the Nashville Sound perfected under luminaries such as Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley and fueled by a cadre of crack session musicians referred to as Nashville’s A-Team, a group whose footprint is present in some of country music’s classic output of the 1960s and 1970s from George Jones and Charley Pride to Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. They even bleed into classic rock, where the loose electricity of Bob Dylan‘s Blonde on Blonde is unthinkable without their influence.

When Rustin’ in the Rain bursts out of the gate in the title track, the listener can hear Chet Atkins’s electric guitar sound’s influence on a generation in Nashville and beyond. The tight production never overpowers the honky-tonk energy that threatens to burst free of the studio walls at any moment. “Phone Calls & Emails”—the answer to the question, “What would a countrypolitan song about being ghosted sound like?”—recalls the easy-listening piano playing of Floyd Cramer before Childers’s vocals bridge the divide that kept Gram Parsons on the periphery of the Nashville industry, hearkening back to how the Flying Burrito Brothers Gilded Palace of Sin was more love letter than a send-up of country music. When he reaches the instrumental bridge in the song, you almost expect Childers to move into a spoken-word monologue in the spirit of Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” breaking of the musical fourth wall.

Childers returns to the country church sanctuary in “Luke 2:8-10”, with a Christmas pageant voiceover of the gospel reading from the singer with the angel’s responses voiced by guest contributor Margo Price. Price, S.G. Goodman, and Erin Rae join Childers on the tune as the angelic chorus, countering Tyler’s first-person rendering of the apocalyptic scene that jolted the shepherds. He displays that his interpretive sensitivity extends to the religious text, rendering the pastoral scene a startling shift in consciousness, thus breaking the spell of the layers of genteel overlay of numerous pageants. “My God, it’s the end of the world!” 

Members of the Travelin’ McCourys (Ronnie McCoury, Jason Carter, and Alan Bartram) join the Food Stamps on “Percheron Mules”, an ode to the noble beasts of tenant farming that buzzes with zydeco-flecked bluegrass and echoes of the Jordannaires’s distinct choral backup on classic Elvis records. Rustin’ in the Rain ends with Childers’s pre-release single, “In Your Love”, and an arresting cover of S.G. Goodman’s “Space and Time”, cementing his gift for conveying deep and authentic yearning.

The seemingly spare tracklist may strike some. Still, the depth and breadth of the musical sound and styles packed within its rich production and excellent instrumentation demonstrate that Tyler Childers and the Food Stamps are as adept at finessing the studio as they are at home in bourbon-soaked honky-tonks of Eastern Kentucky. With Rustin’ in the Rain, they have dropped one of the year’s more vital pure country albums.  

RATING 8 / 10