Country music, often filled with praise of American pride, beer and trucks, has long been a polarizing taste. The genre, frequently associated with traditional right-wing views, has had a long history of racist and sexist controversies, both in the past and more recently. Newer artists, however, are making waves and modernizing perceptions of country music — including artistic pioneer Tyler Childers.
Hailing from Kentucky and the son of a coal miner, Childers was raised in the perfect circumstances to become a stereotypical country-bluegrass-folk artist. In 2011, he made his debut with his first album “Bottles And Bibles.” The singer-songwriter truly began to take off in 2017 with the release of his record “Purgatory.” Childers’ song “All Your’n” went viral on TikTok last year, marking his reach on mainstream listeners.
Childers has a distinct twang and writes for the working man to “[capture] a relentless work ethic, a happy marriage, and a sly sense of humor,” something not foreign to most country artists. His music is often characterized by an overbearing fiddle and a clear, classic, southern story. Childers pairs his narratives with his gravelly vocals and ebb and flow of strumming that pull the listener right into southern summer heat and tall grass. To the untrained ear, Childers’ topics and messages are nothing different from the country artists that are more well known.
Although his music deserves to stand for itself, Childers’ progressive actions and other creative decisions have isolated him from some in the country music sphere. Childers released a music video this July to accompany his recent song “In Your Love.” The video portrays two male coal miners who fall deeply in love and escape to the countryside to love each other in peace, away from the homophobia of their home. This was the first ever gay love story openly featured in a country music video. Unsurprisingly, the move was not unanimously well received.
People took to Youtube, Instagram, Reddit and Twitter to share their differing views. A large number of commenters, a mix of fans and first-time listeners, were moved and could not “stop listening or crying.” However, these songs of praise were overshadowed by comments from the genre's typical demographic of listeners. Instagram comments on Childers’ old posts were flooded with disappointed listeners saying “my kids love you but I can’t even show them your new video” and asking “is Tyler gay now?” Despite the backlash, Childers held fast and explained his creative choice.
The singer and his artistic partner for the video, Silas House, shared their inspiration and reasoning in an interview with NPR this past July. In the discussion, Childers reveals that his “cousin growing up, who’s like [his] big brother, is gay… and just thinking about him not having a music video on CMT that spoke to him” inspired his direction for the video. House agreed that Childers is “so empathetic” and wants to share what he sees as “human stories, not political stories.”
This unapologetic expression of Childers’ political and social views was not out of the ordinary for the artist. The self proclaimed “hick-lib” has long been using his music to share perspectives that do not traditionally align with country artists.
During the summer of 2020’s rising Black Lives Matter movement, Childers wrote “Long Violent History,” an undeniable commentary on the situation with the opening lyrics, “It’s the worst that it’s been / since the last time it happened / It’s happening again right in front of our eyes.”
In 2022, Childers released the gospel album entitled “Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven?” — a lighthearted name for an album centered around religion. Although easily mistaken as an effort to please those he may have upset with his liberal takes, the album continues to express his own views. In the track “Angel Band,” Childers sings, “There's Hindus, Jews, and Muslims / And Baptists of all kinds / Catholic girls and Amish boys...singing side by side,” again preaching inclusivity and tolerance, here across religions.
In recent years, other artists outside of the conservative mold have also entered the country sphere. In 2018, Black hip-hop artist Lil Nas X received backlash when he tried to saddle up and enter the country music scene with “Old Town Road.” Although the lyrics feature horse and good ole cowboy boots, there was high debate on whether the single even qualified a a country song — a view likely fueled by Lil Nas X’s race and queer identity. The song slowly became more accepted when Lil Nas X was joined by an already loved, and recognizably southern, country artist, Billy Ray Cyrus.
Childers’ work to break the country stereotype thus builds upon work done by Lil Nas X and others before. And, similarly to Cyrus, Childers’ conventional country background gives him the power to coax traditional fans towards more progressive tunes.
Childers is leading a new crowd to try a genre they may have written off, while simultaneously pushing out those who are looking for confirmation of hateful views. The thriving country artist, he proudly uses his platform to tell the stories he cares about — unfazed by his potential loss of interest, and money, from his main fan base.