Tyler Childers – Appalachia’s Leading Light –Builds A Scene Far From Home
Mia Naome – Tyler Childers
With a riveting mix of country, folk and bluegrass, Tyler Childers, pictured here at Charleston Music Hall in Charleston, S.C. on April 23, has built a following far beyond his Appalachian home.
Tyler Childers was born and raised in the Eastern Kentucky locales of Lawrence County and Paintsville, situated along the stretch of Route 23 known as the Country Music Highway. Revered figures including Loretta Lynn, Dwight Yoakam and Ricky Skaggs grew up less than an hour away.
“There’s something in the water in Kentucky, I don’t know what it is,” says Ian Thornton, owner of Whizzbang Booking and Management and Childers’ longtime manager. “They have the ability to produce some really great music.”
Childers, with his riveting mix of country, folk and bluegrass, seems poised for similar longevity and success. In 2018, the Americana Honors & Awards named him Emerging Artist of the Year, an honor previously bestowed upon Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson, who produced Childers’ 2017 breakout Purgatory and August’s follow-up, Country Squire, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country chart. Childers made his Grand Ole Opry debut last year and, come February, he’ll headline Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for four nights. Sold-out gigs across the country, including Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where he kicked off his fall tour Sept. 30, indicate broad appeal.
“That’s one of the beautiful things about Tyler’s music,” Thornton says. “It’s really genreless, in the sense that metalheads will be at his show, rockheads, Deadhead kids, the NPR folks and the good old boys. His music’s appealing to just about anybody, and I think that stands testament to the songs themselves and his ability to be a storyteller.”
Childers’ live story began across the state line in Huntington, W.V., about 30 minutes from where he grew up. “Ian’s kind of the ‘who’s who’ of the Huntington music scene,” Childers tells Pollstar. “There’s only a few places to play, and only a few angles to play and get a decent gig. When I started, one of them was making an impression on Ian.”
The 19-year-old Childers did just that, and Thornton started booking him at the pub where he worked. “One day, after going back to his house after partying, he berated me about my logistics,” says Childers. The two decided to work together while “drunk at 4 a.m., dreaming and scheming together in [Thornton’s] living room.”
Thornton had never managed an artist, but he understood the basics: start local and carefully build a regional fan base. Together, Childers and Thornton cultivated followings in Huntington and nearby hubs such as Atlanta, Cincinnati and Columbia, Mo. “Soon, we had a circuit of sorts,” Childers says.
Agencies noticed. Paradigm’s Keith Levy, who now represents Childers alongside the agency’s Nashville head Jonathan Levine and agent Jeremy Shpizner, contacted Thornton after getting obsessed with a Childers performance video on YouTube. Childers and Thornton had prioritized quarterly trips to Nashville, and Levy helped them secure a small AmericanaFest booking at the 400-capacity Basement East in September 2016.
The scantly attended set – “15 or 20 people,” Levy recollects – belied what followed in January 2017, when Childers had an opening slot for Kelsey Waldon at the smaller, 100-cap Basement. An exhilarated Shpizner called Levy, away at his bachelor party, to report a line out the door filled with Childers fans, including some visiting from Kentucky and West Virginia. And then Childers’ set started.
“It’s just him and six strings, and people are standing up on the soundboard shouting the lyrics to these songs,” Shpizner says. “It was electric. It was undeniably, like, something is really happening here.”
Erika Goldring / WireImage – Country Squire
Tyler Childers performs at Railbird Festival in Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 10.
Within weeks, Paradigm had signed Childers. “Aside from being one of the most genuine people in the business, he’s also the baddest man doing it,” Childers says of Levine. “We took our grassroots ideology, and he threw some gas on it.”
With Paradigm, Childers expanded his footprint. “There were markets in Colorado and California and Oregon that he had just never stepped foot in,” Shpizner says. No matter: Childers sold most of them out anyway.
Levine explains that “there’s a very, very real scene that’s developing in and around [Childers] and his music and his touring base.” At a Childers show at tiny Schubas Tavern in Chicago, for instance, the agent met fans who’d trekked from the Carolinas, Tennessee and Kentucky.
For Levine, the “substantial and incredibly powerful connection between the artist, the music and the fan base” bears similarities to “the Grateful Dead coming out of the Bay Area or Willie Nelson coming out of Texas or Phish coming out of Vermont.” He’d know: The acts Levine has represented dating back to his time at Monterey Peninsula Artists include Grateful Dead offshoots The Dead and Furthur.
“It’s young people, it’s old people, it’s the entire gamut of music listeners, because it’s just so damn good,” Levy says. “If you look throughout the recent history of artists that are able to find a larger audience, there has to be some level of being able to cross genre lines and boundaries.”
Despite occasionally opening for other artists, the exceptional demand for Childers, even in new markets, reinforced the initial decision to pursue a headlining-first live strategy. But exceptions can be – and have been – made. When Levy started working with Childers, the artist gave him a list including John Prine, Robert Earl Keen and Willie Nelson, and said that if any of them came calling, he’d drop everything. Not only has Childers now gigged with Prine, Keen and Nelson, but, Levy adds, “They’re in love with him. They’re real serious fans of Tyler and his music.”
Childers’ most fruitful collaborative relationship has been with Simpson, also represented by Paradigm. Simpson’s drummer pointed the artist to a Childers show, and an impressed Simpson helped to keep Childers on Paradigm’s radar before the agency signed him.
Childers had released an album and a couple EPs, but Simpson saw untapped potential, and hearing an early version of Purgatory confirmed his hunch. When Simpson told Childers the album didn’t capture his live sound, Childers replied, “Well, what are you doing?” Simpson enlisted David Ferguson, who engineered his own Grammy-winning A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, and records by Johnny Cash, Del McCoury, Prine and more, for the sessions; the three men reconnected for Country Squire.
Still, Childers’ shows remain his bread and butter, and they keep growing. Tickets for his Red Rocks gig were gone 30 minutes into the public onsale, and he’s already sold out most of his upcoming tour, including Washington, D.C.’s 6,000-capacity Anthem and two nights apiece at Minneapolis’ 1,500-capacity First Avenue and New York’s 1,800-capacity Brooklyn Steel. After linking up with Paradigm, Childers says, “Five loaves and two fish turned into maxed-out concert halls, one slice at a time.”
Soon, maxed-out concert halls may seem like small fry: Levy says Team Childers is eyeing arenas and boutique amphitheaters for 2020. Meanwhile, on the Sept. 30 episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience,” Simpson shared, “We’re going to do a full U.S. tour starting mid- to late February, with myself and a young man named Tyler Childers opening.”
But before a likely monstrous 2020, Childers will venture about an hour down the Country Music Highway for three gigs at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville, Ky., on Dec. 27, 28 and 31. (Childers’ highest-grossing report to date comprises three sold-out shows, Dec. 29-31, 2018, at the Louisville Palace Theatre in Louisville, Ky., where he moved 7,519 tickets and grossed $272,684, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports.)
It’s just another way that, even as his star has risen, Childers has continued to place Appalachia first. Another is his “Healing Appalachia” benefit, which Thornton describes as “a Farm Aid-like concert, where instead of the benefit being American farmers, it’s something toward the opioid epidemic and recovery.” The second annual edition took place at the State Fair of West Virginia Sept. 28.
“Tyler’s in that rare air, we believe, where there’s a true scene and a cult – but it’s bigger than a cult – around him,” Levy says. “Dave Matthews breaking out of Charlottesville or Springsteen out of New Jersey, he is that thing for Appalachia.”