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    August 17: Eastern Kentucky-native Tyler Childers is on the Headliners stage in his go-to blue plaid shirt and some workin’ man’s pants. That characteristic red hair of his is pulled back, a-frizz and aglow, made redder by the stage lights. He sometimes scowls when he sings, his brow line sharp, dark eyes serious. “The Food Stamps” back him on slide, bass, drums and fiddle. He plays from his latest LP, Purgatory, produced by fellow Kentuckian and alt-country star, Sturgill Simpson. The album is a mix of love’s ghosts, backwoods excavations, drunkenness and other intoxications. It’s a shovel to the broken heart of Appalachia.

    Childers’s voice is like a bonfire, one of those big ones where the brush is piled tall as man. The kind you pour gasoline on to get it raging. It’s the roar and the soft crackle as he sings, “I go running through the thicket, careless through the thorns.” There’s a faint hiss: “Whiskey kills all things in time.” Sparks fly and mix with the stars. He cools his fire down with a Miller Lite.

    My neighbors swig Bud Lights and scream the lyrics like they mean ’em. Listening to the Kentuckians and Ohioans and Indianians around me — lots t-shirted and ball-capped — and listening to Childers sing his “Honkey Tonk Flame,” my roots are wrangled. I’m a girl again, plucking potatoes from the fields, or visiting some fam in Harlan County. My tongue goes muddy. It’s like a lazy dog by the screen door of this imagined country house Childers is inviting us into, a bottle of bourbon and broken arrowheads on its counter, antlers hung on the walls.

    Whew boy, what a party. Mixed in with the working hands. The good ole boys. The gals that ain’t ashamed to pop a squat in the fields. The folks that listen to that real country — Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Simpson — not that radio shit. “Tyler’s just real,” one man says to me as he orders a shot of whiskey. He’s a traveling electrician, and he feels the loneliness and lament in that one coal song that goes, “I heard some word there was work up in Hindman. I’m going tomorrow and hope that there is.”

    Some peeps in the crowd think this’ll be Childers’s last tour playing the bars. After landscaping and construction jobs, playing small venues in Lexington and Huntington, West Virginia, and headlining chicken festivals, Childers is soaring and bright, quickly on the rise (confirmed by outlets like Rolling Stone and NPR). Hell, tickets went so fast for last night’s show they added tonight’s, and he’s got a three night stint planned at the Palace come year’s end.

    For now, he’s covering Waylon Jennings. He’s stopping a song when a fight breaks out, saying, “Now imagine there’s someone’s uncle next to ya who’s just had back surgery… Just be considerate…” He’s solo singing, “I’ve seen my share of trouble and I’ve held my weight in shame.” The blue lights surround him like a blue flame, the hottest lick of the fire. Even after the show ends, his stories burn on like embers.


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