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NOT PREACHIN’ TO THE CHOIR, OR WHY TYLER CHILDERS’ PROTEST SONG IS SO DAMN POTENT

HOW IN THE HELL DOES A SELF-PROCLAIMED “WHITE BOY FROM HICKMAN”[Kentucky] create a better “Black Lives Matter” song in 2020 than anyone actually Black?!?

How in the hell does an artist summon more moral courage to address his audience base with real stakes and consequences, a genre where such forthright considerations and declarations is sure not to be appreciated nor forgotten in the days, months and years to come, while a gazillion Black rap and r & b artists only offer predictable slogans designed to challenge no one–including themselves?

And how in the hell does a bonafide Bluegrass or “newgrass” song outshine any polemical offering in those genres? In 2020. After the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others? Why does “Long Violent History” emerge as a more fitting soundtrack to this long year of discontent and national reckoning than anything the likes of Megan Thee Stallion and her sorry ilk have so far offered up?

Three weeks ago I had never heard of Tyler Childers–and I’m a Kentuckian who LOVES nearly all our twangy sons and daughters, whether from the Eastern or Western sides of the states, nearly all of Scot-Irish descent, who are both tethered to the past while catapulting forward from it.

the Everly Brothers, Ricky Skaggs, Loretta Lynn, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Joan Shelley. Whether of not each of these singular artists hailed from the actual mountains or not is irrelevant. Symbolically they all came down from the mountains, which is modernism in itself, whether or not their tunes sound centuries old. Even Bill Monroe was a Johnny Appleseed of Bluegrass. Not content to stay behind in Rosine, Kentucky, he could never be as archaic as some would have made him to be. He and those similar to him perform/performed in the modern world, not in some museum back home.

Everyone has their blind spots. Even the most ardent lovers of a genre will not be familiar with everyone who has contributed to that range of sounds, past or present. Artists slip through our personal cracks of absorption, so to speak. Which is my lament about Childers.

Yet having no expectations about him contributes to my appreciation. One does not need to be reminded of the old saying about familiarity and contempt. If the smug, insufferable John Legend–a Black Barry Manilow, which is actually an insult to ol’ Barry, far more talented by the way, and less insipid–had recorded a protest song about Breonna Taylor would it have astounded anyone?

And to pretend that the likes of Megan Thee Stallion and, heaven help us, Cardi B. are in anyways profound is only another apocalyptic reminder of a society in full-blown decadence.

Both NASCAR and the umbrella of country music are frequently attacked by non-partisians for their overwhelmingly whiteness, in terms of participation, executive oversight and fandom and geographical prominence. Both have bases disparaged by leftist voices because of the presumed racial animus towards Blacks from their Southern supporters. If the Grand Ole Opry is rightfully the Mecca or Madison Square Garden of country music only a few Black artists have ever appeared on its stage and only one handful have ever been asked to become an official member of the Opry–with Charley Pride being the only member living or dead that nearly anyone could name.

And only in this year has NASCAR officially banned the Confederate flag from appearing at its racetracks–conviently while COVID-19 restrictions from state-to-state barred attendance at their races. As NASCAR is even more closely aligned with Southern white “defiance” than even country/bluegrass music, no one who follows NASCAR on even a cursory level believes that once the attendance restrictions are lifted from track to track that diehard fans are going along with this decision. As they say down South, good luck with all that.

Conversely I have always found outright examples of white Southern anti-Black racism far more admirable than the other forms which plague this country. To paraphrase the great, great coda to The Autobiography of Malcom X-which should be required reading for all Americans, if there is a choice for Blacks between dealing with rednecks and white liberals pick the white racists every time, because at least they are HONEST about their true feelings towards Black people.

 

Whether or not a contemporary white person who files the Confederate flag had ancestors who owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy(odds are they didn’t), that person isn’t making any false claims about their identity. Reasons of course vary. Some whites are celebrating their ancestral heritage regardless of other groups’ objections, while others are unrepentant about both their ancestral support, their white racial pride and their overt hatred of Black people.

For the sake of argument compare this despised lot to the likes of Joe Biden, whose Northern political policies during the 1970s were as racially divisive as any Dixiecrat of the prior decade. Who knew that Delaware fell below the Mason-Dixon line? Yet the always potent topics of busing and housing discrimination exposed the hypocrisy of both Biden and his white constituencies. Biden of course has since apologized for his past actions and comments and redemption should be offered to anyone who truly seeks it, but for Biden more than 40 years later to proclaim himself as an “ally” of Black people is a certain type of hutzpah.

 

Regardless of East, West, North or South the most potent slur a white person will ever encounter is “nigger lover.” For a white person to express political solidarity with Black struggles for equality is an invitation for white backlash unlike anything else, proverbially pouring salt on a collective wound which seems as if it will never heal. A white person embracing issues of desegregation in housing, education, the end of racial gerrymandering etc. will soon hear it from his/her racial Brethren for aligning themselves with a group they despise.

The fundamental belief in white supremacy has never been the exclusive domain of the South, of course. The South just has the distinction of where it has flourished the most in the open, of honestly basking in their beliefs.

So of course the most bitter debates–and violent reactions–to busing in the 1970s happened almost exclusively in Northern cities like Boston and New York City. Similar episodes occurred in California, yet are rarely mentioned in the perpetual discussions of American racism.

If white supremacy is actually racial nationalism how surprising can it be that in the perspective of these people a white person who “sides” with other races especially Black people is a traitor of the nth degree? Their hatred is so pronounced that it is beyond rationality yet rational to them. Cleaving to this perspective for another white person, whom they consider one of their kin, to challenge their racial beliefs about Blacks in any way, often triggers hysterical results. For a fellow white person to be sympathetic to Blacks, whom they consider inferior, violates the very house of cards their kind has constructed for centuries.

This is a long-winded introduction as to why the video prologue “A Message from Tyler” to “Long Violent History” and the song itself crackle with an intensity unmatched musically this year or any other year. If Beyonce herself emerges from the beehive mumified by the idolatrous throng of her fans, this unhealthy coalition of demented homosexuals, feminists, star-worshipping Blacks and white liberal guilt simps who revere her as if she is an actual deity and commanded her factory of songwriters and producers to create a political anthem commemorating Breonna Taylor, The New York Times would insist she be nominated for The Nobel Peace Prize and that she win the next Pulitzer, just like he well-deserving scribe, Kendrick Lamar. What would be at stake for her to do so? That she might be temporarily injured from Disney showering more money at her?

Whether Tyler Childers fame and reputation rests more in the “alternative” than “contemporary” country camp is irrelevant. The moment he uttered this unforgettable line “Breonna Taylor, a Kentuckian like me”¬† and dismissed the white Southern adoration of the Confederate flag as rooted in “racism and treason” [my italics] my ears pinned back and my head spun and my jaw dropped. Intended or not Childers threw down the gauntlet in front of his own people and their “way of life,” words which can not be rescinded.

Breonna Taylor and Tyler Childers were/are Kentuckians just like I am. I attended the University of Louisville and, to quote a song sung by another Kentuckian Dwight Yoakam, I “loved that ol’ river town.” But furthermore I’m from central Kentucky. I haven’t been as East as Hickman but I’ve been damn close enough. My great uncle had a farm in a valley below the Appalachian Mountains, which were at least 50 miles away, yet seemed so close as a boy I thought I could scale them.

But even if I had never been that close to those hills I sure as hell would know that the difference between Hickman and Louisville is often no more approachable than the distance between Earth and Mars. And as every Kentuckian knows the white population of the state residing outside of Louisville  has a tendency to loathe the city with a venom which is only truly understandable if one knows that the city hosts the largest Black population in the state. By contrast Eastern Kentucky probably has the lowest concentration of Blacks in the Commonwealth, a pattern which has not changed for centuries. In other words Eastern and certainly pockets of the Eastern Appalachians are as white as white can be, and many prefer it that way.

If I know this Tyler Childers sure as hell knows this.

Until the very end Long Violent History exists as musical notes of a native son. Eight pristine bluegrass instruments showcasing Childers as a fiddle player. The old-timey image of the cover lends over to the feel of this presuming octet. Originally conceived as a surprise thematic release before Childers felt the urgent need to write a song addressing his feelings towards Taylor’s murder and the racial history of his region, the original project could have seemed wrapped up in sepia and heritage cultivation. Whether originals or covers, public domain or copywritten, one could deduce that the spirit of mountain music lives on even in 2020. Not even the modern age, including the devastating toll crystal meth has extracted upon semi-rural America has killed off this impulse to perform the folk music of one’s ancestors, which itself is noble enough.

For me the most glorious moment of this “heritage eight’ of sorts is the solo fiddle piece “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” Since the time of Bach one could argue that the most thrilling music for the instrument are solos regardless of genre. Isolated from accompaniment of any source(duo, trio, quartet, orchestra, band) the musician’s ability is completely exposed. With “nowhere to run, nowhere to hide” the soloist risks failure or can be rewarded with glory during this most naked of moments.

I know the song as a traditional country and western number but not as a fiddle tune per se. Willie Nelson’s version is a fine example of the former.

Childers’ arrangement echoes to centuries past, to the jigs and reels the Scot-Irish immigrants brought to the hills of Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, which evolved into the rudiments of mountain, folk and traditional country music. His tone peels back the centuries , the bow and strings oscillating between memories lost and memories fond, of ancestral gatherings, of joy and melancholy, of Kentucky linked eternally with Scotland and Ireland.

Yet its greatness can not prepare you for the finale. Even if Childers had not augmented it with a video preamble the sudden declaration of both vocals and lyrical content would have been jarring.

The conjoined greatness of both is of Childers challenging his audience with parables crafted to reach precisely them, not other racial and ethnic groups. The examples are ingenious, not trite nor condescending. Childers has a reputation as one of the best songwriters working today writing of the white Appalachian/Southern experience with the eye of a masterful storyteller. If so both prove it.

It isn’t just that Childers uses the vernacular of bluegrass to align himself with racial/social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement explicity, it’s also a subtle reminder to anyone white who loves such traditional music that all along they have been listening to American music indebted to the ancestors of the very people they hate or have been indifferent to.

Whatever one thinks of Ken Burns’s recent survey of the history of country music, Burns was determined to explicitly demonstrate the Afro-American origins of another set of supposedly “white” music. A reminder: the banjo is not a stringed instrument native to Europe, the word is African, indicative of its origins. The earliest prototypes were brought over to America by African slaves, and it remained a fixture of various Black American musical styles until the 1920s.

A reminder: nearly all the pioneers of bluegrass, country, folk and rock and roll music had early pivotal encounters with Black musicians who altered their own musical expressions. This category only includes the likes of Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, the Carter Family, the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins to name a few.

Of course “white America” has always been great at devouring Black art, culture, cuisine and linguistics while despising the very creators themselves.

One day and hopefully it will be very soon, for everyone’s sake, Tyler Childers and musicians will be playing “Long Violent History” before live audiences. Presumably all white audiences. It will be interesting to hear of the reaction as he tours this ravaged country, ravaged long before Covid-19, Eric Garner or Breonna Taylor. NPR is not the world and the Blue State of mind may or may not be a considerable point of his audience. A day of reckoning is coming from Childers.

Bruce Springsteen survived the controversy over “American Skin (41 Shots)” but the Dixie Chicks remain blackballed from the Nashville music establishment seventeen years after their politically-charged scandal, their popularity never recovered. Is only the North capable of forgiveness.

I am less interested in Childers’s popularity, only in his declarative “cry in the wilderness.” In his spoken-word monologue he speaks of being sober and drug free for the last six months and of the mercy of God redeeming his life, and of not wanting to waste his second chance on a futile lifestyle.

In this context to see “Long Violent History” as anything less than a sacred hymn is unimaginable. It’s the most Christian of songs, as ecumenical and evangelical as any standard. Of course Christians are often the most hard of hearing of anyone on the planet and the most illiterate whether they read the Holy Bible daily or not. Tyler Childers has emerged as The Good Samaritan in these troubled times. To those who have ears let them hear…

Tyler Childers…he makes me proud to be a Kentuckian.

So does Breonna Taylor. May she rest in peace.

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