Tyler Childers: Feathered Indians

August 31, 2022

A personal look at country music singer Tyler Childers

After Nashville, I jumped off the Highway to take State 50 south and west, backroading my way to New Orleans. I didn’t check the weather and soon was stuck in a torrential downpour. The rain falls to Biblical proportions in this part of the south.

As the eye of the storm passed over, I decided to stop in for lunch at Centerville, Tennessee.

A county seat, Centerville wasn't much larger than the town square, around which were a handful of still-operating businesses.

Outside the county building, sitting on a park bench was a snappy statue, of Minnie Pearl, a comedian who grew up in Centerville and became a regular on the Grand Ole Opry, where she made fun of how small, though always friendly, her home town was, fictionalized as "Grinder's Switch."

A personal look at country music singer Tyler Childers

The statue of Minnie was surprisingly lifelike, complete with her signature flower-festooned hat with the price tag still affixed.

Looking for a lunch spot, I found an ice cream shop on the square that also sold salads. I ordered one, then stood there, because I was the only customer. The young girl behind the counter said she liked my Tyler Childers t-shirt. I was proud of that shirt and wore it throughout my trip.

A Tyler Childers T-shirt I told her that I saw him play at Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Fest at Virginia Beach the previous fall, and he blew away the audience. He was a last-minute addition to the bill. I downloaded his album "Purgatory" for the trip down to Virginia. By the end of that trip, the bouncy "Whitehouse Road" was my favorite road song of the summer.

Son of a miner, Childers grew up in Lawrence County, Kentucky, a place that, in the western shadow of the Appalachian mountains, gets more than its fair share of rain.

Childers' music reflects the region's traditional country and bluegrass roots. In many ways, he is the exact oppossite of what today's smarmy bro-country -- an earnest redhead singing with a sharp yet vulnerable twang straight from the gut. And Childers sings of his hard, mountain-y land with a dire specificity:

All I know is that when I am good and sober
I am leaving West Virginia for a while...
Don't know why but every time I cross that river
Lord, there's somethin' tears me up, makes me wild 

("Charleston Girl") 

That night at Virginia Beach, Willie's own performance was a bit short -- the original outlaw seemed to be feeling his 88th year. Good thing most people seemed to be there to see Childers, it seemed.

One song in particular, about a father's advice, Childers sang with gut-wrenching earnestness that captured the crowd. "Nose on the Grindstone," got everyone singing in the pavilion (despite it not even being on an album yet).

Sturgill Simpson, who followed Childers on stage, did not even try to compete on any sort of emotional appeal, sticking with a traditional bluegrass set instead. Simpson, himself a country music renegade, actually co-produced two of Childers' albums.

Back at the ice cream shop, the girl behind the counter asked me what my favorite Childers' song was.

I said "Whitehouse Road," somewhat predictably. But I was smart enough to ask her whether favorites were, and she said " Feathered Indians" and "Lady May." I admitted I wasn't familar with either (though, later when I checked, those two songs were his most popular on Spotify).

It was right about then that the manager of the store, seeing us gabbing like two music fans oblivious to the many decades separating us, stepped up and suggested, in a very tactfully uniquely Southern way, that there were plenty of open seats in the front of the shop, should I care to wait there instead.

A personal look at country music singer Tyler Childers Not much excitement in Centersville, I gather. After I got my salad, I went to go eat it with Minnie. I posted a photo of the statue on Instagram and someone commented about one of Pearl's defining signature, that that price tag affixed to the hat. Growing up when I saw her on Hee-Haw, I always assumed tag was a site gag. But it had a deeper meaning, the commenter noted.

The symbolism of the price tag on her hat alone 
revolutionized show business for women. The core meaning 
of which was that many 'famous' women bought and retuned 
clothing just to survive. Even my ethical grandmother 
did it when she had an event she was only going to need something formal 
for once.

Big drops of rain once again started to fall from the sky. I got back in the car and started south, ignoring my better judgement to head back to the highway.

I cued up "Feathered Indians." I heard the song before, but didn't pay enough attention to the lyrics, which was my loss, because they were a lot more personal and poetic than I would have expected from a country music song.

The "feathered indians" in the song were the marks on the inside of his lover's thigh, presumbly made during a robust session of love-making.

Well my buckle makes impressions
On the inside of her thigh
There are little feathered Indians
Where we tussled through the night

There's country music as a commercial genre. But then there is the music of the country, that quietly makes its own way from the mountains to the oceans, stopping in all the off-highway small towns along the way. That music, for this year anyway, is that of Tyler Childers.

A personal look at country music singer Tyler Childers