Album Review — Tyler Childers’ ‘Long Violent History’

The best surprises are not what you want, but what you need. Tyler Childers’ surprise new album Long Violent History is a record we needed. It’s easy to dismiss upon first glance for many because it’s an album that’s 90% instrumental music. It’s an understandable take that I at one time would have agreed with, but I’ve learned to gain a new appreciation for instrumental music in recent years. In fact I’m pretty sure I’ve listened to and reviewed more instrumental music in 2020 than all previous years combined.

The key to great instrumental music over the course of an album is variety and conveying mood within the listener as they listen to it. One of the big flaws I find with a lot of instrumental music is an insistence on perfection of the instrumentation, as this actually strips away the humanity of the sound and makes for a sound that is too sterile. It’s essentially elevator music. Instrumental music needs to have a rich tone and identifiable texture, especially when it comes to old time, Appalachian fiddle music like this.

So with all that mind, the novice experience of Tyler Childers when it comes to the fiddle is not really a hinderance for him on Long Violent History. It’s a more of a benefit, as this causes a greater focus on the music sounding good. Yes, if you handed this music to an Amanda Shires or Jimmy de Martini, they probably would “sound better” and hit the notes more precisely. But your average listener of this album wouldn’t be able to discern the difference between Childers’ playing and the best. So your enjoyment of the instrumental portion of this album will come down to how open minded you are toward this type of music and how much stock you put into precision of instrumentation.

For me, the instrumental songs on this album are highly enjoyable. The best way to experience them too is with a set of good headphones, as you can pick up all the little details. Childers dropped this album at the perfect time of year too, as the backdrop of colorful trees and a crisp autumn breeze suit these songs well. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that Dom Flemons and The Pickin’ Crew are part of this album, as their contributions are most certainly as important as Childers’ fiddle playing to what makes this album sound so damn good.

The gentle plucking of “Send in the Clowns” that begins the album is such a warm and inviting sound that grabs a hold of you and doesn’t let go. The frenetic “Squirrel Hunter” creates a feeling of excitement and adventure. I swore I’ve heard this in a video game I’ve played before, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Hearing “Sludge River Stomp” on headphones for the first time made me do a double take, as it’s heavy and pounding background made me believe somebody was beating on my floor. It’s fantastic. I guess that’s the sound one should expect with a song title like this. The fluttering and melodic “Midnight on the Water” just showers right over you and “Bonaparte’s Retreat” provides that final frenetic burst of fiddle to build up to the album’s concluding climax.

The concluding song, the album’s title track, is what ties all this together and is ultimately what makes this album brilliant. Very rarely does one look at an album and determine that one song is what defines it. But I can’t name another album off the top of my head that utilizes the concept Tyler Childers uses with Long Violent History. In a way I look at the first eight instrumental songs as the prelude to the album itself and “Long Violent History” being the album. Childers could have easily cobbled together a few more songs and made an EP to tide listeners over. He could have just done an instrumental album too. But instead he very deliberately gave us an album with this unique presentation and I can’t help but marvel at the execution.

It all hinges on one song being excellent and “Long Violent History” exceeds this expectation. Many songs that try to cover the current racial and political strife that dominates the headlines and our attentions in this country fail to be great because they want to tell the listener how to think when instead they should invite the listener in with the music and let them draw their own conclusions on the message. We don’t need more agendas, we need honest discussions so bridges can be built. The only agenda in this song that can be found is a plea for empathy and understanding. This is a universal message that makes you think and look within yourself.

In just over three minutes Childers manages to cover a lot of aspects, from the long history of race issues and protests to the fake news and arguing that swirls everywhere you turn today. Childers then turns back to himself, essentially admitting ignorance when it comes to the unfair and brutal experiences of African Americans and instead just shares his experience as an often discriminated and misunderstood person from Appalachia (As someone who is also from Appalachia, I applaud Tyler for continually standing up for our region and showing that we’re not a hillbilly monolith). What’s so smart about this is how he doesn’t use his own struggles and problems as a measuring stick in a misery contest against the problems facing African Americans in this country (nor does he try to equate them in any way, only acknowledging them as a frame of reference), but instead uses it as a perfect analogy to better explain to people like him who may not understand what the protesting is all about. It’s about finding common ground so we can understand each other.

This all sets up the fantastic lyrics that hit the heart of it all, the invite to the listener to empathize: “In all my born days as a white boy from Hickman/Based on the way the world’s been to me?/It’s called me belligerent, it’s took me for ignorant/But it ain’t never once made me scared just to be/Could you imagine just constantly worryin’/Kickin’ and fightin’, beggin’ to breathe?”

Childers spells out clear as day what the issue is better than I’ve heard from any other song this year. And it’s not even that I haven’t heard other songs do a good job of this. But none have spoken to me like this one. Furthermore, he emphasizes how if the police did this to the people who live in Appalachia what they do to African Americans in this country, they would react in the same way many are in this country over the racial inequality that has taken place. Childers then wraps it up perfectly relating back to the beginning of the song how violence and injustice has an awful, long history once it begins and it usually results in being forced to live in an uncomfortable reality.

Who would have predicted an Appalachian country album filled mostly with old fiddle standards would end up being one of the best albums of 2020? But that’s exactly what Tyler Childers delivers with Long Violent History. It’s eight great instrumental songs with beautiful and thoughtful melody packaged around one of the most powerful, well-written songs of this generation. Tyler Childers writes himself into the history books with this album.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review – Dori Freeman Proves To Be Special Talent With Her Debut Album

Final Album Cover

When I listen to a new artist, I can usually tell upon first listen if they’re talented. Very rarely do I pick up a debut album, listen to it and realize I’m listening to something special. Upon the very first listen of the debut album of Dori Freeman, I knew I was listening to a special artist. But before I praise this album, you need to know who exactly is Dori Freeman. She’s a 24-year-old singer-songwriter from Galax, Virginia who comes from a family where both her grandfather and father have lived lives with music. Her grandfather is an artist and guitarist, while her father is a music instructor and multi-instrumentalist. Freeman doesn’t consider herself to be under one genre of music, but takes influences from bluegrass, rhythm and blues, and old country. At the heart of it is her Appalachian upbringing, something that country music has decidedly lacked recently. The Appalachian sound is sort of a lost art. But Dori Freeman reminds us all of just how fantastic is can be with her self-titled debut album.

The album begins with Dori Freeman singing the blues for man who was once in her life in “You Say.” Right away Freeman’s voice will absolutely melt your heart and hook you in, leaving you wanting more. It’s vocals like this that will leave you breathless after each time you hear her sing. The beautifully dark “Where I Stood” reflects back on a relationship that has gone down hill. Both know neither of them are the same people who fell in love with each other years ago and that they’re wasting each other’s time. It’s the classic tragedy of love lost and lusting for what once was in your life. Dori Freeman straight up reminds me of Patsy Cline on “Go On Lovin’.” I know this is a huge compliment and I’m comparing a new artist to a country icon. But I immediately felt chills when I heard this song because she sounds like Patsy so much. This heartbreak song couldn’t be more traditional country, from the lingering steel guitar to the carefully placed fiddle play. It reminds you of the golden days of country music when the Appalachian influence was palpable.

One of the more pop-influenced songs on this album is “Tell Me.” It’s really different from everything else you hear on this album and yet arguably could be the best. This song is definitely in the vein of the Nashville sound and at first you might not know how to size it up. But you’ll keep listening to it and find yourself wanting to come back to it again and again. “Fine Fine Fine” has Freeman telling off her no-good cheating man for doing her wrong. Everyone sees him out and about with another woman and this all gets back to her. The cheating man insists they’re just friends. Or as Freeman sings in the best line of this entire album, “You swear it was platonic, do you think I’m that moronic?” The songwriting on this song is superb. The mellow and easy-going “Any Wonder” follows. It’s about a man and woman slowly falling in love with each other. This is another song where you just sit back and marvel at Freeman’s brilliant voice tell a poignant story.

Just when you think you’ve heard everything on this album, “Ain’t Nobody” comes along and knocks you flat on your ass. All this song has is Freeman’s voice and the snapping of fingers. No instruments or production, just Freeman’s voice. I’m not even going to attempt to do it justice, so just take my advice and listen to this song. I think I could listen to an entire album of Freeman’s voice and no instrumentation. Another song where I hear a lot of Patsy Cline in Freeman’s voice is “Lullaby.” Perhaps the sultry-like tone created from the lingering piano in this song reminds me of “Walkin’ After Midnight.” The song itself is about a woman who is up late at night thinking about the man she loves. But she cries tears for him, as she knows he’s with another woman. It’s a love she can never have, a hauntingly beautiful story of a love that can never be shared.

“Song For Paul” is another heartbreak song where Freeman’s voice does such a great job of getting across the pain and suffering of a heartbroken soul. It has a gospel-like tone about it with the harmonized chorus, which brings even more emotion to the song. This beautiful album comes to a close with “Still A Child.” The man Freeman was with may look like a man and do everything he can to convince her that he is one, but in Freeman’s eyes he’s still a child. Freeman feels this way because at the end of the day his actions are still like a child with no clue of what they want in their life. In other words, he can’t commit to one woman. It’s a gripping and cutting song that ends the album with such an appropriately sharp manner.

I’ll be surprised if there’s another debuting country or Americana artist in 2016 that shows more promise than Dori Freeman. This debut album from Freeman blew me away upon the very first listen. In fact I had to play it several times over because only hearing it once wasn’t enough. Freeman’s vocals are crisp, pure and undeniably Appalachian. She was born to sing and very few possess her talent. The songwriting is top-notch and I couldn’t pick out a flaw in the instrumentation and production choices. This album excels and thrives in every area. You can pretty much call it flawless. It’s an album that every true country and Americana fan needs to hear. Dori Freeman is a name you need to know. This is one of the best albums I’ve had the privilege to write about on Country Perspective.

Grade: 10/10

Get a free download of “You Say” on Dori’s website here.