Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Luke Laird and Tyler Childers

Luke Laird – Music Row

Luke Laird has an enviable CV of writing, production and publishing. As well as being sober, a father, husband and Christian, the chap who grew up on Laird Road in Pennsylvania is one of the most respected writers in Music City. Check out his achievements: Last Name, Undo It, Temporary Home and So Small for Carrie Underwood, Hillbilly Bone and Gonna for Blake Shelton, Take a Back Road for Rodney Atkins, Pontoon with Little Big Town, 1994 for Jason Aldean, I See You and Fast for Luke Bryan, One of These Nights and Diamond Rings & Old Barstools for Tim McGraw, Radio for Darius Rucker, American Kids for Kenny Chesney, Head Over Boots for Jon Pardi, Hide The Wine for Carly Pearce, the terrific Suitcase by Steve Moakler, Talladega and others for Eric Church and assorted songs for Miranda Lambert, Old Dominion, Devin Dawson, Cam, Tenille Townes, Hunter Hayes, Brett Eldredge, Lee Brice and Florida Georgia Line. His closest collaborator has been Kacey Musgraves, with whom she has co-written six tracks on her first two albums.

That’s who Luke Laird is. He also hosts a show on Apple Music Country and launched his record Music Row at an empty Bluebird Café last week. The album is bookended by songs about songwriting, my favourite genre. Music Row namechecks Tony Arata and is in the tradition of 16th Avenue, the bleak song from the 70s about writing, while Country Music Will Never Die goes through Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle and Dolly and ‘the ones who knew the way…and put it all in a song so we had a way of dealing with life’. These include the man who coined the phrase ‘three chords and the truth’, Harlan Howard, a hero to songwriters like Luke. The chord pattern is gorgeous here, as is the line ‘prom night regret’ to rhyme with cigarette.

That one is, like the eight others, a Laird solo composition. The album is Luke’s attempt to put his life in a set of songs, so to that end we have tunes about his beloved wife Beth (Hanging Out), his beloved kids (Jake and Mack, with uncredited vocals from the kids themselves) and his good friends (Good Friends). We also have songs about his sobriety (That’s Why I Don’t Drink Any More, with a spoken word intro which sounds like a confession) and why he is who he is (the terrific and melodic Why I Am Who I Am, which is driven by a Laird Loop).

Equally excellent is a tribute to his late friend Corey, Leaves On The Ground which begins the second side of the album. One More Divorce, which Luke says was recorded by his friend Kacey Musgraves, is about small-town life and is sung at the bottom of Luke’s range with double-tracked vocals (a trick also employed elsewhere on the album). Branch on the Tree was written with Lori McKenna and Barry Dean, who are the kind of company Luke keeps in the writers rooms of Nashville. I love the line about living ‘on a rock that ain’t rolling around’ and the song itself is a page from a gratitude journal. I am thankful for Luke Laird and Music Row. 4/5

Tyler Childers – Long Violent History

This album came out to no fanfare except for a six-minute video in which Tyler talked about how he has a platform to talk about social issues, especially to his ‘white rural listeners’. I hope some of his more bigoted fans listen to his appeal to be aware of problems of black people. Proceeds from this album of instrumentals go to his own relief fund, Hickman Holler. ‘Love each other, no exceptions’ was his sign-off.

The album itself is released on Tyler’s indie label of the same name, with a push from Sony RCA. This is the same arrangement as many acts including Jack White and Cody Johnson; for Tyler, this album follows last year’s well received Country Squire album, which was up for Album of the Year at the Americana Music Awards.

Long Violent History opens with a waltz version of the great Stephen Sondheim number Send In The Clowns set to twin fiddles, one of which is played by Tyler himself, and banjo by John Haywood. There follow seven instrumentals, many in the public domain and thus out of copyright, which incorporate jauntiness (Squirrel Hunter and the effervescent Camp Chase) and mournfulness (Zollie’s Retreat and the beautiful melody of Midnight on the Water).

Whenever I talk about folky bluegrass mountain music I just say it sounds like Nickel Creek but this is music that sounds like and is as old as the hills, brought to the States by Scots and Irishmen who entertained themselves with fiddles and guitars and tunes to get them through the long afternoons on the porch. It is appropriate that the lurching, lumbering Sludge River Stomp sounds just like that, evoking Appalachia.

Tyler is from Kentucky and, like Chris Stapleton, is steeped in country music. He has previously said that Americana is a bogus genre and, though only 29, he has cultivated an enormous audience who respond to his deeply American music. Folk music sometimes gets pigeonholed as a museum piece but there are so many musicians keeping it alive. If you heard this played live, unamplified, you would be knocked over by the expertise; on record it’s no less stunning.

The final track is Long Violent History itself, where we hear Tyler’s voice emerge from a gorgeous fiddle-and-banjo intro. ‘It’s the worst thing it’s been…updated footage…hearsay and absolute lies!’ Tyler spits in the opening stanza. It goes on to become a Steve Earle-type State of the Union address which ends with the line ‘tucking our tails as we try to abide’. Worth a listen, and if it’s too folky for you, just go for two or three of the instrumentals and the title track. All proceeds to charity. 4/5

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