Every generation seems to think it’s the one that has it all figured out. Then it comes to find that merit and valor are intangible, subjective wares. We assume the mantle of our predecessors and say that things will be better than before. Then we see the residual exhaustion and indifference permeating our own hearts, and say to the next generation, “I hope you leave the world better than you found it.” That objectivity and clarity often comes far too late in life, when our ability to impact is already taken from us. But what if the moment we’re in now is so woven into the fabric of our flesh that it resonates in spite of our differences. On his surprise near-instrumental album Long Violent History, that is precisely what is presented, twofold.
Country music and all of its subsidiaries are not completely foreign to me. I grew up with Garth Brooks, Martina McBride, and others in the pop-country crossover boom of the early 1990s. Of course, my environment and friendships moved me away from it over time. During this pandemic, I have had a LOT of time on my hands to feel out music I otherwise wouldn’t have tried. Much like a few weeks ago with Chad Lawson, a Spotify playlist (Indigo, for those wondering) brought me to a Tyler Childers song titled “All Your’n”, a warm and lovely ode to his wife and a fantastic melody that combined old-time chord structure with modern imagery.
So when he surprise-dropped a new album on September 18th, I was interested. I had checked out his discography over the summer and enjoyed a fair portion of it. Then I took the time to listen to Long Violent History. At nine songs and barely over a half hour, I knew I could give it the time of day and really listen.
The album artwork and opening notes of the first song, “Send in the Clowns”, everything immediately comes together. Sonically, all that is missing here is grainy, scrolled photos of the American Civil War and I’d believe I was watching a Ken Burns documentary. The music being played is something I can’t truly relate to. I can’t pin down an emotional attachment to fiddle tunes that sound like hymnals exorcised of their religious sentiment.
I’m a Yankee, as many below the Ohio River (and some in my own northern state…?) would call me. But it’s hard to not be transposed to a southern state of mind in these jangly, easy-going melodies. It makes me want to sip whiskey and boil peanuts or whatever my wife tells me they do in the American South.
That’s the point of musical discovery, though. To relate to something that you don’t understand.
Ultimately, the ninth track on the album breaks the trend of being purely instrumental. Once the song begins in earnest, Childers croons out a folk melody fit for the age he released it. The title track of Long Violent History is a calculated stream of consciousness in a way, though six individual but each mutually relevant verses.
First, he addresses the general confusion an lack of opacity of the messages we are being presented, no matter your point of view.
It’s the worst that it’s been since the last time it happened
It’s happening again right in front of our eyes
There’s updated footage, wild speculation
Tall tales and hearsay and absolute lies
Then he relates that to how, even in these extremely stressful times, everything we see about the world around us only adds to the mounting anxiety.
Been passed off as factual, when actually the actual
Causes they’re awkwardly blocking the way
Keeping us all from enjoyin’ our evening
Shoving its roots through the screens in our face
Of course, Childers is completely aware of his roots, upbringing, race, privilege, and all of that. He understands why you might think what he’s trying to say could be considered “white guilt”, but in fact its quite the opposite.
Now, what would you get if you heard my opinion
Conjecturin’ on matters that I ain’t never dreamed
In all my born days as a white boy from Hickman
Based on the way that the world’s been to mе?
He emphasizes the stigma of being a southern kid with all the baggage that comes with it, yet strikes down the idea that it has any comparison to the plight of others. Then he levels it with a statement of understanding what those struggles are, recognizing them head-on.
It’s called me belligеrent, 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?
And this is where the song takes its turn in doing what it meant to accomplish.
One of the biggest problems that society has always faced is that axiom that if it isn’t happening around me, it isn’t happening. Before the internet, the 24-hour news cycle, and eventually social media opened the door (for better and worse) to the world at large, it was easy to disregard the struggles of others if it wasn’t happening nearby. Sure, newspapers, word of mouth and so on kept the world informed, but never could there be so much objectivity as there is in a video recording instantly shared across the globe in milliseconds. There is less time for the spin to adapt and transform. There is also less time for facts to complete the picture. So is the double-edged sword of the 21st century.
But I digress- that inability to escape the world’s struggles may be cumbersome, but its often necessary to juxtapose to our own communities. We do this with history as well. We watch documentaries, read books, blogs, and visit museums, but the greater story is gradually being distilled.
As time passes, novels are edited to short stories then to summaries, easily consumed and digested without peripheral nuance. That trend, possibly something relatively new to our species, has its claws nestled into the belly of our nation right now. We see the world presented in the manner in which we choose to see it, history be damned.
And that history? Well its full-on lost in translation over time. Passages in a Bible created new denominations, so do the pages of our history books create chosen wells of political inspiration. We see “Make America Great Again” and some harken to an age that they envision as some beacon of righteous truth. Others ask “when was America ever great?” The fact is, at any given point in our nation’s history, people have been maligned for one reason or another, particularly people of color.
So when the willful ignorance of the feted masses becomes a spark for indignation on behalf of those shorthanded parties, there’s cause for those of us who cannot fully relate to look around us and ask, “what if it happened to us?”
Childers, in the fifth stanza, brings this idea to fruition.
How many boys could they haul off this mountain
Shoot full of holes, cuffed and layin’ in the streets
‘Til we come into town in a stark ravin’ anger
Looking for answers and armed to the teeth?
Would we not be furious? Shouldn’t we be? If this was happening to our kind, wouldn’t that be cause to take up arms against the system that caused it? Lest we forget that at some point, our own people were ostracized for religious beliefs, unionization of labor, or refusing the military industrial complex that drives the poor and disadvantaged to wars we don’t believe in. It’s happening again, right in front of our eyes, just maybe not to us in particular.
Its funny, because all along we’re taught “those who fail history are doomed to repeat it” like that isn’t some double-entendre for being held back in school.
So Childers wraps up the song with a rhetorical question of heavy substance. One that relates directly to the last twenty lines and is repeated to give pause and recollection that the anger and fury that we see is what we would feel if we truly understood.
Thirty-ought-sixes, Papaw’s old pistol
How many, you reckon, would it be, four or five?
Or would that be the start of a long, violent history
Of tucking our tails as we try to abide?
We can never assume the hearts of our fellow man, but we damn sure can give the time and effort to understand them, no matter the cost to our own comfort. It doesn’t need to happen to you, to effect you, lest you wake up with the shoe on the other foot, and pray for the kindness of those who can help.