$1 from every ticket sold will be going to Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund. Established in 2020 by Senora May and Tyler Childers, HHARF brings awareness and financial support for philanthropic efforts in the Appalachian Region. Learn more at: https://www.hickmanhollerappalachianrelieffund.org
Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? isn’t really a gospel album. “I feel it’s more of a spiritual record,” Tyler Childers says. “Growing up in church I was scared to death of going to hell. But a lot of it shaped me for the better, too. Getting through that and finding the truth and beauty, the things that you should think about, and expelling all the damaging parts, has been something I’ve thought about my whole life.”
The three-record album explores this theme through a collection of eight songs (each recorded in three different ways for twenty-four tracks total) that are both joyful and profound. They run the gamut from challenging notions of exclusivity in organized religion to the mystery of belief. While each song may appear to be religious on the surface, there is much more going on here, as epitomized by the first single, “Angel Band”, a six minute epic where a narrator goes to heaven only to realize that it is populated by many different kinds of people, and they’re not bothered that Jesus “ain’t a blue-eyed man”. Childers says releasing this as the first track sets the tone for the album as an ecumenical undertaking. “I think that it helps people know what this album isn’t intended to be. This record is coming from a place of harmony and welcoming, the idea that we are all in this thing together.”
This concept album is a natural follow-up to Long Violent History, which Childers calls “an old time fiddle record” that contained eight instrumentals and one song with lyrics that asked listeners to put themselves in the shoes of people fighting racism and police brutality. All proceeds from the album went to the Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund, a charity Childers started with his wife, singer-songwriter Senora May, which supports underserved communities in the region. Before that, Childers received a Grammy nomination and won the Americana Emerging Artist of the Year Award in 2018. Three of his singles have gone platinum and one has gone double platinum, with the Purgatory album also certified as platinum. Along the way Childers’ reputation has grown as a consummate songwriter and performer who refuses to be hemmed in by labels or conventions. While some may have wanted him to be a hit-maker or skew more to fun singalongs about drinking, he has remained committed to being an artist, and theology has always been one of his songs’ main themes.
Childers says recording Long Violent History—and learning to play its fiddle tunes—helped him get sober. Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? benefited from the clarity that came thereafter. Being able to stay home during the pandemic helped, too, after years of being on the road for about 250 days a year. He and Senora are also new parents. “Being sober, knowing that I was about to be a father, both caused me to look at things with real serious reflection,” he says. “Being home, clearing brush, working the garden, I found my Zen. Doing manual labor has always helped my focus as a songwriter.”
The original songs on Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?, his fifth studio album, are among his best. The title track uses rural sensibility to imagine an inclusive heaven and is inspired not only by Childers’ thoughts on how he’d want his own dogs with him but also a passage in The Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic that has been central to Childers’ spiritual life since he was a young man. “Purgatory”, about a man who fears for his soul asking a girlfriend to pray for him, is a familiar one to Childers’ fans, but he and the band say this is the version they always wanted to record. “We finally found our way of playing it,” Childers says. “Way of the Triune God” is a testament to the power of sobriety and an intricate display of picking and singing that will lead listeners to sway in place and want to praise the music itself with its Holiness-infused piano, head-nodding tempo, and irresistible riff. “The Heart You’ve Been Tendin’” meditates on Childers’ experiences with psychedelics and how in the end all we have is the love we’ve cultivated. Led by percussion, it’s Childers at his calmest yet most passionate vocals, backed by the band at the height of its game as the players luxuriate in the easy-as-Sunday-morning tempo that builds to an epic scale by song’s end. There are also the traditional tunes “Two Coats” and “Jubilee”, both such fixtures in the religious and old-time canon that Childers felt they had to be included and reimagined here, as well as the classic gospel tune “Old Country Church”, that opens the album. On the surface the song is a slice of nostalgia, looking back to simpler days when everything was better because everyone went to church together. In the context of this album it can also be taken as a lament for times when people of faith leaned more on love than judgement. It’s the first song Childers ever learned to play on guitar, when he was five years old. All of these are tied together by the aforementioned “Angel Band”.
All eight of the songs are reimagined in three separate ways. “Having different versions is a way to process through life experiences and the different philosophies and religions that have formed me,” Childers says. “We’re trying to make a comprehensive sonic example of that.” Choosing to do this as an experiment in trinity was intentional. “The first version of the songs is the root, the place everything comes from. That’s just us boys, how you’d hear it if you came to our show,” Childers says. The second version of the songs is more about reinvention. “I was thinking a lot about the New Testament and the way it allows people to be more open and welcoming, so on the second version of the songs we don’t have to go so much by the rules; it’s about freedom. I was thinking, ‘What if we could take horns and strings and a sitar-player on the road,’” he says. “What if we could just make the sound bigger.” The third version of the songs is more abstract. “Those are the remixes,” Childers says. “Those are completely different experiences.”
For that, Childers brought in Charlie Brown Superstar (Brett Fuller), a DJ, producer, remixer, and artist who is a veteran of the West Virginia DJ scene, known for his creation of Mountain Funk, an eclectic blend of jam, funk, and electronic, with elements of local flavor. Childers says Brett’s remixes, particularly a dance mix playlist of “country funk”, were one of the few things that kept him sane during the pandemic. “Coming back into the studio I had that on my mind heavy because I was thinking about what he had done to the songs on that playlist, the way he manipulated speed and sound. I thought about the potential these songs had in his hands and it freed up a whole different possibility for each song.”
The remixes bring in samples from eclectic sources such as snippets from “The Andy Griffith Show”, Thomas Merton, country comedian Jerry Clower, and deeply moving excerpts from church services brought in by bandleader Jesse Wells’ access to archives at the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, which he directs. All together the three versions take the listener all the way from the foundational elements to the experimentation of the remixes, but it’s the second album of emboldened versions that not only bring in elements of string and horn arrangements but also allow the band to prowl the lengths of their full potential.
This is the first time the Food Stamps have recorded with Childers on an album despite long serving as his touring band. “These are my brothers,” Childers says. Craig Burletic’s funk-infused bass is a highlight throughout the album while the piano stylings of Chase Lewis, who grew up playing in church, lends the religious feel a foot-tapping authenticity. He also supplies expertise on the B3 and Mellotron. The multi-talented James Barker is a guiding hand who shows up on electric guitar, baritone, acoustic guitar, pedal steel. Jesse Wells, whom bandmembers agree is their guru, weaves his magic throughout on fiddle, guitars, mandolin, baritone, banjo, and twelve-string. The entire album is steered by the precise and grooving percussion of Rodney Elkins. Barker and Wells also assisted in engineering and mixing. The band say the clarity of their playing is due to years of honing their crafts on the road, the brotherly and instinctual camaraderie that exists between them, and the way the material challenged them to push their talent further. Childers and the Food Stamps also say the room—Dragline Studio in Huntington, West Virginia—provided them the comfort to strengthen their skills. The band all had a hand in building the studio over the last few years. “This feels like home. A lot of those studios in Nashville have the best equipment you could ask for but sometimes I feel like I’m in a hospital waiting room there,” Childers says. “Some of them are very ‘look, don’t touch’, which is not conducive to getting creative. This place is comfortable. It supplied a vibe.”
Childers credits Kenny Miles, who recorded and mixed the album, with its velvety sonic nature and points to collaborators such as Ross Holmes and Aaron Malone for orchestral arrangements. The exhilarating reverb comes courtesy of a large sinkhole on Childers’ Eastern Kentucky property, which was also used on Long Violent History, and “The Heart You’ve Been Tendin’” was run through the same plates at Abbey Road Studios in London that were used by the Beatles, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, and many others.
Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? is a journey across different sounds that somehow gel to form a signature sound for Childers and the Food Stamps. It’s also a collection of songs that stand firmly on their own but are elevated when listened to together as an album. As much as he loves the sound, Childers says the main thing he hopes for is listeners who will be changed by the music. His is a philosophy informed by studying the likes of C.S. Lewis, Merton, Ram Dass, and others ever since he was a young man. “I hope that people take away from it that race, creed, religion—none of that matters. The most important part is to protect your heart, to cultivate love and to do something useful for the world.”
Margo Price has something to say but nothing to prove. In just three remarkable solo albums, the singer and songwriter has cemented herself as a force in American music and a generational talent. A deserving critical darling, she has never shied away from the sounds that move her, the pain that’s shaped her, or the topics that tick her off, like music industry double standards, the gender wage gap, or the plight of the American farmer. (In 2021, she even joined the board of Farm Aid.)
Now, on her fourth full-length Strays, a clear-eyed mission statement delivered in blistering rock and roll, she’s taking on substance abuse, self-image, abortion rights, and orgasms. Musically extravagant but lyrically laser focused, the 10-song record tears into a broken world desperate for remedy. And who better to tell it? Price has done plenty of her own rebuilding—or as she shout sings in explanation on “Been to the Mountain,” the set’s throat-ripping opener, “I have to the mountain and back alright”—and finds herself, at long last, free. Feral. Stray.
Price began writing for the set in the summer of 2020, not long after the arrival of her enthusiastically reviewed That’s How Rumors Get Started LP. She wanted to go deeper into rock and roll, and dive guitar-first into psychedelia. “I wanted the album to feel like a lifetime,” she says, “or a 10-hour hallucination where you remember everything again.” She and her husband—songwriter and frequent collaborator Jeremy Ivey—holed up in a rental house in South Carolina to find the swirling sounds rattling around in her head. They ate a bunch of mushrooms and sat outside, albums from Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Bruce Springsteen playing in the background, writing as inspiration struck. Six days passed and the songs piled up.
The stack only grew once back home in Nashville. “I feel this urgency,” Price says of this moment in her creative path. “I need to keep moving, keep creating.” Maybe it’s getting older, Price suggests, or the years the pandemic stole from us all. It’s thrilling—and downright terrifying. “It’s scary to not make the same record over and over,” she explains. She has yet to. Moving from the sparse folk of her 2016 debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, into the rollicking roots of its follow up, All American Made, the following year, and, in 2020, into classic rock with Rumors, Price has established herself as a sonic explorer of the finest ilk. Still, she says, “This could be too out-there for people. But I just have this morality where I feel like, it has to be this.”
And this does sound different. Louder, lusher. More layered. Price and her band recorded the set across a blissful week in Topanga Canyon, California, at producer Jonathan Wilson’s Fivestar Studio in the summer of 2021. (A smaller second batch would get tracked in Music City, months later.) Wilson, who has helmed sets from Angel Olsen, Father John Misty, and Dawes in recent years, created a space for Price and her band—a longtime troupe that’s been honing their kinetic, even raucous, live show since before Midwest Farmer’s Daughter—to traverse new sounds and influences confidently. “It was the best studio experience I’d ever had in my life,” says Price now, many months removed. “Just the way that he works, it doesn’t feel like work.”
Album opener “Been To The Mountain” showcases her “hard-living swagger” (The New York Times), while the Mike Campbell-assisted “Light Me Up” lays down a searing, explicit epic. “We wanted to write about losing yourself in sex,” she adds. “It’s crazy that people have such a hang up about women talking about their orgasms. Think how many songs men have written.” “Radio,” a buoyant guitar track featuring Sharon Van Etten, embraces sunny pop melodies. While the dobro- and pedal steel-laden “Hell in the Heartland,” which Price penned in the immediate, uneasy aftermath of quitting drinking, builds towards a cacophony of distorted vocals and synthesizers.
Giving up alcohol forced Price to contend with other demons—self-worth and self-image, most profoundly—and those internal battles litter the album’s lyric sheets. “People try to push me around,” she rallies near the end of “Radio,” “change my face and change my sound.” Price has considered both at various times. “You get stuck in the same patterns of thinking,” she says now, “the same loops of addiction. But there comes a point where you just have to say, ‘I’m going to be here, I’m going to enjoy it, and I’m not going to put so much stock into checking the boxes for everyone else.’” That same victory arrives just one line later on the album: “But I can’t hear them now, I tuned them out” she sings, defiant as hell, “And I turned them way down low.”
It’s also echoed in the sauntering kiss off “Change of Heart,” which sees the singer, after a raging war against her past, finally lay down her arms in acceptance. “I’ve crossed the bridge,” she admits. “I thought I had a lot of things figured out. Back in 2015, 2016, I was like, this is it. But there was still so much that I was working through that I was hiding.” It was time to live transparently—a concept that all but defines the phrase “easier said than done.” She’s finally sent that anger downstream. “It’s too hard to carry around,” Price says, knowingly. “Being pissed off at everyone all the time…it takes more energy.”
“Anytime You Call,” which Ivey wrote on his own in Santa Fe, New Mexico, months after the South Carolina trip, came from a painful moment in the couple’s marriage. “A relationship can only withstand so many blows,” Price remembers telling her husband. The death of a child, infidelity, substance abuse and self-medicating, they’d had their fair share. But 19 years in, they’re not done yet: “Any time you call,” Price sings, joined in harmony by L.A. indie-pop outfit Lucius, “I will answer you.”
More than any influence, though, Strays is free. Written before Roe was overturned, the prescient “Lydia” sees Price break form, writing a Townes Van Zandt-style character study about a woman and what she mentally goes through when she finds herself pregnant and unable to raise a baby. Inspired by a troubling visit to Vancouver, where Price felt near-surrounded by drug use and despair, the stream-of-conscious lyrics came to her all at once—and once written, Price wasn’t even sure what exactly she had. “It didn’t even rhyme,” she says, still incredulous, more than a year removed. On the album-closing standout, “Landfill,” water-color arrangements are so loose it feels like the lyrics might dissolve into them completely at any point.
It’s also, undeniably, Margo Price. Rock and roll, psychedelic country, rhythm & blues, and even bright shiny pop, they’re all there on Strays, but as each refract through her artistry, that delicate vocal and unhurried delivery, they come out sounding singularly her. “I feel more mature in the way that I write now,” she admits of the fearless blend. “I’m on more than just a search for large crowds and accolades. I’m trying to find what my soul needs.”
So, while the last few years have seen remarkable moments of acclaim—a Best New Artist Grammy nomination, Americana Music Honors, a Saturday Night Live performance, and just about every outlet and critics’ year-end Best Of list—Price is still hungry. “I still have a lot of drive inside of me,” she says. “I have a chip on my shoulder. It feels like I still haven’t been able to fully realize all my dreams yet, and that eats me up.” Just wait.