By Erinn Sweet

The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition (UACC) has a decades-long history of supporting Appalachian culture, art and advocacy in the Greater Cincinnati area, and beyond. Whether it is through our Story Gathering Project, Place Keepers programming or research and advocacy, UACC is committed to supporting the inclusion of diverse urban and rural Appalachian voices so that we may break down stereotypes and learn from one another. While there are many scholars, artists and writers in the Greater Cincinnati Area producing works that express heterogeneous Appalachian identities, there are many in Appalachia who are doing the same—and some are in the national spotlight because of it (as discussed last week by Core Member Elissa Yancey). This topic has sparked a new series I am dubbing “Folkways & Fandoms” that explores Appalachian and popular culture phenomena. Though I am not much of a modern country music fan, it is nearly impossible to ignore the headlines about eastern Kentucky native Tyler Childers and his new ‘In Your Love’ music video that was written and creatively directed by fellow eastern Kentuckian and Kentucky Poet Laureate Silas House. In juxtaposition to other modern country music acts, his most recent music video is generating a discourse about the past, present and future of country music and the power of storytelling. And what lies at the center of this discourse? My favorite topic—Appalachian identity.

To be perfectly honest, I have not gone out of my way to listen to country music in quite some time. However, my early-2000s upbringing consisted of nothing but country music radio (shout-out to Knoxville’s 107.7 WIVK) and CMT morning music video television programming. I suppose I aged out of my liking of modern country music when I entered my teenage years and became more politically informed. During this coming of age period, I gravitated toward 60s-70s outlaw country music (with the likes of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jenings, Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris) and artists from the 2010s indie folk revival. Then, my college experience altered my taste, once again, while I was grappling with my Appalachian identity in an environment where my Appalachian-ness was not something to be celebrated; the last thing I wanted was for people to make assumptions about me based on the way I talked, where I was from and my taste in music. In an attempt to fit in, I shifted my music palate to include more of what my peers were listening to. Nevertheless, I find myself revisiting a genre I used to love with the rise of artists who are producing music that better represent the people and places I love.

I have known of Tyler Childers’ music for a few years because he is from eastern Kentucky and would play gigs all over the region. Now, Childers’ career has taken him all the way to high-profile stages at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival and Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, where Childers is slated to perform on September 5, 2023. Childers has garnered attention on social media, particularly on TikTok, where songs like ‘All You’n’ and ‘Way of the Triune God’ have gone viral. His songs tell stories about substance abuse, hard work, rural living, falling in love, heartbreak, acceptance, rebellion and everything in between. Although his songs resonate with many country music listeners, his discography paints a picture of Appalachia and the people and places that inspired the songs. Childers is now facing backlash from some fans because his ‘In Your Love’ music video features a queer love story about two coal miners. In addition to the love story, the music video packs a lot of Appalachian history and culture into four minutes and forty-five seconds. The video ends with one of the miners losing their life to black lung, an illness Appalachian coal communities are all too familiar with.

Despite the backlash, Appalachians seem represented by Childers’ lyrics, style and subject matter. In a video made by popular music TikTok-er @pablothedon, some users shared their sentiments in the comments:

My daddy died of black lung & Tyler is the realest representation of Appalachia there is. I’m so glad others are finding him. – Melissa Short Green

Eastern Kentucky is spearheading the outlaw country genre and i’m so happy. – Courtney Lee Philpot

Childers is neither the first nor last eastern Kentucky Appalachian to release outlaw country tracks. Loretta Lynn’s ‘The Pill’ was revolutionary for its time and introduced rural women to new health choices and bodily autonomy. Though this post mainly focuses on Childers, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson must also be included in this discourse. What I think makes these Appalachian artists—and most Appalachian artists for that matter—successful is their ability to listen and tell. They are attentively listening to what is happening in their communities, seeing people with humility (including people who hold different identities) and telling those stories in ways that are enjoyable, accessible and authentic. I think this ‘listen and tell’ ability speaks to one of the many cruxes of how Appalachians communicate identity. Moreover, these artists not only provide Appalachians with mainstream representation, but they also act as a catalyst for conversations about Appalachian history and culture with people who are unfamiliar or with those who hold stereotypes about Appalachians.

Lastly, the popularity of Appalachian country music artists serves as a testament that Appalachian people have a resilient, creative intelligence that embraces both tradition and modernity. Appalachians have been pioneers of country, bluegrass and folk genres since their conception. Appalachian migrants have also played a powerful part in the evolution of these genres. According to this Smithsonian Folkways Magazine article, Appalachian artists Hazel Dickens and Ola Belle Reed made huge contributions to bluegrass and folk genres by recording and performing songs that touched on Appalachian life, coal mining, black lung and women’s rights in the New England cities they migrated to. Be it bluegrass, folk or outlaw country, Appalachians have shaped, and continue to shape, the musical landscape of the United States.

Erinn Sweet is the Communications Specialist for UACC. She holds a BA in communication from Northern Kentucky University and is MA in communication candidate at the University of Cincinnati where her studies intersect with Appalachian identity, feminist studies and discourse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *