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Editorial: Tyler Childers delivers a powerful message for Appalachia

Editorial: Tyler Childers delivers a powerful message for Appalachia

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If you don’t know the country singer Tyler Childers, we strongly recommend that you become acquainted.

He’s a son of a Kentucky coal miner who grew up singing in the church choir. Nine years after his first release — “Bottles and Bibles” — he’s become something of an overnight sensation in the country music world. His 2019 album “Country Squire” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums Chart and garnered a Grammy nomination. National Public Radio has called him “the foremost roots-music representative of the white working and underclass of the mid-South.” His songs check off references to coal mines and paper mills, along with the country music staples of whiskey and women.

Childers gets an “A” for both authentic and Appalachian; he is not some mass-produced slick “hat” out of Nashville. And that’s precisely why his most recent album — a surprise release that he dropped last week — winds up here on the editorial page. Childers is not a musician who has previously written political songs, but he’s sure written one now with the album’s title track, “Long, Violent History.” More importantly, he delivered this unexpected album and unexpected song with an even more unexpected video titled simply “A message from Tyler” in which he looks directly into the camera and addresses what he calls his “white rural listeners.” In this 6 minute, 11 second video — meant to explain a 3 minute, 10 second song — he frames the debate over “Black Lives Matter” more succinctly and more powerfully than any political commentator in the land today. Childers draws a direct connection between what many Black Americans face today with what his white Appalachian forebears once faced: “What if we were to constantly open up our daily paper and see a headline like ‘East Kentucky Man Shot Seven Times on a Fishing Trip’? Read on to find the man was shot while fishing with his son by a game warden, who saw him rummaging through his tackle box for his license and thought he was reaching for a knife. What if we read a story that began, ‘North Carolina man rushing home from work to take his elderly mother to the E.R. runs stop sign and was pulled over — beaten by police when they see a gun rack in his truck.’ Or a headline like ‘Ashland Community and Technical College Nursing Student Shot in Her Sleep.’ How would we react to that? What form of upheaval would that create? I’d venture to say if we were met with this type of daily attack on our own people, we would take action in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia.”

If you don’t know the Battle of Blair Mountain, then you don’t know our own history very well. That was the largest armed uprising since the Civil War, when 10,000 armed coal miners trying to unionize rose up in 1921 against the coal companies. The anti-union sheriff of Logan County set up machine gun nests — and used them. The sheriff also hired private planes to drop tear gas and pipe bombs — and, by some accounts, poison gas left over from World War I — on the miners. In time, President Warren Harding sent in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Corps and eventually the miners gave up. It’s never been determined how many people died at Blair Mountain — accounts range from as few as 10 to more than 100. This summer we saw President Trump send a variety of federal law enforcement agencies into Portland, Oregon to deal with protests there. That was controversial, but nowhere near the amount of force that the federal government brought to bear on Appalachia. Today Appalachia seems to have largely forgotten its history as a hotbed of what was then considered socialism and sedition and instead is one of the most conservative parts of the country. Childers challenges his “rural white listeners” to think again and “stop being so taken aback by Black Lives Matter.” In other words, Black Lives Matter protestors are doing exactly what white Appalachians did nearly a century ago and for much the same reason — injustice “If we wouldn’t stand for it, why would we expect another group of Americans to stand for it?” Childers asks.

His video message is more blunt than the song, but not by much. Set against a plaintive fiddle, Childers sings as “this white boy from Hickman” about “the way the world’s been to me.” More to the point:

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?

Then he comes to the gut-punch:

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?

How many indeed? We may not know the precise number but is there anyone who doubts that would be the response if the situation were reversed? After all, we already know that Appalachians took up arms in 1921 against what they perceived as another form of injustice. (The movie “Matewan” depicts the run-up to Blair Mountain; the novel “Storming Heaven” by Denise Giardina deals with Blair Mountain itself).

Childers doesn’t stop there. In his video, he goes on to address the Confederate flag. “We can start looking for ways to preserve our heritage outside lazily defending a flag with history steeped in racism and treason,” he says. How? He offers some ideas: “Things like hewing a log, carving a bowl, learning a fiddle tune, growing a garden, raising some animals, canning our own food, hunting and processing the animal, fishing, blacksmithing, trapping and tanning the hide, sewing a quilt.” He has a much broader view of heritage than a disgraced flag — which, historically speaking, was rejected in much of Appalachia the first time around. To be true to its heritage, Appalachia would reject that flag nowadays, too, and by Childers’ reckoning, identify with Black Lives Matter instead of rejecting it.

Childers connects other dots, too. “We can use our voting power to get rid of the people who’ve been in power and let this go unnoticed. Chances are the people allowing this to happen are the same people keeping opportunity out of reach for our own communities . . .” Will his song, and his video, change minds? We’ll see. But he poses a challenging question. What would white Appalachians do if they felt an injustice was being done to them? We need not wonder, only look to our own history.

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