Recently I posted a review of Tyler Childers’ new album Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? The album started me thinking about his project and the path ahead. I wonder if Tyler Childers will record secular music again. Has he “seen the light”, “been saved,” or what have you? Does that mean that alt-country has lost one of its most distinctive voices? Is Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? just the beginning of Childers’ gospel music journey.
First off, Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? is not a traditional Gospel album. It does not celebrate Jesus' life or the writings of the Gospels. It does not feature choirs or organs (at least a lot of them). All this to say, I don’t think that Childers has “gone gospel” in a traditional sense. I don’t think this record is traditional enough (or good enough) to be nominated for any gospel music Grammys. I don’t think he has gone anywhere where he needs to come back from. As listeners, we might just have to accept that religion is going to be a big source of inspiration for Childers moving forward. If we are honest with ourselves, it has been for the last few years.
There is a long tradition of artists recording religious albums. In the Forties, Fifties, Sixties, and early Seventies popular artists, and especially country and R&B musicians, moved in and out of the non-secular realm, and not just for a single, but for entire albums! Johnny Cash was able to make gospel records throughout this long career. “Hymns by Johnny Cash” was released in 1959 and released as “Believe in Him” almost 30 years later in 1986, with plenty of other gospel albums in between. Aretha Franklin released her gospel album “Amazing Grace” in 1972, at the peak of her success and it went double-platinum and became her best-selling record. The ability of our most popular artists to exist in both worlds was a testament to where we were as a nation at that time when over 85% of the country identified as Catholic or Protestant.
In the Seventies, Cat Stevens converted to Islam, adopted the name Yusuf Islam, and left his career in music to devote himself to educational and philanthropic causes in the Muslim community. Bob Dylan went gospel after converting to evangelical Christianity. He released three albums in a row in the name of Jesus Christ. Dylan’s tenure of recording gospel music was met with widespread backlash from his fans. But he did win a Grammy award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for the song “Gotta Serve Somebody”. Strange times indeed for Dylan.
After the Seventies, it became clear to popular recording artists that you can still make religious records, but don’t expect them to be hit records. Artists had to choose between glory and gold. Many artists were happy to include a song about their faith but not a full album. They often had to wait until their careers started winding down and they felt free to write music as they please without the pressures of major label recording contracts. The most recent example of an artist willing to buck that trend is Kanye West. Kanye might be the most influential artist of his time, collecting best-selling albums, awards, celebrity status, and unmatched influence in the art and fashion spaces. In 2019 he released his Christian hip-hop album “Jesus is King” and followed that up with “Donda.” Both albums charted on Christian, Hip-Hop. and Popular music charts. However, critics agree that these albums didn’t rank amongst his best.
Artists appear to have less freedom to go back and forth between the holy and unholy worlds than in the past. Does Tyler Childers care about the implications associated with writing music about God? My best guess would be that he does not. He is much less famous than the artists mentioned above and doesn’t carry the same burden as an artist with number-one hits and worldwide appeal.
There is ultimately no telling which direction Childers will steer his career. While he may never return to his rough and rowdy songs like “Whitehouse Road” and “Purgatory”, it would be shortsighted to assume that he’ll spend the rest of his career focused musically on repenting his sins and extolling his faith. Tyler has a lifetime of experiences yet to come, most importantly, the arrival of his first child. Perhaps his next record will follow in the footsteps of his friend and mentor Sturgill Simpson and be his “Sailor’s Guide to the Universe”. I’ll be here to listen either way.