George Caldwell ’24
“Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?” is a complicated gospel album from singer-songwriter Tyler Childers. The Kentucky native first gained a following by uploading acoustic country songs to SoundCloud, where several have received millions of listens. He burst onto the national country music scene in 2017 with his album “Purgatory.” The platinum album was composed completely of songs Childers wrote. “Purgatory” was a step back from the contemporary pop country sound, featuring steel guitar, fiddle and banjo. However, Childers did not come on the scene as a mere imitator of classic country stars, but as an original songwriter with a sound influenced by the bluegrass music of his home state. The album was a commercial success, with the single “Feathered Indians” now sitting at 228 million plays on Spotify. With “Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?” Childers sets foot in new territory—that of gospel music.
With three discs lasting an hour and forty-eight minutes, the album seems massive at first. The first disc is called “Jubilee;” the second, “Hallelujah;” and the third, “Joyful Noise.” However, each disc features different versions of the same eight songs. The first two discs are quite similar. The Hallelujah versions usually feature organs in the background, while the Jubilee versions have a string section. However, the “Joyful Noise” disc is a complete departure from the first two. It draws from rap music—featuring electronic drums, synthesizers, and audio samples of Appalachian churchgoers discussing religion. These “Joyful Noise” versions hardly seem like they were meant to be enjoyed. The songs are intentionally harsh, static, and edited to be out of key and out of time. Perhaps Childers meant to be avant-garde, or maybe these versions are his way of avoiding being typecast with labels such as “the savior of traditional country music.” Whatever the case, I choose to ignore the final disc and focus on the original songs, which amount to only about a half hour of music.
The album begins with Childers’ rendition of “Old Country Church,” a bluegrass standard about a man fondly recalling his time in church as a child. Childers’ version is full of funky guitar and bass riffs straight out of a James Brown song as he shouts the lyrics in a guttural voice. There almost seems to be a hint of sarcasm in his voice when he sings, “How I wish that today all the people would pray as they prayed in the old country church. If they’d only confess Jesus surely would bless as he did in the old country church.” Quickly, the listener suspects that this is not a straight gospel album meant to promote a particular religion. In the title track “Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven,” Childers weighs the pros and cons of going to heaven, singing, “If I can’t take my hounds to Heaven, if I can’t hunt on God’s land, I’d rather load my dog box up and go to Hell with all my friends.”
The album also features a new version of his 2017 song “Purgatory.” This version is a beautifully arranged, seamlessly blending funky bass fills and organ solos with the classic country sound of a steel guitar. However, it is odd that Childers, only 31 years old, is re-treading old material, when he once seemed to have an endless catalog of new, original material. My personal favorite song on the album is “Way of the Triune God.” The lyrics seem like they would belong in a real church hymn as Childers sings, “Jesus said he’d go before and come back when the house was finished. All this sin and waging war, My God’s coming any minute… Faith too strong to be left doubting, Way of the Triune God.” These lyrics are perhaps complicated by Childers’ own comments on the song. In an interview with Silas House, Childers said of his references to the Holy Trinity, “That’s just from my raising. The great beyond and the almighty is this massive idea and notion and that’s my filter that I’ve grown up being taught and toying with that idea. It’s just how I talk about it, I suppose. It’s just one way of talking about the same thing, in my eyes.” It seems that Childers is not quite promoting Christianity, but rather using the gospel genre to promote a different message. The track where Childers most clearly presents a sincere conviction is “Angel Band.” Here, Childers presents a welcoming image of heaven: “There’s Hindus, Jews, and Muslims, and Baptists of all kinds. Catholic girls and Amish boys who’ve left their plows behind. Up there in the choir, singing side by side, wondering why exactly they’ve been fussing the whole time.”
Although presented as a gospel album, “Can I Take my Hounds to Heaven?” promotes more of a message of solidarity and love among all people than a particular religious view. Sonically, the album does not quite sound like gospel music, but rather a blend of gospel, funk, and country. Childers is willing to take risks in his singing, passionately crying out the lyrics in a way that contrasts with his laid back country ballads from years past. The album is worth a listen, as Childers and his band are at peak form here, as they boldly exit the country genre into unfamiliar territory. Perhaps my biggest issue with the album is how little new content there is. The eight core songs last only half an hour, with one being a cover and the other a new version of an old song he wrote. Nevertheless, Childers continues to impress with his singing, songwriting, and defiance of genre limitations.
Photo by Jim Downard/Mountain Stage