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.”