Nose on the Grindstone: Not Your Average Country Song

Rani Green, Contributing Writer

Tyler Childers is not your average country artist. Hailing from Paintsville, Kentucky, a small city about two hundred miles outside of Louisville, Childers’ music is often geared towards the forgotten working men of America. The coal miners of the Appalachian mountains who drink whiskey and go through heartache after heartache. Childers is known for having poetic love songs such as “Lady May” and funky songs about loving whiskey, such as “If Whiskey Could Talk.” These songs are often accompanied by poetic, cheery lyrics and uplifting bluegrass rhythms. However, “Nose on the Grindstone,” his 2017 single, is different. This is not a song about love or whiskey but about the issues plaguing the residents of the Appalachian mountains.

In this song, Childers describes the relationship between a father and his son. The son, who is battling addiction, is reminding himself of the lessons his father taught him. The father pushes him to keep “his nose on the grindstone and out of the pills,” (“nose on the grindstone” is an Appalachian saying, said to coal miners to encourage them to work hard) and is telling his son to get as far from Appalachia as possible. The son, wanting to make his father proud, is trying his best, but continues to succumb to addiction and other unhealthy habits. 

As stated previously, the instrumental deviates from what Childers normally plays. Instead of utilizing fiddles, piano, and the occasional handclap, Childers uses one guitar. The sole chord pattern he uses is Dm, F, C, and Dm. It repeats over and over again, creating a haunting mantra in the background. The vocals are extremely raw and vulnerable. Unlike Childers’ other songs, the listener can feel his sadness and trauma, which is amplified by the cracks of his voice as he sings. 

The music video is also different. Childers is known for having very artistic videos, but instead, the music video for “Nose on the Grindstone” is just Childers sitting in a room, with nothing but a guitar. This makes it feel personal, as if Childers is singing to the watcher and the watcher alone, inviting them to take a peek inside his twisted mind. The audio is edited, not so that it sounds perfect, but so it sounds like Childers is singing right in the room that you’re in. 

“Nose on the Grindstone” is not only a reflection of Childers’ own battle with addiction, but a reflection of the coal miners in Paintsville, Kentucky. According to A True Man of God: A Biography of Father Ralph William Beiting, Founder of the Christian Appalachian Project by Anthony J. Salatino, Paintsville is a small working-class town in the Appalachian mountains. During the early 2000s, Paintsville, a town full of coal miners, was hit hard by the recession and lack of coal production. At this time, Childers (born in 1991) was in the early stages of his adolescence. Paintsville, along with Johnson County (the county that engulfs Paintsville and neighboring towns), also has a large addiction problem. In 2021, there was a reportedly 1.465 million dollar settlement for the residents in Johnson Country, as almost 3,000 people died from overdoses, with about 90% of those deaths coming from opioids, according to the Paintsville Herald

It is also important to note that Paintsville is a town that is in the Appalachian mountains. This can help one further understand Childers’ artistic choices, not just in “Nose on the Grindstone,” but all of his music. The Appalachian mountains are not just known for their small towns and coal miners, but their music as well. According to Gathering the Voices of the People? Cecil Sharp, Cultural Hybridity, and the Folk Music of Appalachia by John R. Gold and George Revil, the music found in the Appalachian mountains is a mesh of African rhythms and European folk songs. More importantly, the music coming from these mountains is about the connections between man and the land, and the stories passed down through generations and generations. This environment is what shaped Childers’ adolescence and music style, and is apparent in “Nose on the Grindstone,” as the issues Childers sings about go far beyond a father and his son, but encompass an entire community.

Personally, I think this song is really great. Firstly, it distinguishes Childers as an artist, because serious topics aren’t really covered in country or bluegrass anymore. He also performs his music in an emotionally intimate way, which deviates from the showy-Nashville-produced artists the genre is normally saturated with. Second, the lyrics, although simple and repetitive, evoke a lot of emotion, and they also make you think. Although Childers’ fans are mostly middle-aged white men, people of all different backgrounds can connect to songs like “Nose on the Grindstone.” It might be because one listener deals with or knows someone who struggles with addiction, or it’s the song that can get another to cry when they need to. The last thing is that Childers, as stated before, is a different type of country artist. In 2020, after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, he came out against police brutality (a career move that distanced himself from a huge portion of his audience). Not only was Childers one of the few country artists to take a stand, he encouraged his fellow Southerners to embrace their heritage, not by waving a racist flag, but by connecting to music and traditions that African-Americans often had a hand in creating. I encourage anyone reading this to take a chance and listen to “Nose on the Grindstone” and “Lady May,” and practically all of his songs, you won’t regret it.