The incredible, evolving David Childers
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As unambiguous as the cover of David Childers’ 2001 record A Good Way to Die is about the Mount Holly songwriter himself, it doesn’t say much, if anything, about the contents of the record itself. It’s a tight shot of him on stage, starkly lit by the front flash of a photographer standing nearly worm’s-eye view. The dominant colors were provided by the two-inch gash across his forehead, as if Childers had just been on the wrong end of a Dusty Rhodes elbow at Starrcade ’83.
But inside, what would appear to be a record by a guy who took a GG Allin concert experience a little too closely to heart was be a is a hefty, 21-track offering of mellow barroom blues and acoustic picking tunes flickering with a poet’s empathy. Strummy meta ballads like “Six Days on the Road on the Jukebox” put Childers’ plainspoken country influences at the forefront, while nothing within would approach the kind of sound indicative of its brutal cover.
That image does, however, conjure the notion of why the then 55-year-old Childers almost hung up his guitar in 2007, burned out after two decades. That is until family friend and Avett Brothers bassist Bob Crawford convinced him otherwise. A friendship that began when the Avetts opened for Childers very early on was cemented by Crawford’s passion for political history and the consummate student Childers’ readiness to absorb it.
Like Gary Numan and Trent Reznor, the teacher became the pupil became the teacher as Crawford sent Childers raw materials from the road with the Avetts, and the wordsmith Childers hammered them into what would become Glorious Day, their 2010 debut as the Overmountain Men. A songwriting partnership, if not necessarily an Avett Brothers’ side project was born, and as the leader of the Overmountain Men, so too was Childers’ music career almost as quickly as it ended.
“We went in without a real clear idea of how we were going to do those songs and just worked them and worked them like a potter working a wheel,” Childers said before adding in his best Tom Waits, “…or somebody working a piece of metal into a ring made from a spoon.
Before then, that image on A Good Way to Die crystalized the rigors that Childers endured touring — the kind of aggregated punishment that led him to cancel his Overmountain Men performance at High Rock Outfitters last Friday — but also suggested that he keeps alternative live interpretation of his songs in his pocket for when the mood is right. The band’s performance at the Hopscotch Music Festival in early September was evidence of just that, as Randy Saxon’s double-neck electric guitar fireworks help turned cautionary dirges like “Poison Cookies” from their 2013 follow-up The Next Best Thing into a fire-and-brimstone-laden diatribe.
“I didn’t necessarily want to be a folk musician and write songs that that people sit and listen to very intently to get all the meaning and poetry out of it,” Childers’ said recouping at home for a Friday performance at Krankies with Avett patriarch Jim. “I never thought of myself as a rocker, but I guess when my son Robert started playing drums, it was just inescapable that we started doing that.”
Watching his son Robert — frontman for hillbilly metal outfit the Luciferian Agenda with Andy the Doorbum — piledrive his floor tom and ride cymbal, it’s hard to imagine songs on The Next Best Thing about Teddy Roosevelt and Alexander Hamilton as anything but bruisers. Friday’s show will nonetheless drop the rhythm altogether for a more restrained trio setting with Saxon and fiddler Geoff White to complement Jim Avett’s slickly subdued, solo styling.
“Jim reminded me of a lot of music I grew up with. There was a show for years down here with Arthur Smith, it was something you’d see when you woke up in the morning at 6 a.m. and they were on in the evening,” Childers said. “It was all country and gospel music, done the Piedmont way.”
It’s also a sound that Childers can immediately relate to, as he prepares his next project, the heavily gospel-influenced Serpents of Reformation, as he looks to break away from the Americana ballad form, one he resents to the degree that he describes it as sounding “like you got to blow the dust off of it… something that’s been put on the shelf at an antique store for years, like a petrifying monkey.” The elder Avett has already made an appearance on recorded tracks, as well as the reclusive Abe Reid. The goal, Childers says, is to break out of his current idiom almost entirely and create something based more on rhythm rather than on chord changes. Opening for Jim Avett might not be the most expedient platform to present it in earnest, but there’s almost always an alternative cut that he has tucked away.
“This will be more toned down because of the trio; I like to do quieter, folky stuff, songs where you can breathe a little more,” Childers said. “ But if we got an audience that’s egging us on and giving it back, we’ll rock the damn joint.”
The Overmountain Men will perform with Jim Avett at Krankies on Friday.