His early tunes were often about wild times, so David Childers might seem like an unlikely person to record a gospel album — indeed, he says he is turned off by many aspects of organized religion. More and more, though, his songwriting has taken a spiritual turn, leaning toward themes of redemption and forgiveness.
And now, he has turned his eyes directly heavenward, releasing the haunting and beautiful Serpents of Reformation (Ramseur Records, 2014). The album blends folk, blues, country, and gospel with dark electronic ambience. “Human life, the meaning of life, and what’s going to happen after life. Those are things that I think everybody is interested in,” says Childers.
A singer, songwriter, painter, and lawyer, he has lived most of his life in Gaston County, near Charlotte. Beginning a music career at age 37, he built a regional following with his honky-tonk group David Childers and The Modern Don Juans. He made fans out of the Avett Brothers, the folk-rock band starring siblings Scott and Seth, who hail from the same region and reached major stardom in the last decade. The band wound up performing Childers’ song “The Prettiest Thing” — and Avetts bassist Bob Crawford joined Childers in his historically inspired band The Overmountain Men (The Next Best Thing, Ramseur Records).
Then, last year, Childers’ flirtations with gospel music began taking shape in the Serpents of Reformation sessions. He mixed traditionals like “Woman at the Well” and “Jericho” with originals, such as the affirming “Don’t Be Scared.”
“I’ve always been spiritual, but I was very resistant to religion,” Childers says. “As I got older and had some experiences that brought me a little closer to the next side, it made me very contemplative about what my life’s about, and why I’m here, if there’s any reason. I don’t want to be real public about it, but I do love the expression of that in music.”
The Serpents album really came about by chance — Childers’ son Robert and his friend Neal Harper were the instigators. “I really didn’t even know I was making it when we started,” Childers explains. “Robert and Neal got me to come to the studio Neal had in his house in Tank Town, a place outside of Charlotte where there’s a lot of gasoline storage tanks.”
Childers recalls tracking one song on acoustic guitar while sitting on the back porch. “They would get me in there earlier in the evening, which is my preference. I’d be there an hour or so, do some vocals, play some guitar, listen to something, and come home, and they’d be up all night working on stuff. It’s kind of weird that my name is on it,” he laughs. “It’s a lot of work by other people.”
Serpents of Reformation was produced by Robert and Neal, with guest appearances from Jim Avett (father of Scott and Seth) and Charlotte’s notoriously eccentric Andy the Doorbum, who once got a shout-out on weirdestbandintheworld.com.
Serpents has a great vibe — imagine Tom Waits meets the Gee’s Bend Quilters. “To me, a record’s always about the vibe. It’s about what’s happening to the listener, wherever they may be,” Childers says.
“I don’t look at it as an Americana record,” he adds. (Childers has long been a darling of the roots-culture magazine No Depression, both in its print days and online, so the “Americana” tag is one he’s used to.)
“I think people are surprised when they come out and hear this band. People have told me they think it’s going to be some serious, kind of quiet singer-songwriter thing, and that’s not at all what it’s about when I go out with the Serpents. It’s about rock-and-roll and having a good time. If you catch the words, hell, that’s great, but it’s not so focused on the words as it is the beat.”
Childers entrusts that beat to his drummer son. “Robert and I have been playing together since he was like 2, and he’s 38 now. I’ve got a picture of him beating on a little tom-tom when he was a year old, and I’m playing a guitar beside him. He thinks he discovered punk-rock music, but he found about it from me. Punk rock felt like Elvis in 1956 to me. I saw both of them.”
The 63-year-old singer has worked for many years as a legal aide, helping people to navigate the social-security system. The job has certainly informed his songwriting at times. Childers plans to continue the day job a while longer. “We’re starting to wind it down, but we’ll be grinding it out for another couple years,” he says. “Poor people, sick people, disabled people — they’re the enemy of the present congress and state government down here.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” he admits, “but it’s something I have enjoyed doing. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve always felt that I was doing something [that], uh, God wanted me to do.
“There are a lot of things that Jesus said that are very much in line with my politics,” he continues. “It’s about inclusiveness: help the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and do good. But you don’t have to be a Christian to do that, or appreciate those words. I mean, I’m inspired by other religions, too. I think it’s all the same. Ignorance and intolerance is so prevalent in our society now. I don’t accept it, I don’t surrender to it.”
In a frequently seen quote, Avetts bassist Bob Crawford calls Childers “the most prolific North Carolina songwriter alive.”
“When I was young, I was driven to write all the time, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to be patient and just let it come to me. I’ve written a lot of songs, and I think people just know one of them, ‘The Prettiest Thing,’ which I’m glad I wrote,” Childers says, amused. “I’ve written a lot more songs than that, maybe not as good as that one, though. I’m lucky to have even one that’s appreciated.”
That strong energy is also expressed in Childers’ large volume of folk-art-style paintings on canvas and wood, including many with spiritual themes. He can’t remember the names of most of his pieces, though they sell consistently.
“I have no idea what inspired them,” he says. “I live in a state of inspiration.”
David Childers and The Serpents perform at The Purple Onion (16 Main St., in Saluda) on Saturday, December 19, at 8pm. www.purpleonionsaluda.com. 828-749-1179.