“We’re playing folk music,” singer David Childers says. “Whether you’re playing Chuck Berry or ‘Skip to My Lou,’ it’s folk music. It’s music of the people, so it’s not real refined. That’s just the nature of it, but it can still be beautiful.”
Childers remembers a time growing up near Charlotte when it was hard for a singer-songwriter to find a friendly mic. “I’d go out by myself with a guitar,” he recalls. “I think there was one place where you could do that. Mostly it was boarded-up beer joints. If you wanted to play music you had to play what was on the radio. It was much different back then.”
Childers, 61, now writes songs and sings for the Overmountain Men, a historically informed, roots-rich, and musically nimble quintet that blurs folk, rock and indie lines. “It’s an ageless thing,” he says. “I know that in the 1960s it was supposed to be the music of youth,” he says. “But you know, we were the youth then, we’re old people now. That’s our rock and roll, folk music and blues. There’s nothing wrong with us enjoying that. I think it keeps you alive.”
Some of Childers’ first memories involve music. “I was always banging on some kind of thing, trying to make music,” he smiles. Childers was steeped in the music of Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Peter Paul & Mary, The Beatles, Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Fats Domino, and the Methodist church hymnal.
“I don’t know if I know how to sing, really,” says the earthy baritone. “I’ve learned from a lot of people, and some of it not even singing itself as much as maybe learning how to read things, or doing some acting. Learning how to accentuate. Lyrically I admire Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Waits, and, of course, Bob Dylan. Something about the way that they say things is really cool.
“When I was 18 I got serious about learning to play the guitar,” he continues. “I had always liked singing and writing poetry. I started doing that when I was a young teenager, and all that just kept going together.”
During his senior year of college at UNC-Chapel Hill, Childers mustered up the nerve to perform at a couple coffeehouses. “I saw probably for the first time what the potential was playing in a room where people were paying attention,” he recalls. “You know, maybe I could do it well enough to hold an audience.”
In the 1970s Childers led an acoustic trio in Charlotte. “I didn’t want to play with drums,” he explains. “But I started playing with drums in the ’80s, and once I did that I’m like ‘Wow, this is really fun.’ To have all that power — if you’ve got a good drummer that stays on beat.”
By the time his group David Childers and The Modern Don Juans began touring the east coast in 2000, he was fully into raw, blues rock, ala The Rolling Stones. “That’s what you do when you don’t know a whole lot of chords to play, it’s kind of like punk rock. It’s immediate,” he says. “Any good music has emotion and feeling in it. Maybe that creates an edge.”
When the Modern Don Juans went on hiatus in 2007, Childers got a call from bassist Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers. Crawford is a longtime fan of Childers, and The Avetts perform Childers’ song “The Prettiest Thing” in concert. The two exchanged lyrical ideas, then played a few shows with Robert Childers, David’s son, on drums.
“Bob Crawford showed me what he could do with some lyrics,” Childers recalls. “That’s where the whole thing got going. He and I have shared ideas and recordings via the Internet, and we’ll get together when we can. I like to get people involved – you know the band takes it and they add their parts, they’re helping to create the song as much as I am. I just build a skeleton.”
Crawford and Childers booked time in a recording studio in Clover, SC, in 2009, near where the Battle of Kings Mountain took place. “We all read a lot of history, and Bob and Robert were having a discussion about that battle.” Childers recalls them discussing the Overmountain Men, the band of patriots that fought during the revolutionary war, perhaps most memorably at Kings Mountain. “The Overmountain Men came up, and I think Bob was the one that said, ‘That’s what we should name this band.’ So they jumped all over that.”
Glorious Day was released in 2010, followed earlier this year by The Next Best Thing. “With this second record, Bob brought ideas to me, things I would not have thought to write about, like Alexander Hamilton or Teddy Roosevelt, or Teddy Roosevelt’s wife. One day Bob took me up to the battleground at Kings Mountain. We walked around and I read some lines on a marker, and the song ‘To A Warmer Land’ came out of that.”
Overmountain Men takes on history, but also deals with heartache (“All Out Of Diamonds”), grief, change (“Someplace Along The River”), and the perception of lies in America as seen through the eyes of the 99% (“Smoke And Mirrors” and “The Next Best Thing”). A legal advocate for the disabled by day, Childers searches for hope in the most difficult topics. “I always want that to come through: redemption, forgiveness, healing, a sort of triumph if you can have it.”
Ramseur Records is helping Childers with bookings and promotion, opening up some new markets for the singer. “My place has been in bars up until recently, but we seem to be doing well in more respectable kinds of venues,” he says. “Of course I still love going out to a honky tonk and plugging in and rocking it for a couple hours, getting everybody all crazy.”