An Afternoon with David Childers

It was kind of David Childers to invite me over for a visit after I broke my promise to him. 

I had conducted a backstage interview with David not just once but twice with the intention of writing a newspaper article, but the story remained unwritten as I went from full-time writer to part-time, then to occasional contributor as newspaper space for arts coverage decreased. 

Also, David Childers is such a complex person, I didn’t know where to start or how to condense him into one brief write-up. He’s a musician, poet, historian, story-teller, painter, philosopher, father, and attorney at law.

Now I found myself approaching the Childers abode, accompanied by writer Jody Mace. We were armed with cameras, various recording devices, a notepad, and high hopes. 

Tucked away on a quiet Mount Holly street, the Childers’ vintage cottage was wreathed  by an impressive bevy of flowers, and butterflies danced around the brightly-hued blooms in such abundance it was like stepping into a Disney cartoon. David’s wife Linda was immersed in the blossoms, tending the garden. She welcomed us, and told us David was in the house.

Our knock prompted an eruption of barks on both sides of the door as indoor dogs sprang to attention and porch dogs angled for their chance to dart inside. David Childers, dressed in paint-speckled t-shirt and shorts, greeted us amid dog-wrangling and good-natured curses as he sorted the inside and outside dogs and shut the door behind us.

The hallway walls were lined with paintings, as were the walls of the living room. There  were David Childers originals mixed in with works by other artists. The colorful display rivaled the blazing glory of the garden outside the house. 

One of the first artworks we encountered upon entering was “Apparition.” The eerie portrait is painted on a sheet of glass,and David had incorporated the oxidation on the glass into the image. Light shines through the painting creating a spooky glow. I tried to photograph the piece, but a picture doesn’t do it justice.

The first time I met David in person, I immediately noticed his eyes. They seemed especially bright, like two windows to a mind that was sparking with ideas. His leisurely Southern drawl and relaxed, good ol’ boy exterior appears to mask an interior that’s on fire, constantly creating music, poetry, and images that travel from his brain to brush to canvas, glass, wood or whatever material is at hand. His art is simultaneously primitive and profound, like the artist himself.

I had been listening to David’s recordings and admiring the inspired lyrics couched in arrangements encompassing laid back folk, hard-driving rock and all styles in between. His songs seem to come from a place where the sacred and secular collide, keeping one foot in a honky tonk and the other foot in church. And the Devil always seems to be waiting around the corner.

For decades, David made a name for himself after hours as a singer and prolific songwriter, recording 10 albums including those with his bands Mount Holly Hellcats and the Modern Don Juans, all the while maintaining his law practice specializing in Social Security disability clients. Then in 2007, feeling burned out and dissatisfied, David declared the Modern Don Juans were over and he retreated from performance.

But he didn’t abandon songwriting. Soon he was working behind the scenes with Bob Crawford - the Avett Brothers’ bass player had carved some time out of his busy tour schedule and had lured David out of music exile to collaborate. Soon they were joined by David’s son Robert on drums and guitarist Randy Saxon to do some recording at the Childers home. Shortly after that, they got together at the Old House Studio in Gastonia to record Bob’s song Angola written for the Jeff Smith documentary Six Seconds of Freedom about the prison rodeo held yearly at Angola Prison in Louisiana.

The collaboration didn’t end there. David and Bob share a love of history, and at some point, talk had turned to discussion of the Battle of King’s Mountain which had taken place in 1780 at a site not far from the Old House Studio. The frontiersmen who helped the colonial forces win this battle were called the Overmountain Men. David and Robert Childers, Bob Crawford and Randy Saxon are all descendants of men who fought that battle. So it seemed appropriate that they adopt that name for their newly-formed band when the Overmountain Men’s album Glorious Day came out on the Ramseur Records label in 2010. They followed this up in 2013 with the album The Next Best Thing.

The new band brought David out of his short-lived musical retirement, and soon he was front-and-center on stages again. I caught up with him at Isis Music Hall in Asheville, and he invited me backstage to continue the conversation we had started a few months earlier at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. We had plenty of time because David and his band thought the show was starting an hour earlier than it actually was, so they arrived too soon and had time to kill. Bass player Dale Shoemaker was performing with David that night, and he was hanging out backstage also.

Our conversation had turned from music to visual art. I was asking David about his fascinating, primitive-style paintings I had seen in an online gallery. Dale seemed to find it amusing when I asked David where his work work was exhibited. It turns out there isn’t much of his art on display. He said he had  something hanging in the Barking Spider Tavern in Cleveland, Ohio. “if they hadn’t gotten mad and taken it down.” 

I told David I would like to observe him as he painted. He said I was welcome to come watch.

“You’d better bring your Off,” laughed Dale. 

David said he does his painting outdoors. “I’ve probably incorporated a few ants,” he added.

A couple months later, I decided to take David up on his invitation to visit his outdoor studio. I contacted him and set up a date. I asked Jody to come, sine I knew she was interested in having David perform a house show; she is founder and organizer of the Common Chord house concert series.

Earlier, Jody and I had a conversation about the fact that she’d noticed when musicians go through periods when they are ill or not performing for other reasons, many seem to turn to visual art as a means of expression. It’s as if when they can’t let their feelings out in song, they feel compelled to get them out on canvas instead. David was a good example of this. He said he had made himself sick from working 60 hours a week then traveling all over the East Coast playing gigs on weekends. When he declared that he was leaving the music business, he began to produce an outpouring of paintings. 

It was many of those paintings that Jody and I were now viewing in his home. David left the room to get us cold drinks, and we used the time to admire the art gallery. When he returned, he set my drink on a piece of paper that appeared to be lyrics for a new song. I was worried about the wet ring left there, but David seemed unconcerned.

Jody writes an online feature called “One Song” where she interviews songwriters in depth about one song of their choice. When I set up our visit, David agreed to do one of these interviews. When I asked what song he would like to talk about, he said, “George Wallace.” 

Most performers use the “One Song” interview as an opportunity to promote a current project, so it was surprising that David had chosen a song he’d written a decade before, and one which he no longer performed. But as he talked about the song, we got to know a lot more about David, and about a topic weighing heavily on his mind.

Jody wanted to film him as he sang the song, so we went out on the porch for better light. Even though he hadn’t performed the song for years, David sang all the verses and every word to George Wallace effortlessly from memory.

The song “George Wallace” is from the 2006 Modern Don Juans album Jailhouse Religion. David had to stop performing it because listeners were missing the point of the song and interpreting it as some sort of racist anthem instead of what it actually is, a song with Wallace representing the last gasp of old school racism and lyrics hopeful for a dawn of a new age and the end of segregation. 

“I guess it was too much trouble to actually listen to the words,” David sighed. In New York, people walked out of the club when he performed the song. Then there was the shirt incident.

Some fans presented a t-shirt to him with a picture of Wallace on it and words from the song’s chorus: “George Wallace knew that’s how it had to be.”

“I was thinking, no, no, no, you don’t get it,” remembers David. “ ‘The way it had to be’ meant what Wallace had to do to get elected.”

But since some audience members were thinking David was saying segregation was the way things should be he stopped performing the song.

David looked out from his porch toward the horizon, as if he were watching a movie of himself in 1968 when he and his brother attended a political rally for Wallace at the coliseum in Charlotte. He told us he was a teenager whose beliefs didn’t align with Wallace’s, but they attended the rally because they were young, and it was exciting, like a party, and Faron Young was performing. Years later, when David expressed his musical remembrance in the song “George Wallace” he wrote “I heard him in Charlotte in ’68. I hated his guts but his speech was great.”

David and his brother, Max, typically dressed up when they went out, and they were wearing sports jackets and ties and had short hair, “so we kinda fit in” he chuckled. But a few months later David attended the peace march in Washington, DC, and he worked the streets in support of Eugene McCarthy.

He said that when he wrote the song, he was feeling more optimistic about race relations than he does now. He believes that when Obama got elected it “ripped a big scab off this racist thing” and brought back “infections in our society” that he thought were healed. He worried that we are not much better off now than what he remembers from the Wallace era.

“God, man, those people could hate. They still do. They hate so hard.”

Then David treated us to more music, the beautiful song Another Dawn. Fortunately, Jody still had her camera running, so you can see the performance, too, and hear the afternoon cicadas that accompanied him. And if you look closely at the reflection in the window, you can see David’s wife Linda working in the garden.

This song has unique and incredible lyrics, including “...I’m so glad to be here to see another dawn...I’m safe at home in my haunted mansion to greet the light of day; mourning dove and pterodactyl flash across the sky. Dracula and Gustav Mahler sing my lullaby...”

After our private concert, we moved to the outdoor shed which serves as David’s open air studio. A small painting he had done shortly before we arrived lay drying on a table. He resumed painting on a work-in-progress. It looked like colorful stacked houses, but the doors and windows resembled eyes and gaping mouths. The painting already had a title: “Timbuktu.” 

David said he had seen a photo of Timbuktu houses on a hillside and they “looked like skulls.” And he thought about that region’s role in the slave trade.

There was another small building nearby, and on its weathered red door was a bumper sticker that said, “I DON’T BELIEVE RIGHT WING FANTASIES.” David saw me looking at the door. 

“You can go in if you want to,” he called. 

So I opened the door and found the perimeter of the room filled with paintings, and a large table in the center of the room supporting a multitude of tiny toy soldiers engaged in battle. David told me the scene depicted was Les Bataille des Quatre Bras. He said this casually, as if everybody has a building in their backyard where they construct battle scenes. (When I got home I looked it up. It was a strategic battle which took place two days before Waterloo between Wellington’s army and the Armée du Nord under Marshal Michel Ney.)

David put “Timbuktu” aside and placed another painting-in-progress on his easel. It showed three human figures with faces in different shades. The middle face especially stood out because of its bright scarlet hue. I asked who that was in the middle with the red face.

David replied, “I don’t know. Might be the devil.”

A large hand-painted OBAMA sign was leaning up against an inner wall of the shed, a reminder of the past election. Beneath it, we could see a big painting covered by a plastic sheet. David dragged it out, removed the plastic, and leaned it against the outside of the shed.

Painted on the 4x6 piece of plywood were three larger-than-life unearthly figures, pictured from the waist up, standing shoulder to shoulder. The middle guy had horns.

“There he is again,” I thought. “The Devil.”

David told us the painting is called “Emerging Gods.” We told him it should be hanging in a gallery, not buried under plastic in his shed.

When we returned to the house, David let us each pick two small paintings to take with us as souvenirs of our visit. Our conversation continued. 

I asked him if he approaches a painting with a finished project in mind. He said he has an image in mind, but “sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t” and often other images “emerge through the process.”

He motioned to a painting nearby: “This piece right here, called ‘Golf Course,’ I had no idea what it would be when I started. It’s kinda weird. I look at it now and think ‘do more to it,’ and there’s another voice saying ‘leave it alone.’ I started with a pattern and that’s what came out of it.” 

Jody asked if the creative process of painting is similar to the process of songwriting. David said he finds painting easier than writing a song, although there is a point with songwriting “that feels so good, when you finally realize you’ve got something that maybe’s gonna work for you.”

But he says songwriting is a harder process for him partly because of the performance aspect, and that he hasn’t been showing his paintings much to the public. He added that songwriting is made easier by collaborating “with some good people” like his son, Robert (who, by the way, is the spitting image of his father) . 

“This record we’re doing now, really the theme of it is ‘Jesus Christ.’ It’s very interesting. My son claims to hate religion, kinda like I do in a way. We argue about it a lot. Suddenly, he’s wanting to do songs about Jesus, not in a mocking way, but getting down to what he’s really saying, stuff I like about Jesus - the man’s fairness, justice, the man who demands truth - all those things.”

David added that this next album will be different, a departure from his Americana ballad idiom. Instead, he and his son are exploring a compositional method based more on rhythm than on chord changes.

So with music once again taking over a major part of his time, there is less time for painting. Plus, there is his law practice.

“I can’t do so much painting right now because I’ve got to do my job, which is also quite enjoyable. I’m very blessed. I get to do a lot of enjoyable things.”

I asked, “Well, what if a demand develops for your paintings and you start doing them for money?”

His answer was quick: “I’d paint my ass off.”