David Childers is a good-sized fellow with a burly voice and, it should be stressed, equally big ideas. He’s a lawyer by day, musician by night, and a husband and father by both. He’s a little tired of talking about that first role when discussing the second: In a recent issue of the alt-country magazine, No Depression, Childers said, “It immediately downgrades what I do and gives people the impression that it’s just a hobby: ‘Oh, he’s pretty good for a lawyer.’” Still, this duality is part of Childer’s story. Not the story, mind you, but part of it, and so it’s worth risking the big man’s wrath to ask him about it.
“Working all day doing the law thing, and then going out at night, it’s been like I’ve had two lives,” Childers says during a recent phone conversation from his home in Mount Holly, a small town about 10 minutes outside Charlotte. “The saying is, ‘The law is a jealous mistress.’ That’s been my experience. Over the last couple of years I’ve been able to shape things to where it doesn’t consume me, but I do put a lot of myself into it. My wife works with me, and it just seems to be working well. And I’m able to devote a good bit of time–not as much as I’d want, but a significant amount of time–to doing the music stuff.”
Incidentally, the “music stuff” did come first, and by a good number of years. Now in his late 40s, Childers started playing banjo when he was 14, put it away when sports took over his time in high school, then started playing guitar and singing during his college years at UNC-Chapel Hill. He played his first show in the early ’70s at a long-extinct Rosemary Street bar called The Endangered Species. After graduation, Childers never drifted far away from music or writing, working on either songs or their second cousins, poems. For a time, he worked for Poetry in the Schools, a grant-driven program that found Childers traveling to places such as Fayetteville where, in a week, he had to “try to give them a sense of what things were inside of them and what poetry was.”
Tired of being what he considered “a government artist” after being involved in a series of grant-funded programs, Childers boiled things down to an either-or decision: marines vs. law school. (If you paid attention to the first paragraph, you know how that turned out.)
So, for Childers, it’s been music by night for most of the ’90s and into the new millennium. His first album release, 1994’s Godzilla, He Done Broke Out, was credited to “David Childers and the Mt. Holly Hellcats.” He describes that outfit as more of a bar band, with a live show that featured half originals and half covers of musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones. The Hellcats’ album reflected that lineup’s live energy and versatility as, in Childers’ words, “quiet folkie-sounding stuff shared space with a frantic punk song.”
Childers went to Nashville with fellow Charlotte-area artists the Rank Outsiders to record his next album, Time Machine, an effort he considers “a little too polished and produced.” With its collection of rustic, country-influenced rockers, 1999’s Hard Time County had much more spit than polish, a ratio more to Childers’ liking. Both the cover shot–featuring Childers in a heavy jacket, collar up, with a half pensive, half Hurry-Up-and-Shoot-the-Damn-Thing look on his face–and the smart, deftly layered (musically and lyrically) work inside, brought to mind ’60s and ’70s heavyweights like Bobby Bare and Tom T. Hall, as well as more recent hybrid heroes Tom Russell and Dave Alvin.
The recording of Hard Time County was a big turning point for Childers. Still not completely comfortable with the album-making process, he recalls, with only mild exaggeration, his mindset as the sessions began: “OK, here we are. We’re making the record here. This is going to be on Behind the Music. There’ll be photographs. You know, all this horseshit that obscures that you just want to play music? Have fun with it.”
Veteran singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Duane Jarvis, who’s shared stages with Dwight Yoakam, John Prine and Lucinda Williams, had become a friend of Childers, and was guesting on Hard Time County. As Childers recalls with a laugh, “There was a point in there where Jarvis just said, ‘Look, guys. We’ve got to loosen up and have some fun here.’ It seemed to be a unique idea.”
A Good Way to Die, which Childers released this spring on his own SingleWing Records, is the sound of everything loosening up and coming together. With the recording done at his home studio and at Jarvis’ place in Nashville, Childers had the luxury to meander and create. He admits that they really didn’t know where they were going when they started, but then, some of the best journeys start without a map or even a destination. And a journey is at the heart of the album’s three best songs, the extraordinary trio of “Cincinnati,” “Gates of Hell” and “Six Days on the Road on the Jukebox”: one a trip to the past, one to the soul, and–the least treacherous one–merely along the highway.
This latest album is a collision of sounds (melodica, sitar, organ, dobro and lap steel wander in and out without ever making a big fuss over their appearance) and ideas, with a fistful of instrumentals providing colorful intermissions between Childers’ story songs. Innovation was encouraged in the studio: Twenty-pound dumbbells were used on the track “Laying the Rail” to simulate the sound of hammers, clanging away like the ghost of John Henry. Childers insists on giving the credit for the album’s adventurous spirit to the other participants, including the man behind the sitar, Eric Lovell. Childers’ son Robert was also a major contributor, playing drums and organ as well as co-producing. “He’s plugged into real deep punk roots, and now he’s into country stuff–you know, traditional country,” says the elder Childers of the younger, citing musical-polyglot guitar trio Idyll Swords and low-fi stylists the Mountain Goats as two other groups Robert has shared with him.
Then there’s the album cover: a photo of a bloody but far-from-broken Childers taken at a show in Spartanburg, S.C., by the Gospel Playboys, another Childers group that’s gone the way of the Mount Holly Hellcats. “The image is kind of Christ-like, and it’s comical too,” he explains. “It resonates punk rock Christianity–a real sanguine version of it, the bleeding Jesus–and WWF wrestling.”
As the conversation swings back to Childers’ dual-worlds existence, he offers another summation. “I’ve gotten some ideas for songs from people I’ve known [as a lawyer], but mostly it’s just a peaceful coexistence. The law is so serious, man, you just don’t play around with it. It’s serious shit. People’s lives are in your hands. I don’t take on things I don’t think I can handle. I don’t mind working hard, but I want to feel right about what I’m working on.”
That David Childers, I bet he’s a pretty damn good lawyer–for a musician.