Throughout his 20-year career as a singer, songwriter and bandleader, Childers has written about the tension between secular and religious impulses. His albums have always included songs of wild hedonism and uplifting faith but, as his new album, Serpents of Reformation, evolved, he found himself drawn to themes of salvation and repentance. “I wrote a few new gospel-type songs and the music took on a life of its own. The songs all look at the forgiveness that’s at the heart of Christian philosophy, even though you don’t see a lot (of forgiveness) in the world today.”
Childers usually tracks his records live, with minimal overdubs. This time, he let his son Robert and co-producer Neal Harper control the creative process. “I didn’t set out to make a gospel album,” David Childers says, “I wanted to make a hip-hop record. I’d been listening to a lot of the stuff RL Burnside recorded late in his career. He had a lot of hip hop beats and electronic rhythms in the background. I told my son Robert, who knows a lot about recording technology that I wanted to do a record like that. We started by recording ‘Life of Jesus,’ a song I did with The Gospel Playboys in the 90s, and took off from there.
“Sometimes I’d do a basic track singing with a drummer or my acoustic guitar,” Childers continued. “Mostly, I was just brought in to do my vocals. I didn’t hang out in the studio. I just let them do what they wanted to do.”
The result is a hybrid that blends Childers’ roots in folk, country and blues, with the atmospheric textures generated by Harper and his son Robert, a mix of acoustic and electronic sounds that span the entire history of American music. “God Is God” is a traditional tune, an a cappella tour de force that’s half jubilee gospel and half chain gang moan, delivered with deep guttural harmonies and hand claps. Childers learned “Woman at the Well” from the singing of Mahalia Jackson, but this bass heavy arrangement is full of the grating sounds of industrial decay, with Childers’ lead vocal crying for a hint of solace. On “Don’t Be Scared,” Childers sings the praises of love’s healing power, while acoustic banjo, fiddle and stand up bass offset the processed Johnny Cash thump of the backing track. “This song is about merging the physical and spiritual in a positive way,” Childers explains. “If there’s a touch of Cash in it, that’s cool. He was a redneck singing about societies ills and all God’s children ain’t free, which was not popular with Southern white people, and still isn’t.”
Layers of sampled percussion give “Gospel Plow” a West African feel, while Jim Avett sings and plays acoustic guitar on a bluegrass flavored take on the old hymn “Jericho.” Andy The Doorbum adds spectral organ and baritone harmonies to the sinister rumble of “Sodom and Gomorrah,” giving Childers’ vocal an apocalyptic aura. Like many of the album’s songs, “How ‘Bout You” balances traditional vocal harmonies, sanctified baritone trumpet and handclaps with murky, processed rhythms and shadowy howls of grief.
“This is an accidental gospel record,” Childers says. “It’s a contemplation of my beliefs and people can react as they see fit. I’ve had experiences that let me know there’s a positive force in my life that’s carried me through some hard times. Maybe its just good luck, but to me, it’s beyond explanation, although I do know it gets better when I open myself up to the positive things in the world.”
David Childers is a musician, poet, historian, painter, father and a champion of people who get tangled up in the bureaucratic legal system; he specializes in helping people navigate the maze of the Social Security system to obtain their benefits. He grew up in the cotton mill country of North Carolina and started playing banjo when he was 14. “I didn’t have the confidence to be a musician,” he says. “I sang in the church choir so I could get close to the good looking girls I knew.”
He started playing guitar in college, but he was a 37-year-old practicing lawyer before he got serious about his songwriting. His first album, Godzilla! He Done Broke Out!, was released in 1994. It marked the beginning of 13 years of relentless touring, while working 60 hours a week as a lawyer. He made nine more albums before he burned out and stopped performing in 2007. “I ran into a brick wall, burned out from the touring, drinking, staying out late and my work schedule.”
Childers sat in a chair for a few months before having a spiritual awakening. “I wanted to investigate God. I dove into the Quran, but I grew up with the Bible and began reading. It helped me understand the spiritual consequences of the things I was doing. I became happier and more at peace. Now, I try to set an example with my life and be decent to other people.” He started playing music again in 2010, recording two albums, Glorious Day (2010) and Next Best Thing (2013) with the Overmountain Men, a band that Avett Brother bassist Bob Crawford – a huge fan and close friend of Childers’ – helped produce. “David is the most prolific North Carolina songwriter alive,” Crawford said. “Everywhere I go, people ask about him. It’s great to see people constantly discovering this man and his massive body of work.”