This Guy Plays Rock and Roll
That’s about the best way to describe Charlotte native David Childers
David Childers sweats. Now here’s where a writer could get melodramatic or metaphorical or hyperbolic and write that he sweats the sweat of rock and roll or some other crap like that because, really, isn’t most writing about music like that? So let’s not do that.
Instead, let’s just say that David Childers sweats all right, but it’s just plain old perspiration, the salty wet stuff of a man hard at work.
I’ve seen this sweat in person. I’ve seen Childers go through four shirts and three pairs of pants in one rock-and-roll show. It was a four-hour affair at the Comet Grill, a little roadhouse-feeling joint tucked away in a Bi-Lo shopping center in Dilworth. There were eighty or so people packed into the place, and they were into it, man. Women and men sang along and people danced where there was no room to dance.
The stage at the Comet Grill is jammed into a corner; anyone who came in the front door was at risk of getting poked by the guitarist. Childers practically bellied up to the corner of the bar as he and his band, the Modern Don Juans, belted out one song after another. And man, did he sweat.
Over the past decade, Childers has earned a following for his honest and energetic live shows. He’s also released six records with four different bands. The albums show a progression of music, from the folky singer/songwriter of his debut, Godzilla, He Done Broke Out, to Time Machine, which Childers calls his “Nashville record,” to Hard Time County, on which he started to rock just a little bit more. He rocked even more on A Good Way to Die, and then he reached inside himself for 2002’s Blessed in an Unusual Way.
“That’s probably my favorite record of all,” Childers says in his gruff, almost baroque Carolina drawl. “[Friend and former manager] Dolph Ramseur got me to do that record, and we did like 150 takes of different things, toned it down to about twenty tracks. There’s just something really true about that record that I like a lot.” It’s not only true; it’s great.
Jailhouse Religion comes out in January. On it, he leaves country and folk almost completely behind. The band, bassist Mark Lynch, drummer Robert Childers (his son), and guitarist Randy Saxon, is tight. This record has actual anthems on it. He still writes most of the songs, but says he is just part of the process now. “I love the whole collaborative thing,” he says about writing with his band. “I’ve gotten very bored with myself.”
Childers, son of a World War II veteran, was born in Charlotte and grew up in Mount Holly. “I started writing poetry, lyrics, verse, whatever you want to call it, when I was fifteen. That’s about the same time I picked up a banjo.” He doesn’t recall exactly why he started either. “I didn’t know what I was trying to do,” he says, laughing. “I thought, ‘I’m going to open up this little door in my head and see what walks out of it.’ ”
In college at UNC-Chapel Hill, he studied under a poet-in-residence named Carolyn Kizer. “I really learned a whole lot about writing, putting words together. She took an interest in what I was, and I just really dove into learning a lot about poetry.” He pauses. “A lot of useless shit, too.”
He also picked up the guitar. “I actually started playing in college. That’s where I started getting these ideas about what I wanted to do.”
That was thirty years ago, and Childers is still playing in bars, still has a day job. He has a family. He knows his limitations. He doesn’t dream of stardom or platinum records, because he knows better than that. There is no room in today’s music industry for artists like him. That’s not an elitist commentary; it’s fact. Though it is strange, really, because he plays straight-up rock and roll. How did this become a country that doesn’t have room for rock and roll?
David Childers makes American music. And, at least publicly, he’s given up on the American dream. “I quit believing in that kind of stuff, anything big happening, like being on CMT or having some kind of big record deal. I don’t even believe that stuff exists, really. I just want to be able to keep playing. If it’s Comet Grill or if it’s Carnegie Hall, I want to be able to take my guitar and go meet my buddies and throw us down some rock and roll.”
Well, maybe he hasn’t given up on the American dream. —R. T.