David Childers writes heart-beating, ambrosial songs that stick to your emotional ribs like a spiritual meat n’ three. Laden with an everyman poet’s savvy, his narratives are timelessly honest, boiling in real-world angst and liberally salted with adventures that flirt with success and heartbreak in equal measure. The native of Mount Holly, North Carolina has released over a dozen mostly under-the-radar albums while navigating the real world as a lawyer, but along the way, he’s won a reputation as a gifted writer and earned the loyalty of fans like fellow Tar Heelians The Avett Brothers. These days, the 69-year-old Childers maintains the role of an artist, painting, writing, and performing with his band The Serpents, which also features his son, Robert, behind the drums. Their latest effort, Interstate Lullaby, was released in January of 2020 on Ramseur Records and features songs and poetry that speak to a life both enjoyed and at times endured. David Childers has been referred to as “the best songwriter you’ve never heard of,” and whether you’re like me and newly discovering his decades-long career or a longtime champion of his music, I believe you’ll agree he deserves much more than that dubious honor implies. I caught David at home in Mount Holly, surrounded by enthusiastic dogs, fresh from a recording session, and ready to share details on his life and latest project ahead of his performance alongside Sean Solo at JBA on Friday, December 3rd.
AI- I wanted to start and talk about Interstate Lullaby. I know it came out in January of 2020, but that was just right before the planet all went to hell, so I’m not sure what your plans had been originally for it. Tell me a little bit about how that album came together.
DC- I think it started in 2019. We had done a studio record up in Kernersville, North Carolina with Mitch Easter. He’s a very well-known producer up here. Frankly, it costs a lot to record, so Dolph Ramseur at Ramseur Records, who’s like my patron, said, “Let’s do it at my house.” He had bought this microphone that picks up a whole room. It was very high-tech. There’s only about five or 10 of them in the whole world. We started recording at his house and there may have been 20 sessions– or more than that. Various members of my band and a couple guests would show up and we would record everything live.
All those recordings, that’s what was goin’ on in the room. Nothin’s been tinkered with. We did numerous takes and then with the help of the rest of us, Dolph mainly picked out the cuts to use. It’s always a very cooperative kind of effort with him. So that’s how it came out! When the record started poppin’ up, it was gettin’ good reviews. It was gettin’ a real good reaction from people in the media. We were gonna go up to Philadelphia and headline the Non-Commercial Radio Conference. I don’t know about headlinin’, but we were on a very good lineup! When COVID hit that got canceled, and it just all went down the toilet, pretty much! We were back to square one!
When you recorded like that in the middle of the room there at Dolph’s place– I like to call that Sun Records-style– with you and the Serpents set up in the room, was that a new technique for you or was it sorta like recording back in your early days?
Well, it was kinda both. You know, I started out on a cassette 4-track here at my house. I was used to doin’ overdubs and stuff– but you had to get a good live take. The first or second tracks had to be good, and then you might have a third and a fourth track to work with, so I’ve always been used to just tryin’ to get the best you can get at the moment. I’m not particularly fond of goin’ into studios and layin’ down this part and then comin’ back and layin’ this down. I’m tryin’ to think… I don’t know that I ever really ever did a record that was just straight up what’s in the room. But the idea was to catch lightnin’. Dolph would say it was like catchin’ lightnin’ in a bottle! We were tryin’ to create some magic with the music, which is what I always look for in a record. And that’s what we were makin’ was a record! Or a CD or whatever the hell you wanna call it (laughs)! Most of ’em are downloads these days! But yeah, I guess as far as doin’ a record that was gonna be pushed to the world, that was a new thing.
On the album, you do a spoken word, “Nocturnal”, and I was curious about writing poetry versus writing songs. Townes Van Zandt said that all his songs had to work as poetry first. Do you subscribe to that philosophy? Do you do it that way as well?
I certainly want there to be poetry in there and some of ’em were, but a lot of times, it’s just about a refrain or repeatin’ a certain number of words. I like to have some kinda narrative, even a vague narrative goin’, and the language has got to be interesting. So I agree with ol’ Townes on that. To me, poetry is sayin’ somethin’ in a new way. That’s what Ezra Pound said: make it new. You can certainly see that in Townes Van Zandt songs. I think with him it was a natural thing. I mean, you’re a poet… You are or you aren’t. You’re born that way. It’s like you’re born to be a good lumber worker or a good quarterback or somethin’. It’s a gift that poets are given. It’s not an easy one to live with, but I have to agree. Bob Dylan, certainly, you could take his stuff, as I’ve done all my life, and look at it as poetry. And a lotta other good songwriters– Joni Mitchell, the Avett Brothers (laughs)!
I’m gonna bring them up in a minute, but you talk about being a poet and being born that way and not having a choice. You’ve always played music, but it wasn’t your predominant endeavor. You were working as a social security lawyer. Do you feel like you resisted that calling at one point in time in your life?
Oh, yeah! Certainly, I did! What happened is I got out of college, I was kind of a hotshot young poet– won some award that doesn’t mean anything now– and I was gettin’ things published in small magazines. But you couldn’t make any money on that! And then all of a sudden, I have a son! I have to take care of my family– my wife and my son! My father had always been a lawyer and he had always wanted me to come work with him, so it wound up, I did that. To the detriment of some of my clients, I really started workin’ hard at the music after I’d been practicin’ law for about 10 years.
Bein’ a lawyer, I did it for 35 years, it had a lot of rewards in it. I tried to help people. It helped me sometimes, but it also was pretty hellish. This is a long, complicated story, but I really got serious with [music] about 1990. Started goin’ out and playin’ a lot. I just tried to keep it under wraps ’cause judges would gimme crap about it! For a while, I did quit, though, between 2008 and 2011. I was also very sick because I had gone after music so hard– travelin’, drivin’ here and there, stayin’ up late, not gettin’ a lot o’ sleep. My immune system just gave out and I got shingles! Gradually, I started gettin’ back into songwritin’, and I started paintin’ about that time, but I’d givin’ up on the music. I just couldn’t do anymore. It was just too much failure. It just seemed like everywhere I tried to go, we got rejected and couldn’t really draw big crowds. Just a lot of discouraging things went on. But I knew, like when I went to law school, I said, “I’ll always be a poet. I’m always gonna write. So I may as well go do somethin’ where I can make some money and support my family.”
I was diggin’ into that time period you were just talkin’ about, particularly the Jailhouse Religion album, which I can’t believe I missed that when it came out because…
Well, everybody else did too! I paid a promoter in Nashville somethin’ like $4,000. He didn’t do anything then. In fact, I got part of that money back, but it just kinda died on the vine. I pissed somebody off (laughs)! ‘Cause we made some really good records there! I’m very proud of what we did on a very independent basis. Jailhouse Religion and Burning In Hell, those two records are as good as anything I think we did. Even though I don’t listen to ’em.
(Laughs) No, I don’t listen to my stuff, man. I mean, I do it when I’m doin’ it, but I’d rather listen to somebody else. I’ve already heard that stuff! I’ll listen to make sure that it sounds good enough, but I don’t really spend time listening to my own music.
Well, let me ask you this, the song on Interstate Lullaby, “Streets of Nashville, you talk about that experience you had– did you write that song for yourself or the legions of songwriters who’ve heard that same line, you know, “You’re not what we’re lookin’ for?”
I never really tried much with Nashville. I knew it was not for me. There’s a lot of things and people in Nashville that are fine people, and I met a lot of ’em. People like Kevin Gordon. I can name a bunch of other folks there… Jim Lauderdale! I think the world of him! But it’s just a trap! It’s kinda like a clip joint for wanna-be musicians, like the troubadour that gets a waylaid on the way to Bombay in that Rolling Stones song “Sympathy For The Devil”. There’s a lot of evil in that place. But here’s where [“Streets of Nashville”] came about. This lady wrote a musical based on my songs, particularly an album called Hard Time County. She had a character in there that was a– I wrote it for a woman to sing, for this character to sing– lady up in Nashville, had been through the mill and knew what it was about. You know, just had her teeth kicked in. So that’s her song, but certainly, I relate to it.
Thankfully, I never put myself at the mercy of Nashville! Because I don’t live there! I live in the Charlotte area, and to me, this is one of the best places in the whole world you could live in, especially for playin’ music! ‘Cause we got really good venues, we got a great audience in the population around here, and Nashville’s just some other place to me. I may as well be in Kazakhstan or somewhere! It’s not where my roots are. We make records here, and that’s how I guess I’ll be doin’ it ’til I die. Hopefully, I’ll be doin’ ’em ’til I die!
You brought up the Avett Brothers earlier, and I specifically wanted to ask you about Bob Crawford. Bob has really been one of your biggest cheerleaders as a performer and then workin’ with you in making records. Tell me about that relationship.
I remember doin’ shows when the Avett Brothers just started. They would open for us. There was a place called Double Door Inn– but obviously, they started pickin’ up real fast! But Bob, somehow we just became friends durin’ that time and he always reached out to me. It’s because of him that we have a friendship ’cause I’m not a real outgoin’ person. I’m kinda cautious about people.
I remember goin’ to see Bob Dylan up in Davidson. My wife and I went and we ran into Bob and Dane [Honeycutt], who works with the band, and we all sat down and ate a meal together. Bob and I have this connection with history. He’s probably gonna end up bein’ a history professor pretty soon! He really got me to start writin’ again. I told you, I quit about ’08, and he was like, “Send me some lyrics.” I did have some, and I sent ’em to him. I’ve done that so many times in my life, and you never hear back from anybody.
All of a sudden, he sends me these recordings that he had made! He’d gone out and hired musicians at East Carolina University and brought ’em in and paid ’em to make these really cool recordings. He got me to come sing and lay the lyrics down, and it just got me back on the road to playin’! Very gradually. It wasn’t easy. I had a lot of sore muscles from it, so to speak. And I had a broken heart, I’ll be quite honest! The whole experience of tryin’ as hard as you can and failin’ was hard for me. I’ve never taken failure too easily. I’m thinkin’ back to even before 2008, Bob got me to do stuff. We went up to Ohio and played– and the Avett Brothers would drag me and my band along. You could just tell there was somethin’ very different goin’ with them than what we had goin’.
Thank God I didn’t quit! This is one of the best periods of my life! There’s just so much good stuff goin’ on, and I can’t believe some of the things that happen! Like Friday night, I’m sittin’ here watchin’ a football game, completely exhausted from the night before, and all of a sudden videos of the Avetts doin’ “Don’t Be Scared” start poppin’ up! That’s a song they hadn’t done. They’ve done two of ’em. This was a third one they worked into their repertoire. It just blows me away ’cause I’m just living this quiet life! I have a great life! I love my life, but it’s quiet and it’s not glamorous or anything. All of a sudden, you see these guys playin’ these songs I wrote for thousands of people!
Tell me what you’re doin’ right now ’cause as we tried to put this together, you’ve been back in the studio workin’. What is this new project?
I’ve written a number of songs since the last one, and I think the theme of this is love. Personal love. There’s one that’s kind of a lament love song based on the January 6th insurrection and just how sick that made me to see that and how sad it made me see that my country had degenerated to that point. But it’s written like a love song. It’s called “Melancholy Angel”. I’m not overtly political when I write, but there’s a number of other songs about love and the perils of it. I’ve got a really good friend that’s goin’ through a rough time and it’s meant a lot to him so that just seems to be the theme of it. We just started goin’ back to Dolph’s new house and we’re figuring out the setup, but we probably got six songs recorded in some form. I think it’ll probably be end of the next year ‘fore we come close to puttin’ it out. I really feel good. I feel like it’s somethin’ new, a new approach, and I feel like the poet in me is responding very well to it.
I’ve seen in the past where you’ve talked about writing about the world around you. With the new recording, I wondered if this last couple o’ years was gonna find its way into these songs.
Sure! Yeah. I mean, you can’t look at these songs and say these are autobiographical, but they stem from my experiences. Really, my life’s just too boring to make an interesting song– and I like it that way! So I have to use my imagination, and a lot of times, I take other people’s stories and just see where they go. You can’t really say a whole lot about my life, my real every day, get up in the morning, go to work [life]. I paint. That’s my job. I sell my art and write songs, and then I have this really good band I go out with. We make a little bit of money, enough to pay some bills and taxes and stuff. The band knows the songs and that’s why recording is a pleasure with them. They already know it ’cause we’ve been playin’ them in these little joints, breweries, and restaurants for months. And sometimes years even!