David Childers looms large, in heaven and in hell. Over the course of his career, he’s done some time in each, and lived to tell about it in a husky, well broken-in baritone that underscores his misery and jubilation in equal measure.
The lawyer/poet/musician/songwriter/painter/raconteur first left his footprint on the music biz with his ‘94 debut, “Godzilla, He Done Broke Out,” billed as David Childers and the Mount Holly Hellcats. An unholy mix of punk-flavored outlaw country, rockabilly, exuberant rock ‘n’ roll and dangerous sounding, twangy folk, it was a preview of the devil-don’t-care fare that Childers would dish out over his career as frontman for the Modern Don Juans, the Overmountain Men and now the Serpents of Reformation.
Despite his rollicking,raucous melodies, Childers has never been hesitant about packing some weight onboard with his lyrics, most notably on 2014’s “Serpents of Reformation,” where he discussed the first murder on “Cain and Abel” in rather unconventional fashion: “After the fall of Paradise / Don’t do no good to call the cops / They just ride by and smile and wave.”
But Childers says he doesn’t want his audience to get too bogged down with trying to interpret his emanations.
“We just like to have fun when we play,” he said last week from his Mount Holly home.
“It’s not so much about our imparting our philosophies or emotional status, it’s just to create music that people will hopefully find some joy in, and maybe find some beauty in, and have a hell of a good time.”
But some professional music interpreters wonder if naming your band the Serpents of Reformation means that you’ll be preaching an Old Testament message of Lordly eye-gouging retribution and dental damage to transgressors.
“Naw,” Childers says dismissively. “It wouldn’t be that way.”
He promises to bring a mix of music from “Godzilla” through “Run Skeleton Run,” his 2017 release that combined walking in the shade of Merle Haggard on “Greasy Dollar” to Swamp Pop crooning on “Ghostland.”
“It’s not like I’ve lost my faith or anything,” Childers says. “That ‘Serpents of Reformation’ album, I never have been able to get my head around what it was.”
He said at the time he wanted to make a hip-hop album, but after writing a few gospel songs, the music took on a life of its own. He says today he wanted the beats, the rhythm to be a central part of it, inspired by listening to Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside’s late ’70s/early ’80s output incorporating electric funk and soul into his work.
“He had his nephew and these other, younger guys backing him up, and I’m very much in that same situation,” Childers says of his slot in the Serpents. “I’m older than all the other guys in the band by well over 20 years, and they have a whole different thing they bring to it. They’re also a helluva better looking than I am, so that helps a lot. I’ve never been stuck in one realm of music. I’m always trying to create something that’s mine.”
Despite his creative efforts, a bout with shingles and a dropoff of attendance at his shows, Childers was about to hang up his musical career in 2008.
“There was a lot of critics liked (the music), (but) it doesn’t turn into money. We’d get great reviews, radio stations would play the stuff. But the bottom line was that I was just losing money. We were just playing a kind of music that I guess is outdated and just didn’t connect to many folks anymore.”
Discovering a new outlet in painting and encouragement from son Robert, who has been his dad’s drummer for decades, along with help from Scott Avett and Avett brothers bassist Bob Crawford, who has been Childers’ executive producer (along with Robert) and collaborator/performer with the Overmountain Men, Childers got back on the circuit. He also believes his current lineup, with son Robert on drums, Dale Shoemaker on electric guitar, Korey Dudley on bass and Geoff White on fiddle is more professional about playing.
“Lot of distractions for people I’ve had playing with me in the past — really good players, but women or alcohol or whatever gets in the way or they get sick of dealing with (me),” he says, chuckling ruefully. “I require a lot, but the guys I’m with, they’re like a real good basketball team. We all work together. There might be a little smack talkin’ going on, but we all have the same mission — that is to put on a good show for people, to entertain people, make ’em want to get up and move, dance and experience some joy.”
Even though Childers is in it for the long haul, he’s more concerned with people enjoying him in the moment.
“I recognize there’s a certain amount of notoriety, and there are a lot of people interested in what I do, and some people grab my stuff up and wanna hear it.”
But he urges fans to reserve their praise, quoting “Let Them Alone,” a poem by Robinson Jeffers: “If God has been good enough to give you a poet / Then listen to him. But for God’s sake, let him alone until he is dead; no prizes, no ceremony. / They kill the man,” Jeffers wrote.
“Don’t praise ’em while they’re alive,” Childers says. “Don’t puff ’em up. I guess it’s fortunate that I’ve never been a big deal, but I still feel like I have to go out here and prove myself like it’s the first day of football practice, and I’m 14 years old walkin’ out for the varsity.
“I gotta go out there and knock some people on their ass, and that’s how it is. And I’m thankful for that.”