Some music is like dark fertile soil, the writer's hand at the plow turning over ground laid to rest a generation before. Last year's release by David Childers, Serpents of Reformation, is such an album, featuring a mix of old gospel traditionals and sympathetic blues-roots. It's a work of bone-deep soul.
One of the best tracks is "Don't Be Scared," a paean to love and living that sounds like it could've come across on a boat with the first Irish immigrants. It has the tone of hymnals, and Childers' burly, oak-like voice sounds like a weary sailor raising a toast to an approaching port: "Fear not the fact that living is dying. Do not be scared of becoming what was ... Let us squeeze all the life from our moments together and never surrender our dreams."
For Childers, those lines aren't just lyrics — they're words to live by. "Fear is so prevalent," he says from his home in Charlotte, N.C. "There are a lot of irrational fears, and a lot of it is generated from politics. But being scared, you ain't going to get much done like that."
Although Childers laughs like a lovable uncle who's seen enough to be happy with what he's got, it wasn't always this way for the singer-songwriter. Just a few years ago he gave up music, frustrated by the all the blood, sweat, and tears. And besides, his day job as a lawyer for those on disability was tough enough already.
"It's like I picked out two really hard things to do," Childers says with characteristic candor. "I didn't mean to. Practicing law is sometimes just like drinking poison. And trying to make music in some respectable way where you actually get listened to is real damn hard, though I was probably more respected as a musician than a lawyer."
So Childers put his music career on the shelf after nearly two decades and seven albums.
"Hell, I was in my early 50s, and it was like those guys in The Wild Bunch — I'm tired of running, we got to make a stand somewhere," Childers says. "Literally, physically and psychologically, I became very ill. I just had to stop."
These days, he's in a much better place. Childers is pleased to be back on the stage, thanks in some part to the Avett Brothers' Bob Crawford. When Crawford heard of Childers' impending break from music, he stepped in and offered to collaborate on a project. He would write the music and Childers could write the lyrics. The result was the 2010 debut album by OverMountain Men, Glorious Day.
Initially, Childers was skeptical of Crawford's proposal, a feeling spawned by his years trying to make it as a singer-songwriter. "I felt like a failure because I couldn't sustain it and we weren't getting invited to festivals, but he really picked me up," says Childers . "I've heard so much smoke from people, but he actually did something. All of a sudden I got these files where he's gone and hired musicians and made these recordings. He picked me up and I'm glad he did, because I'm really having a lot of fun playing music now."
His latest record, the religiously minded Serpents of Reformation, was the idea of his son Robert, who sidelines in apocalyptic band, Luciferian Agenda. "The last thing I had in mind was making an album with religious overtones," says the devout Christian Childers. "I didn't think he would want to do it because we've fought about that."
Yet it's hardly a preachy album. Instead, it's about the ache and the wanting that gave purchase to Christianity. It ranges from the jug-band emancipation rock of "Jesus Set Me Free" to the shadowy sizzling slink of "Cain and Abel" and the parched, haunting elegy "Sodom and Gomorrah."
Childers heaps praise on Robert and collaborator/producer Neil Harper, who, like Crawford, crafted the music for Childers' distinctive, weathered baritone.
"Robert and Neil would work all night on this stuff, and then they'd tell me to come in. I'd go in this little booth and I never spent more than an hour and a half at a time there, which was fine by me because I was kind of burned out," Childers recalls. "Then a few days later, I'd get a CD of it or a file and I'm like, 'God, how the hell did that happen?'"
Of course, it hasn't been the easiest road. "People see 'Jesus,' and they just freak out," he snickers. "They're afraid you're going to try to indoctrinate them."
Instead, Serpents of Reformation is about how the Bible and gospel music mirror the darkness as much as they offer visions of a shimmering promised land. "I like to read the Bible, and I get confused and pissed off as much as inspired by it," says Childers. "I would hope the language of that comes through, the grimness of the images and the stories that you get out of the Bible — they're pretty scary stories."