Photo by Mike Hammer
who: Overmountain Men, with Mipso Trio
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, Jan. 26 (9 p.m. $8/$10. thegreyeagle.com)
David Childers and the Avetts’ Bob Crawford bring wry wit and prickling melodies to the Overmountain Men
David Childers is a student of history. On his new outing with Charlotte’s Overmountain Men, he sets his comfortably worn baritone to songs that alternately defend and damn Theodore Roosevelt and Alexander Hamilton. He sings the woes of a Tory soldier fighting in the Battle of King’s Mountain, a decisive late contest between Patriot and Loyalist militias during the Revolutionary War fought by Childers’ North Carolina kin.
The band’s name is a tribute to this legacy. Titled The Next Best Thing, the new album is a thoughtful folk-rock rumination on lives lived and mistakes made in America — past, present and imaginary — set to a diverse array of sounds sourced from throughout the country’s vast songbook.
Sonically and lyrically, Overmountain Men traverse time with incredible ease, but a few years ago, time was weighing heavily on Childers — specifically his decades spent in a music industry that had yet to reward him with widespread acclaim or monetary success.
His Modern Don Juans, a steadfast folk outfit filled out with fierce rockabilly swagger, were well-loved regionally, but they were losing money and gaining little ground on a national level. They called it quits, and Childers, burnt-out and dejected, took a break from music. Then, one day, his friend and Avett Brothers bassist Bob Crawford came calling for a few lyrics to set to music. The creative spark soon became a full-fledged collaboration. They worked hard throughout 2009 and released Glorious Day, Overmountain Men’s debut, in 2010.
“It definitely did reinvigorate me,” the 61-year-old singer recalls. Over the phone, his voice is warm and polite, uttering more complicated words with a playful disdain, as if he’s constantly aware of the stigma some might apply to his thick Southern drawl.
“Bob, he has a great reputation,” Childers continues. “It’s like if you have a business, and you’re operating under one name that’s not well known, and suddenly, you’re attached to a larger, more recognizable name or product. Bob lent that to this band. Understandably, mainly the only reason anybody’s interested in it is because he’s in it. What he’s done is he’s just been a promoter for me. He likes what I do. He understands it and respects it, and he lets the world know it.”
Still, not everything has come easily for Overmountain Men. The band gathered in 2011 to record their second album, but they were soon interrupted by a particularly troubling obstacle. Crawford’s daughter, Hallie, was diagnosed with cancer. He parted to be with his family, and work was halted indefinitely. As she fought for her life, the Overmountain Men soldiered on, completing their sophomore effort in spite of the circumstances.
“You’re running real fast, and you’re really feeling it, and all the sudden, you come to a dead stop; it was a bit distressing to us,” Childers says. “But our first concern was for the little girl and then for Bob. We got our wheels back under us, and we finished the darn thing. It wasn’t all that hard to finish it. Now it’s just been a matter of, you got this finished record; well, when are we going to release it? That’s been kind of difficult to put together, but finally, it’s all come around.”
Released this week, The Next Best Thing is confident proof that Childers’ gifts are more than worthy of the exposure that Crawford’s name affords. There are breakup songs and kiss-offs that resound with wry wit and prickling melody, like album opener “All Out of Diamonds,” which doubles as a defense of the working man as Childers jokes bitterly that diamonds are too expensive to ever consider getting married.
But the most impressive moments come when Childers applies his wizened songwriting to politics and history. With “Halls of Glory,” he goes Woody Guthrie on a ballad exploring the unbridled ambition and subsequent achievements of Theodore Roosevelt — “History don’t cheat me/ You know how to use me/ Carve my countenance in stone.”
Lilting piano and strings back him on “Alexander Hamilton” as he constructs tender R&B in defense of the Founding Father and first Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, whose unyielding convictions led him to lose his life in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. “I know with truth, I’ll never win,” Childers coos, “but here I go again.” In both cases, the singer confronts American pride, exploring its ability to bring us to new heights and lead us to our biggest blunders.
“There’s truths in these histories,” Childers says. “Just the futility of Alexander Hamilton in the long run or the fact that we have to live with bad choices, those are the things that interest me. But there’s a lot that leads up to that, a lot of redemption in the long run. I always want that to come through: redemption, forgiveness, healing, a sort of triumph if you can have it.”
Jordan Lawrence is music editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.