Years ago, in a honky-tonk bar, a gentleman strode in dressed as the Devil. Onstage was David Childers — a firebrand, Southern-born performer once ironically dubbed “General Sherman — positively intent on burning down the house.” Childers already reeked of legend. Lawyer by day, poet by night, he sang songs of hardcore sin and redemption, even yelling Bible verses at audiences in between numbers. Childers got “Satan” in his scopes and “wrassled” the horned interloper right out of the bar. He returned victorious, covered in fake blood.
Although David Childers doesn’t spout the Bible anymore, he still manages to be controversial with his present band, the Modern Don Juans. Live shows lean toward rowdy. Americana is where he’s placed, but he’s more viscerally punk. A songwriter of the highest order, Childers creates shifty characters in his songs, rarely writing about himself.
“There’s enough people writing about themselves,” said Childers in a recent phone interview, his voice reminiscent of the warm Johnny Cash baritone to which he is incessantly compared. “I hear all these singer/songwriters doing this psychobabble. It bores me. Plus, I don’t think I’m a very interesting person to write about.”
Childers covers every parameter of the wayward soul on his seventh release, Jailhouse Religion (Little King Records, 2006). Staying true to form, the blue-collar scholar calls it like he sees it. “Danse Macabre” (with licks lifted from AC/DC) ruminates on the apocalypse. “Roadside Parable” (replete with Tex-Mex horns) depicts a man who decides not to be a Samaritan. Childers even ventures into polarizing territory with “George Wallace,” telling the story of the racist Alabama governor who sought redemption in later life:
“He sought forgiveness from the blacks
He fought so long to hold down and back.
Most of them responded like real Christians.
George found forgiveness in the end
So give a little credit to the man.
George knew that was how it had to be.”
Some radio stations up North recently decided that’s not the way it had to be, refusing to play “George Wallace.”
“It amazes and disappoints me how stupidly many people react to the George Wallace song on the new record,” Childers wrote on his Web site the day after the Xpress interview. “As if the very mention of his name is the same as saying nigger, or f••k your momma. Sounds like some intellectual constipation going on there.”
Asked whether he might estrange listeners with a song like “Wallace,” Childers remonstrates: “What’s to alienate? I wish people would just listen to what the damn song is saying. … I guess you’re supposed to vilify and play into all the stereotypes, but that’s not what I’m about.”
Now 55, Childers grew up in a community where a lot of folks supported what Wallace was saying. He spent his formative years knowing segregated schools, sports teams and drinking fountains.
“I think I identify with Wallace because, through the years, I had to make my own changes and learn what is right,” the singer goes on. And anyone who delves into Childers’ life and lyrics sees a man intent on redemption — as long as he can wear a jester hat when heaven calls.
Ask him about his influences and the usual collage of Dylan, Cash and Henry Miller (who, like Childers, wrote about “ordinary Joes and Janes”) appears. But he also reveals literary indebtedness to Charles Bukowski, Rudy Ray Moore (star of the cult hit Dolemite) and controversial black comedian Dave Chappelle. His band covers such hip acts as Tom Waits and the Cramps (influenced by Childers’ son Robert, who plays drums in the band).
For his musical epitaph, David wants: “He Rocked!” Fights sometimes break out at his shows, and one evening, a woman found it imperative to grab David’s crotch.
“I want people to get up and dance,” asserts Childers. “I want a party when we play. I want folks to carry on, chase women, whatever.”
Yet, for all his debauchery, Childers innocently wrestles the Devil at all times. Although the typecast of a lawyer carries a tattered image, Childers uses his status to help the disadvantaged get their social security and disability. The day of the interview, he’d just returned from helping a developmentally disabled person get his benefits. The lawyer side also introduced David to the grotesque, a theme that dots a lot of his writing.
“I never had any real adventures until I became a lawyer,” says Childers. “Since I got my law license I’ve had more than my share of reality-scary, horrifying experiences. I’ve learned more about human misery and how pervasive it is. I see the music as a reward.”
While cynical of most churches and religions, Childers owns a preacher side. He cites spiritual experiences of God-like deliverances from despair, and his first musical epiphany came courtesy of a Virginia backwoods Pentecostal church.
“I had a song called ‘Glory, Glory, Glory,’ which was inspired by these people at this church I went to when I was in military school,” says Childers.
Granted furlough on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, David and several of his friends wound up at this veiled house of worship one morning.
“There was a dude at the church who played harmonica and guitar along with his wife. Real nice people. Dirt poor. Toothless. We were inspired by the music.
“To this day, I think about that old guy. I thought about his Sunday suit, his harmonica rack, playing the hell out of an old Martin, singing these songs with images of blood, fire, torture, and redemption. That kind of subject is dramatic. It has balls.”
These convictions spill into his work. His angelic vulgarity rattles fans, who in turn come to his live shows that are essentially tent revivals with a bar. His Modern Don Juan band mates — son Robert, Mark Lynch (bass and vocals), Randy Saxon (guitar, mandolin, banjo) — are all buddies, believers in the music and in David’s gospel.
“Life is vulgar and full of nasty things,” offers Childers. “I’m fascinated by the lifestyles that are suppressed and hidden from us. We have a lot of rules that are contrary to human nature. There’s something exhilarating about pulling the mask off and showing what’s really there.
“I think the Devil rules the world,” he continues. “But, I don’t give into hopelessness or despair … or death. All those things I think we can overcome in our spirit.”
Childers pauses, suddenly aware of his impromptu sermon.
“… See, here I am preaching at you.”
David Childers and the Modern Don Juans play a CD-release party at Westville Pub (777 Haywood Road) on Saturday, April 22. $5. Call 225-9782 for time and more information.