In a June 2015 interview with Xpress, Penrose-based Americana artist Dave Desmelik reflected on his oldest son Holmes’ intense health struggles over the past year. “I’m certainly thinking about him and what’s going on with his brain tumor and pediatric brain cancer and all this stuff, 24/7,” he said. “It definitely affects me in writing. Sometimes it’s more of a feeling than lyrical stuff.”
Two years later, after witnessing Holmes go through the long protocol of chemotherapy and numerous hospital visits, Desmelik felt the time was right to convey his wide-ranging thoughts on these experiences through song. Using just guitar and vocals, he sat down in his garage late at night over the course of nearly three months and, in his words, “let it take its natural course.”
From such basic roots, Desmelik’s creations have blossomed into the sonically rich, star-studded Army of Love (Childhood Battles), which receives a record release show on Sunday, Dec. 9, at The Grey Eagle. The 11-track collection features such notable Western North Carolina musicians as Amanda Anne Platt (The Honeycutters), Mike Ashworth and Mike Guggino (Steep Canyon Rangers), Andrew Scotchie, Jane Kramer and Shannon Whitworth, all singing compositions that the writer himself knew weren’t for him to vocally share.
“I would probably break down in tears and crawl to the corner of the stage in the fetal position and suck my thumb if I was the one to go sing these in public,” Desmelik says.
Along with attempting to remain artistically creative and fresh, 13 albums into his solo career, Desmelik wanted to involve a range of people to help raise awareness about pediatric illness through more channels. Every dollar from album sales and tickets to the record release show (which includes a copy of the CD) will be given to a trio of charities that have aided the Desmeliks and other families through similar battles: the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, Angel Flight Soars and the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Central & Western North Carolina.
None of the songs on Army of Love were written with a particular artist in mind, but once they were done, Desmelik carefully considered who would pair best with each track. He says the bluesy “Ring That Bell,” which references the important musical action that cancer patients take to signify the end of a chemo or radiation protocol — and includes audio of Holmes’ joyful chimes at Mission Health — seemed like a good fit for the “kind of bluesy” Laura Blackley. Then there’s “Chemo,” a raw, powerful tune that felt natural for the “pretty intense” Aaron Woody Wood, whom Desmelik says “almost commands you to listen to him when he’s singing.”
For each collaboration, Desmelik sent the artist his guitar-and-vocals recording and a lyric sheet. His instructions were to listen, sing along and make it theirs while staying true to the song. When they were ready to record, he scheduled a time for them to come to his house, lay down the track and have their favorite meal with his family. Desmelik provided all the instrumentation — ranging from drums to banjo to Hammond M3 organ — but was otherwise fairly hands-off in the studio.
“They looked to me some, but I also wanted to give them the freedom to do what they do because they’re pros, all of them,” he says. “They don’t need some silly person like me telling them how to sing a song. Follow the bare bones of the song and make it what it’s going to be through your voice.”
Desmelik was riding in his car sometime in the early stages of recording when the phrase “Army of Love” popped into his head. At the next intersection, he jotted the words on a notepad and it soon became what he and his wife, Clare, started calling everyone involved in the project.
“It made sense,” Desmelik says. “It really incorporates not just the musicians, but anyone and everyone who’s … trying to do good things and be a positive force in these odd times we live in.”
Other standout members include Echo Mountain Recording studio manager Jessica Tomasin, who arranged for Stephen Smith of Soundsmiths Mastering to donate his mastering expertise to the album, which Desmelik feels “elevated the sound to another level.” There’s also Grey Eagle owners Sarah and Russ Keith, who were among the first people to visit the Desmeliks in the hospital when Holmes was born, and Woody Platt and John Felty of Mountain Song Productions, the show’s promotional partner. Platt wanted to help after his Ranger bandmates Ashworth and Guggino played the mixdown version of their contribution, “Youthful Days,” on the band’s tour bus.
All of the guest artists will perform at the album release show. Desmelik will be part of the house band with Josh Gibbs (lap steel guitar), Andy Gibbon (bass guitar), Derrick Gardner (keys) and Ashworth (drums). Representatives from each beneficiary nonprofit will also be in attendance.
As for Holmes, he’s currently in fourth grade, and his tumor has been stable for a little over two years. As Desmelik reports, “He’s doing great.”
WHO: Dave Desmelik with an Army of Love
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Sunday, Dec. 9, 7:30 p.m. $25 standing/$40 seated/$75 VIP