Run Skeleton Run, David Childers’ sixth solo album (Ramseur Records, March 5th), starts off with the title track, a raucous warning to a discontented skeleton that refuses to rest in peace, and it ends with “Goodbye to Growing Old,” a declaration of his acceptance of the passage of years. In between, Childers sings about the lure of Communism in his youth and about a flood that took down a train. He tells stories: an American sailor cutting loose on leave, a snowy hunting trip with a dog, a hermit who died on the beach. He uses the characters to explore the demons humans all wrestle with–lust, dishonesty, fear and loneliness. The album travels on a wide, rambling road through the Americana landscape, bringing in rockabilly and country influences, a folk sensibility, and some Cajun-spiced fiddle along the way.
You don’t have to know anything about David Childers to appreciate this album, with its addictive collection of evocative vignettes, but I’m going to tell you some things anyway.
He’s 65 years old and has lived almost all his life in Gaston County, a red county in North Carolina, but he’s unapologetically left wing in his opinions. He’s a Christian. He played high school football. He earned his living as a lawyer. He likes poetry, jazz and opera. He’s a history buff who wrote and recorded a song about Alexander Hamilton years before the musical made Hamilton a pop star. He recorded his first album when he was over 40. It was called “Godzilla! He Done Broke Out!” He speaks with a deep southern drawl but drops vocabulary into conversation that you may need to look up afterwards. You probably haven’t heard of him if you don’t live in North Carolina (or maybe even if you do) but other songwriters, including a couple with the last name of Avett, revere him.
If this sounds to you like a contradictory description, that might say more about your preconceived notions about people of the rural south than it does about Childers.
People are complex. This is something I wanted to ask him about–the complexity of people, not just him, but also the people whose spirits are woven into this album, as characters in the songs, inspiration for the songs and also as songwriting collaborators. Several of the songs started out as poems or stories that other people shared with him.
We’re sitting in the backyard of his Mount Holly home in the early spring, before the mosquitoes have come out. The yard is filled with gardens. Paintings lean against the walls on the porch. Cajun music by Carolina Gator Gumbo floats from a shed, competing with a chorus of songbirds for air space, and a cat walks across the table where my phone is recording our conversation so that it can rub against Childers’ shoulder.
I mention how most of the people who contributed song ideas to the album aren’t songwriters.
“But they’re people,” Childers says. “And that’s what my songs are generally about. People, just people living their lives. That’s about all I know how to do, is write about what’s around me, stuff I can relate to.”
“Collar and Bell,” a story about a hunting dog getting lost in the snow, came from lyrics sent to Childers by Shannon Mayes, a schoolteacher in Ohio.
“There was just something so genuine, and that story really grabbed me,” Childers says, and nods toward one of his dogs, who’s rolling around in the grass like he’s dancing to the sounds of the accordion and fiddle music wafting from the shed. “As you can see, I don’t have as many dogs as I have been before. They’re dying off.”
The song “Belmont Ford,” is another that started with the contribution of someone who isn’t a songwriter. Childers was familiar with the subject matter, the flood of 1916, which caused a trestle to collapse, sending a train into the Catawba River, killing 17 men. Mary Struble Deery shared a poem about the flood with Childers, and he condensed it and re-worked it, turning it into a song.
A couple other songs are the results of collaborations. He wrote “A Promise to the Wind” with Douglass Thompson, and “Hermit” with songwriter Mark Freeman.
The best-known contributor to this album is Scott Avett of The Avett Brothers. It was actually Bob Crawford, bass player for The Avett Brothers, who initially became interested in Childers’ work. Back in 2007, he heard that Childers was planning to hang up his guitar, and he coaxed him back into the music world by forming the band The Overmountain Men with him. They recorded two albums together.
In 2015 Crawford asked Childers about doing another album, this time with producer Don Dixon (R.E.M. and The Smithereens; he also produced Childers’ 2003 album “Room #23”) at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium, and that’s how “Run Skeleton Run” came about.
Along the way, Crawford’s band mate Scott Avett became interested in Childers’ music, often covering his song “The Prettiest Thing” in concert.
Avett’s is actually the first voice you hear on the album. The title track starts with a spooky poem, almost shouted, that says, in part: “There’s a skeleton in my living room / Telling many woes / His cold eyes blaze with anger / His beard is white as bone.”
I ask if this poem was written as part of the song.
“No, it wasn’t actually,” Childers says. “A friend of mine had come here and had almost driven me insane ‘cause he just wouldn’t stop talking and it was always angry, bitter stuff about his life that I listened to for two days. That poem came out of that. Just this skeletal figure, just spraying all his hate. Not at me. I love the guy, he’s a great friend, but he was in a bad place.”
As to Avett’s involvement, Childers says, “Ol’ Dale Shoemaker, plays guitar with us, he called me up and was like ‘I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t you get Scott Avett to do some of them crazy voices he does. Like, read a poem or say something.’ And I’m like, I’ve got it. And that started right there and everyone dug it. I was very happy that he wanted to participate. Apparently, he liked that last record, ‘Serpents of Reformation,’ that nobody paid any attention to. So Bob Crawford, who (co-)produced this record too, he told me Scott was really into it. It was hard to get to know if he was going to do it or not. I’d actually given up on it. But all of a sudden he had time and he did stuff remotely. Banjo parts, vocals. I’m glad as hell he did.”
Childers is also a painter. Prominently featured in his primitive style artwork are musicians, Jesus, rivers and skeletons. It was one of his skeleton paintings that kick-started this song.
“I was painting this picture on a great big old board and I wrote those words out (‘Run Skeleton Run’) and it was like ‘that’d be a pretty crazy song.’ Skeletons resonate with people. They always have with me. To me, it’s a symbol of mortality. In my view of the world death is just a process you go through and then you move on into another process.”
I ask Childers about the second song, “Radio Moscow,” which feels eerily timely. He talks about what the song is really about, a time in his youth when he listened to Russian transmissions on a shortwave radio, but he draws a connection to what’s going on in the world today too.
“He was waiting on the day to make his escape / So he could figure out the American way. / He had no friends, he didn’t fit in, but maybe there was some kind of message for him. / The shadows and the groans of a dying world / Didn’t frighten him as much as talking to girls. / Hiding in the attic, 14 years old, listening to Radio Moscow.”
“(Trump) had nothing to do with it,” Childers says. “But, you know, I’m happy if people see that connection. Cause I think it needs to be seen. And it needs to be dealt with. It’s just coincidence. But if there’s a common linking thread it’s alienation. That song’s about alienation. This young guy, me, when I was 15, felt like I had absolutely no place in this place here. Where I live now. I actually live in a very different place, although it’s only two miles from where I grew up. But I have my own world that has transcended that.
“But I was so unhappy in that stage of my life that I was reflecting on. I would find solace in something like a guy spewing anti-American propaganda through a little radio far away. I was attracted to it.
“Trumpism was very much about alienation. Not feeling like you’re a part of the society because you’re a white man or a white woman who’s lost their job, and you feel like Mexicans, and black people, or Asians get more. And you see them succeeding. It’s kind of a sense, particularly in the south, that white people have, it’s being privileged because they were white. Like they should not have to compete. And it’s a different world now and they feel displaced. Racism is a part of it. I don’t know if it’s the main part of it. Most of the people I know, though, who were Trump boys are racist. I’m sorry. They’re my friends, I love them, but…”
There’s a particularly disconcerting line in the song: “Somewhere a finger is twitching by a red telephone / While he’s listening to Radio Moscow.” I point out that right now, it’s hard to listen to that line without thinking of Trump.
“We had recorded the song a year before Trump, in the spring, at least. But that’s what made us do the video. It helped us focus in on which song we were gonna do.”
The tension is tightened by a Russian language radio clip that starts and ends the song, and that plays in the background of some of the instrumental sections.
“That’s something (producer Don) Dixon had. And he said it was from some intercepted conversations that the U.S. military picked up. But I don’t know where the hell he got them. I don’t want the CIA or the NSA coming around here asking me about it,” he says, laughing. “But it’s something he just had. I didn’t ask too many questions. I don’t even know what they’re saying.”
Alienation of different kinds is a recurring theme in this record. It also shows up in “Greasy Dollar” which was inspired by his time working as a laborer when he was a teenager, digging ditches and picking up trash by the side of the road. He writes from the point of view of the people he worked with back then, older, uneducated men with no other prospects.
“Digging ditches all day out by the freeway / With a backhoe and a shovel crew. / What good is living and what good is dying / If this is all I’m ever gonna do?”
“It was one of those songs I’d been trying to write since I was about 16 years old, because I was inspired. The world was very vivid to me. I couldn’t capture it. That song just came to me one day and it felt like a gift from God. I’ve seen so many people react to that. I’ve seen people just listen to it and you can tell that it resonates with them. I remember playing it in downtown Charlotte and all these people on a bus looking down at us in a kind of recognition and sadness about them. Like ‘damn, that’s my life.’ I respect people that work, that make that effort to go out and sweat or just whatever you do. Use your brain, your hands, your back. I just respect that a lot. When I wrote that I was like, finally. Finally I said it. I’ve been waiting 50 years, literally 50 years.”
As hopeless as never-ending manual labor might sound (as the chorus goes: “Some say the world was made for fun and frolic / And so say I, indeed, O say I / But I’ve got to go and earn my greasy dollar / So I can keep on working ‘til I die”) Childers draws from his experience as a lawyer to zero in on an even greater pathos.
“What’s sad is when they lose that job or they lose the ability to do that job. I dealt with disabled people, trying to get social security benefits for probably my last 15 years. I really came to sympathize with that. You see people time and time again displaced, alienated, with an illness… And they’re lost in this whole web of trying to find a doctor to say ‘well you can’t work’ and dealing with regulations and a system that says ‘you can’ and you’re just shit out of luck, man.”
“Greasy Dollar” is one of the songs that include backing vocals by Scott Avett, as well as by Jacob Sharp of the North Carolina string band Mipso. Sharp also contributed mandolin to several songs.
“Ghostland” addresses a different kind of alienation, the way a person loses the connection with a loved one and becomes estranged. “Memories are blind to me now / Pages from an unwritten book / And all the magic that we used to share / Cannot be found wherever I look. / And so I fade away into the ghostland.”
When I ask Childers about this song I mention that to my ears it has the vibe of one of those slow, romantic Elvis songs (although later I think Roy Orbison is a better comparison.) At the end of many lines, Childers’ vocals trail off, sliding down in pitch, which adds a delicate, tender quality to his rough-hewn voice. The organ, played by Don Dixon, helps give the song a wistful 1950s feeling, and when a plaintive fiddle solo follows the line “Maybe today, maybe tomorrow / I’ll find a way to outlive this sorrow” we are planted solidly in heartbreak territory.
“I’m glad you mentioned that one. Cause that’s kind of my favorite. Specifically for what you said. It reminds me of songs you’d hear on the AM radio sitting in the drive-in restaurant or something, or out parking with your girlfriend. A lot of that’s Dixon though. When I wrote it I didn’t foresee it turning out that way. I write them to play on a guitar and sing. I don’t have an understanding of a piano or an organ. I’m probably the poorest musician in the whole band of all the guys I play with. Hell, they’re just songs. I write a song with the words and imagery and have a melody that I enjoy singing, and if I enjoy it I figure someone else will too.”
The musicians who so skillfully bring to life the songs on this album are his regular band mates Robert Childers (his son, on drums), Geoff White (fiddle), Korey Dudley (standup bass) and Dale Shoemaker (guitar.) Besides Scott Avett, Don Dixon and Jacob Sharp, the fourth “ringer,” as Childers calls him, is David Niblock, who plays guitar on three songs.
If alienation is one thread weaving its way through the record, another is growing older, and the changes that age brings.
On two songs, Childers assesses his stage in life and looks back. On “Thanks to All (Long Ago)” he recognizes the people who tried to help him throughout his life, possibly when he didn’t quite deserve their help. “And thanks to all my teachers / Who did the best they could / Until they finally realized that I was just no good / Long ago, long ago / And thanks to all the judges / Who did not send me down / And all the cops who let me pass on through their little towns / Long ago, so long ago.”
He touches on the quiet enjoyment of his life today: “I could have wound up dying young / In some hidden place / And never known these peaceful days / Filled with amazing grace.”
“If you look at my life,” he says, “there’s nothing to envy. It’s pretty boring. My wife and I work a lot. We like to have private lives. That pretty much encompasses it. But I’m ok with it. I like it, actually.”
And in “Goodbye to Growing Old,” which he wrote with Theresa Halfacre, he sings about his acquiescence to the passage of time, and the sense of contentment that he’s found.
“I saw that old man looking through the glass / I thought that I might cry but that soon passed / Although he is alone, he will not be for long / And he won’t waste time on chasing what he’s lost. / So I guess I’ll say goodbye to growing old / And keep your memory held to me close / I’ll get on with the game. / I ain’t about to fold. / I guess I’ll say goodbye to growing old.”
I ask him if his approach to songwriting has changed as he’s grown older.
“I think my life is a lot more orderly now. I’ve settled down a lot more. I’m very happy with the existence that I have. I was a very unsettled person when I started out playing music.
“I’m not so emotional when I write. If you go back, like I was listening to a song from way back, ‘Possibility,’ it’s just not the kind of song I’d write now. It’s kind of excessive. I like to think maybe my songs now are a little more sparse. The language is more sparse. It’s not cluttered up with so much. It’s just a different way of writing. I guess it’s just not as emotional. It’s more in control. I’m much more interested in getting a thing I can hold onto and move around, instead of something that’s thrown over on top of my head, like a net. But thank God I had that outlet. Writing songs and being able to put them on records, I’m lucky I’ve gotten to do all that.
“I’m 65 now and I feel like I got maybe another 65 years,” he jokes. “But whatever the hell I got I’m gonna use it to create with.”