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Hellfire and Redemption

David Childers' weaknesses are also his strengths

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David Childers is burning in hell. But there's no need for you to offer up prayers of salvation. The situation appears to suit him just fine.

With Childers, hell is a state of mind the singer/songwriter is all too familiar with. He's made a career out of pain exploration. Since his '94 debut, Godzilla He Done Broke Out, he's wallowed in the misery of heartbreak, loneliness, injustice and abuse, chronicling a hell on earth.

Childers' latest release, Burning In Hell, takes him a few levels farther down that blistering chute. He's accompanied by his son, Robert, who plays drums in Childers Sr.'s band, the Modern don Juans.

His work has never been subtle, but on Burning he comes out blazing. "My mama usta beat my ass," he growls on "Mama," the opening cut. "And if I cried she beat it twice/she didn't like me too well/My mama was a devil out of hell," he bellows, as the Don Juans slam out a blistering rockabilly beat behind him.

A few minutes later, on the title cut, he's berating a lost love, telling her he's damned forever because she done him wrong and she can't make it right. "You cast me out from your sweet promised land," he moans over a boiling bluegrass accompaniment, "and I'm burning in hell over you."

It's enough to beat down any man, but it hasn't defeated Childers. "Aww, I been through worse than that," he said last week, phoning in from his Mt. Holly headquarters. "I've had a weakness for the ladies. Unfortunately," he wheezes, "Some of 'em have had a weakness for me."

Thankfully, not all of the experiences he writes about are autobiographical. "Mama" came from a conversation he had with a fan who actually opened the dialogue with the first verse of that song. "It just stuck with me," Childers said, then he and the band rounded out the lyrics. Childers learned how to elaborate on reality while in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro some years back. "I had this poem, 'he shit so hard his eyes fell out,' he recalls. "I remember reading that at a poetry reading, and people just went nuts. They loved it." The rest of the poem was standard stuff, then he wowed 'em again with "there was a roar and then the sky rained wing-tip shoes."

Childers says the response to those kinds of outrageous statements encouraged him not to be safe lyrically. "My attitude about songwriting from hanging out with The Gourds and getting to know their music is to say the things that are unspeakable," he says. "Give people something different to consider rather than what your own psychology is or how much you're in love."

He finds it hard to listen to much new music in the singer/songwriter vein because "it just ain't about anything." He says he finds most performers in that genre lacking in meaningful lyrics, with one notable exception. "You take The Avett Brothers -- those guys sing about something, they let their hearts open up and they're telling you stuff about their lives and revealing things."

But Childers doesn't have a problem lyrically or with his delivery. His vocals are a blend of Billy Joe Shaver, Delbert McClinton, Sleepy La Beef and David Allen Coe. His lyrics sound like poetry of the streets that Charles Bukowski would be proud to claim. "If they'll give us a chance and come out and hear us, people'll find out it's pretty damn intense," Childers says of his performances.

But his blustery, bombastic onstage demeanor doesn't carry over into real life. Offstage, Childers is surprisingly humble. "People tell me all the time how much this music means to 'em," he says. "That just really blows my mind, cause I never expected it to reach out that far to people. I'm happy it does, but it just wasn't what I was expecting."

Music isn't what Childers does for gainful employment. "I work a job that's very intense," he says, "So I don't think much about it till I show up to play."

He puts in about 50 to 60 hours at his day job -- as a lawyer. "That's how I make a living. I couldn't do it at this," he says of his musical career. "I'm not well known enough and I don't think I'm gonna be very well known during my lifetime."

But Childers is not just running up billable hours, selling his soul to burn in hell for clients who should be there as well. His is a specialized practice that deals exclusively with Social Security disability. "I help people who can't work and all of sudden they're getting a check, they're getting medical help, their lives improve," he says. "It makes a difference in people's lives. I feel like that's a hell of a lot more important than any song I could write."

Despite the strength of his new record, and the fine work he's done in the past on '06s Jailhouse Religion and the more recent acoustic house concert The Back Shop Live, Childers believes the band's popularity in Charlotte has peaked. "We're not the happening thing anymore," he says, "but we still get some people to come out and hear us."

As long as people come out, he'll keep doing his music. "I'm just not interested in making it, or being anything other than what we are," Childers says. "I couldn't be happier."

David Childers and the Modern Don Juans play the Comet Grill, 2224 Park Road on Saturday, Sept. 8. Call (704) 371-4300 for showtime and ticket info.

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