JOHN HOWIE JR. & THE ROSEWOOD BLUFF w/ DAVID CHILDERS
When North Carolina’s honky-tonk heroes the Two Dollar Pistols broke up in 2008- leaving behind a legacy that included five full-length CD’s, an EP of duets with Grammy nominee Tift Merritt, and several US and European tours- lead singer/songwriter John Howie Jr. already had the seeds planted for a new group, one that would continue the Pistols tradition of making soulful honky-tonk based music for contemporary times. Bringing drummer Matt Brown over from the Pistols, John recruited pedal steel guitar ace Nathan Golub, christened the new band John Howie Jr and the Rosewood Bluff, and set about writing a new batch of songs.
After a solid year of playing live, opening for everyone from Junior Brown to Lucero, plans were made for the band to enter the studio. Brian Paulson (Wilco, The Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo) was called on to take the producer’s chair, having done a stellar job in that capacity on the Two Dollar Pistols 2004 Yep Roc release, Hands Up! Studio time was blocked off at Kudzu Ranch, owned and operated by Rick Miller (Southern Culture on the Skids). Several months later, the band emerged with Leavin’ Yesterday, an album that expands upon the Pistols trademark sound, adding prominent pedal steel guitar, piano (by DB’s/REM member Peter Holsapple), and strings to the mix for a landmark country music collection that should please Pistols fans, while breaking new ground at the same time.
Album opener “Watch Me Fall,” a defiant, ringing kiss-off in the grand tradition of country music, sets the tone for Leavin’ Yesterday. Straight-ahead country-rockers, “Trying Not to Think,” and, “Last Great Guitar Slinger,” sit comfortably next to ballads like, “Downhill,” and classic honky-tonk shuffles like, “Handful of Heartaches,”and, “Back to Basics.” The Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell influenced “Dead Man’s Suit” comes off “like it could have been Gene Clark…if he’d packed a string section,” according to Shuffle Magazine, while “I’ve Found Someone New,” also featuring a string quartet, bears the influence of Billy Sherill’s 1970’s “Countrypolitan” productions as found on the George Jones and Charlie Rich records of the day. The album-closing title track rings out with 12-string Rickenbacker, pedal steel, and gorgeous harmonies.
With Leavin Yesterday finished, Howie put together a crack band capable of capturing all of the moods in the country music idiom and doing full justice to his songs. Along with Golub on steel and Brown on drums, electric/upright bassist Billie Feather (The Bo-Stevens, Darnell Woodies) signed up, as did telecaster hero Tim Shearer (Hearts and Daggers), with Howie front and center on lead vocals and acoustic guitar.
Response to the album – as evidenced by great reviews, airplay on Little Steven’s Outlaw Country, and choice slots at the Ameriserv Flood City Music Fest and an opening spot for country music legend George Jones – has been overwhelmingly positive. The fan base Howie built with Two Dollar Pistols and prime song placement in hit films like Jeepers Creepers and hot TV shows like Weeds and United States of Tara continues to grow.
Two Dollar Pistols fans mourning the loss of North Carolina’s finest traditional country/honky-tonk band need not have worried. While the Pistols may be gone, one listen to Leavin’ Yesterday by John Howie Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff should prove that, as the Charleston City Paper says, “Howie’s best years may still be ahead of him.”
Throughout his 20-year career as a singer, songwriter and bandleader, Childers has written about the tension between secular and religious impulses. His albums have always included songs of wild hedonism and uplifting faith but, as his new album, Serpents of Reformation,evolved, he found himself drawn to themes of salvation and repentance. “I wrote a few new gospel-type songs and the music took on a life of its own. The songs all look at the forgiveness that’s at the heart of Christian philosophy, even though you don’t see a lot (of forgiveness) in the world today.”
Childers usually tracks his records live, with minimal overdubs. This time, he let his son Robert and co-producer Neal Harper control the creative process. “I didn’t set out to make a gospel album,” David Childers says, “I wanted to make a hip-hop record. I’d been listening to a lot of the stuff RL Burnside recorded late in his career. He had a lot of hip hop beats and electronic rhythms in the background. I told my son Robert, who knows a lot about recording technology that I wanted to do a record like that. We started by recording ‘Life of Jesus,’ a song I did with The Gospel Playboys in the 90s, and took off from there.
“Sometimes I’d do a basic track singing with a drummer or my acoustic guitar,” Childers continued. “Mostly, I was just brought in to do my vocals. I didn’t hang out in the studio. I just let them do what they wanted to do.”
The result is a hybrid that blends Childers’ roots in folk, country and blues, with the atmospheric textures generated by Harper and his son Robert, a mix of acoustic and electronic sounds that span the entire history of American music. “God Is God” is a traditional tune, an a cappella tour de force that’s half jubilee gospel and half chain gang moan, delivered with deep guttural harmonies and hand claps. Childers learned “Woman at the Well” from the singing of Mahalia Jackson, but this bass heavy arrangement is full of the grating sounds of industrial decay, with Childers’ lead vocal crying for a hint of solace. On “Don’t Be Scared,” Childers sings the praises of love’s healing power, while acoustic banjo, fiddle and stand up bass offset the processed Johnny Cash thump of the backing track. “This song is about merging the physical and spiritual in a positive way,” Childers explains. “If there’s a touch of Cash in it, that’s cool. He was a redneck singing about societies ills and all God’s children ain’t free, which was not popular with Southern white people, and still isn’t.”
Layers of sampled percussion give “Gospel Plow” a West African feel, while Jim Avett sings and plays acoustic guitar on a bluegrass flavored take on the old hymn “Jericho.” Andy The Doorbum adds spectral organ and baritone harmonies to the sinister rumble of “Sodom and Gomorrah,” giving Childers’ vocal an apocalyptic aura. Like many of the album’s songs, “How ‘Bout You” balances traditional vocal harmonies, sanctified baritone trumpet and handclaps with murky, processed rhythms and shadowy howls of grief.
“This is an accidental gospel record,” Childers says. “It’s a contemplation of my beliefs and people can react as they see fit. I’ve had experiences that let me know there’s a positive force in my life that’s carried me through some hard times. Maybe its just good luck, but to me, it’s beyond explanation, although I do know it gets better when I open myself up to the positive things in the world.”
David Childers is a musician, poet, historian, painter, father and champion of people who get tangled up in the bureaucratic legal system; he specializes in helping people navigate the maze of the Social Security system to obtain their benefits. He grew up in the cotton mill country of North Carolina and started playing banjo when he was 14. “I didn’t have the confidence to be a musician,” he says. “I sang in the church choir so I could get close to the good looking girls I knew.”
He started playing guitar in college, but he was a 37-year-old practicing lawyer before he got serious about his songwriting. His first album, Godzilla! He Done Broke Out!, was released in 1994. It marked the beginning of 13 years of relentless touring, while working 60 hours a week as a lawyer. He made nine more albums before he burned out and stopped performing in 2007. “I ran into a brick wall, burned out from the touring, drinking, staying out late and my work schedule.”
Childers sat in a chair for a few months before having a spiritual awakening. “I wanted to investigate God. I dove into the Quran, but I grew up with the Bible and began reading. It helped me understand the spiritual consequences of the things I was doing. I became happier and more at peace. Now, I try to set an example with my life and be decent to other people.” He started playing music again in 2010, recording two albums, Glorious Day (2010) and Next Best Thing (2013) with the Overmountain Men, a band that Avett Brother bassist Bob Crawford – a huge fan and close friend of Childers’ – helped produce. “David is the most prolific North Carolina songwriter alive,” Crawford said. “Everywhere I go, people ask about him. It’s great to see people constantly discovering this man and his massive body of work.”