David Childers, a rough-hewn country singer from Mount Holly, a community just northwest of Charlotte, has sung a lot of words in his music career. Perhaps none have been more poignant than those that end the song "Angola," though.
"I'll be a prisoner all my life," Childers sings, his burly voice sounding as rested as it's been in years. Every word leaks deep emotion. "But for six seconds in October, six seconds in October, I'm the freest man alive."
Bob Crawford, the smiling bassist of The Avett Brothers, wrote those words for Six Seconds of Freedom, a powerful documentary about the Angola Prison Rodeo held at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in which, for one day a year, inmates become cowboys. With them, Crawford set the poignancy bar high for the rest of his songwriting career.
Six Seconds was directed by Charlotte's Jeff Smith, one of the first people Crawford met after driving south from New Jersey 15 years ago in search of work as a news photographer. A job prospect in Philly didn't pan out, and neither did one in Charlotte. A Queen City contact steered Crawford toward fellow Jerseyite Smith. A few days later, Crawford was working on a Food Lion commercial for Smith, and Crawford has been in the Charlotte area ever since. He and Smith have stayed in touch over the years and through the Avetts' climb. He didn't hesitate when Smith contacted him about contributing to the documentary—or when it came time to recruit someone to sing the song.
"It was him. He was the guy," Crawford says of Childers, who he labels a true Renaissance man, a fitting tag for someone who can also list lawyer and poet on his shingle. "He has so many dimensions. He's a different kind of guy for our times."
Ultimate vote of confidence aside, Childers admits that it took a little time for him to connect with the song. It finally clicked when he went to the Angola Web site. "It talked about how the rodeo was a community of faith, and it was men finding dignity and peace of mind and salvation," says Childers. "It's really more than just some guy riding a bull or horse. It was a man's way of saying, 'I am a man, and I can do something worth a damn in this life. There's a better side of me than I've shown you.'"
Crawford and Childers, who got to know each other when The Avett Brothers shared bills with Childers and his band the Don Juans, had been looking for an excuse to work together. They've long bonded over a mutual passion for history. Childers was especially impressed when Crawford revealed that he'd composed a marching band song for the inauguration of President Rutherford B. Hayes—130 years after the ceremony. The timing was right, too, since Childers was easing back into music after retiring the Don Juans and a hiatus primarily related to road-weariness.
After receiving the "Angola" lyrics from Crawford, Childers and Don Juan vet Randy Saxon—the latter engaging in near-classical runs on a handmade guitar given to Childers by a fan from Madrid—recorded the song. They then sent the recording to Crawford, who was in California working on I and Love and You with The Avett Brothers and producer Rick Rubin. With one song down, it wasn't much of a leap to say "what the hell, let's make a record." And the back-and-forth, get-together-when-we-can method that birthed "Angola" served as a blueprint for the remaining songs that make up the Ramseur Records release Glorious Day (which wandered out relatively fanfare-free in late January) by the band they christened the Overmountain Men.
The Overmountain Men were American frontiersman from west of the Appalachians who fought in the Revolutionary War and played a major role in the victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain. "They came together and they did what they had to do," says Crawford, who came up with the band name along with Robert Childers, David's son and a drummer and sound collagist.
In describing the soldiers, Crawford's drawing a casual parallel to the record made by their namesakes a couple centuries-plus later. Indeed, you could call Glorious Day extreme collaboration: In addition to the core quartet of Crawford, David and Robert Childers, and Saxon, a dozen other musicians are credited, contributing everything from trumpet and Scott Daley's tough piano to cello and, per one of Robert Childers' many inspired suggestions, glockenspiel.
At their best, David Childers' songs have sounded like they're built of wood rescued from discarded church pews and the train tracks leading out of town. Meanwhile, Crawford's album New Jersey Transient, a busman's holiday from the Avetts, was all about textures and experimentation and changes of scenery. Combining those two sensibilities and working in a safe haven where there's no such thing as a bad idea, the album pulls the best from several worlds and the best from all involved.
David Childers has even started playing out again. Once a month, he, Robert and whoever else is available from the Overmountain Men ranks do a show in Charlotte. Crawford, who hit the road hard again with the Avetts in late February, even managed to join them for one gig.
As for "Angola," Childers hasn't returned to the song since he recorded it. "I really want to go back and learn it so I can play it live in those little monthly outings," he says.
When he does, for four minutes, those in the crowd will be in for a moving rodeo ride.