About Shannon Childress

I don’t normally involve myself in chronicling the sick, ill, dead, dying, or infirm from within the southern gospel ranks, not least of all because Daniel Mount and Singing News pretty much have that market cornered.

But I want to exert my bloggerly prerogatives to make an exception this once regarding Shannon Childress, who has a rare and pretty serious sounding form of adrenal cancer. As you probably recall, Childress was the pianist and arranger for the Hoppers for over a decade during their resurgence in the 80s and 90s and wrote some of their best songs from this era.

Regular readers will know that I have made no secret of my respect and admiration for his abilities, but even subtracting my bias, Childress is unarguably among a rare class of creative talent in the industry possessed of musically disciplined minds married to wondrously creative and insightful imaginations capable of both reimagining traditional styles and expanding the stylistic possibilities of what “the tradition” is typically thought to encompass.

I first encountered Childress when I was a musically gangling teenager playing keyboards for a local quartet, and obsessed with the process as much as the musical product in southern gospel. I had grown up playing gospel piano for churches and whatever pickup groups of vocalists wanted to sing at church or other church-related functions. And though I wouldn’t dare compare myself to Childress or his ilk, I can tell you that very few people I knew noticed just how hard I was having to work to arrange and play, say, “Gathering Flowers for the Master’s Bouquet” so Bob and Helene Crawford would sound remotely listenable at Talent Night (they were dear souls, but the almighty did not see fit to endow the Crawfords with even a basic sense of time, pitch, tone, and musicality).

This experience, I think, of laboring musically to extents unnoticed and overlooked made me above averagely watchful of the people who played so nondescriptly for my favorite southern gospel groups … not the Andrew Ishees and Stewart Varnados or the other players who aim for the cheap seats, but rather the quiet masters of gospel music … the Ginger Pitchers and Stan Whitmires and Wayne Hauns of the world.

The first time I heard the Hoppers live while Childress was with them, they were playing a high school auditorium just north of Farmington, Missouri. They were working material off the Anchor to the Power of the Cross album (Childress wrote the album’s now-classic title cut). The album is here in front of me on the desk as I write, and I see that Childress is, unsurprisingly, in the farthest background of the photo on the back side of the cd. Also unsurprisingly, I had forgotten this.

To my mind, this was the Hoppers finest phase, and they were in fine form that night. I would have had to have been 18 or 19 at the time, and I left giddy and geared up, itching to run somewhere and do something with my life that wasn’t exactly equivalent to a gospel career (even at this age I knew had neither the talent nor the patience for life on the road) but was nevertheless all urgently bound up with the emotional immediacy of live gospel music.

As I walked out of the building trailing these half-formed feelings of futurity, I saw Childress propped up in a barely lit corner of the building, staring at the ground right in front of him with a grimy payphone receiver hovering next to his ear.

Yes, dear reader, I confess. I stared.

In high diesel-sniffing mode, I wondered and imagined who he was calling, speaking so quietly that his mouth barely moved. Somebody he loved and who loved him, no doubt, who might be waiting for him at the bus stop closest to wherever home was. This was the life of the traveling gospel music man, and in this case, one so capable and seemingly self-assured in his omnicompetence that he disdained the spotlight and practically begged to go unnoticed on a stage in an industry broke out with overweening showboats. Hiding in plain sight … that takes real, enviable talent.

Thinking back on it now, I’m pretty sure that more than fame or fans, more than a life in gospel music, it was that ease of bearing, that calm self-possession, that ability to seem so comfortable in his own skin that transfixed me. But it didn’t hurt that this was also the guy who wrote “there’s a land where meeeeeeeeelllllk, and honey flow.”

Childress, of course, left the group several years ago and, perhaps predictably, has not led the kind of life that has kept him in the spotlight. Many arrangers and producers and players are accustomed to being overlooked on and off stage, and I suspect for most of them, this is how they prefer it. There are a few people who write and arrange and play well and have showmanship skills to match. But for most folks like Childress, the pleasures of the job seem to be found in watching from behind the keyboard or at the side of the stage as someone else unspools your own work right in front of you and, when it’s good, takes the tops of the their heads off out in the crowd.

I wish Shannon Childress all the recuperative power that one person’s wishes for good health can induce, and mine will doubtless add to the chorus of faithful prayers sent up on his behalf in this long and unsavory ordeal. In any case, things sound pretty grim. But whether he stays among or goes from us, it seems unlikely that his ordinary fans should see him on the stage any time soon, whatever his health. So in the meantime, I think I’ll hold on to my memory of him leaning into a payphone outside a high-school gym somewhere in Nowheresville, USA - the air still electric with the glorious gospel sounds brought to life in no small part because of this almost invisibly brilliant guy, calling someone he loved on the other end of the line to say I’ll be home soon.

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Comments

  1. Trevor Haley wrote:

    Great essay. I too am hoping and praying for the best. Shannon is a special talent from a very special, gifted family.

  2. Rev. Edward Robinson wrote:

    This is a very well-written tribute. Shannon Childress is certainly needs the prayers of God’s people.
    I do agree with your point that the Hoppers experienced a real resurgence during this time that Shannon played, arranged, and wrote for them. Songs like “He’s Still God” and “Smoke of the Battle” were great songs, and I’ve been a bit surprised that they haven’t been revamped into the Hoppers’ current repertoire.
    To me, Shannon would, to some degree, fall into the same category of other Hopper “alums” such as Greg Bentley and Roger Talley. Were they / are they flashy musicians? Not at all. But they knew how to be team players, and that’s always a good thing.
    Finally, I’m reminded that Shannon also provided some bass vocals periodically, and that helped to give a little more “dimension” to the Hoppers’ sound during that time.
    Again — great tribute.

  3. Mark wrote:

    Beautifully written. The last line carries such weight that it briefly took my breath away.

    I was priveliged to get to study under Shannon at Steve Hurst’s school one year. He definitely has a love and understanding of this music that goes way beyond what most people could ever hope for.

    I add my well wishes to those already sending their thoughts.

  4. Irishlad wrote:

    A nice and fitting eulogy.I remember reading Connie’s column in the SN a few years back and on the subject of Shannon’s skill with words she was most impressed and very complimentary.She stated that there wasn’t an English word that Shannon didn’t know the meaning of from the top of his head without the aid of a dictionary.Connie claimed he was never stumped.An impressive gift.

  5. Brett wrote:

    Some of the Hoppers best material did come from him during this time period. Songs like “Milk & Honey”, “Achan”, and “Only in the Cross”. Then Mike got married and they kicked Shannon out of the group to make Denise the new Hoppers piano player.

    I hope Shannon gets better, I know he has been struggling with his faith. God be with him.

  6. Diana wrote:

    Oh, my goodness! Almost all of that was beautifully written. I don’t know Shannon but your description makes me wish that I had met him before now. I’ll be adding my prayers to yours for him.

  7. judi wrote:

    Exceptionally touching post, Avery. Will add my prayers to those of others.

  8. s.smith wrote:

    I agree that this is a wonderful discription and tribute to Shannon. I used to talk with him often on the “Singing at Sea” cruises when he was with the Hoppers; and I saw him several years ago in Nashville. Always a humble, delightful person. I pray God’s spirit will comfort and guide him through this ordeal.

  9. James Hales wrote:

    Shannon is such an inspiration to me. Not just now, but even back when he traveled with the Hoppers. He was such an encourager and really encouraged me to continue writing and was a big cheerleader for me. I am blessed to know Shannon and know my life is richer because of it.

    He is one of my favorite singers and songwriters. I agree with #2…he added such depth to their vocals and really filled in some holes vocally. Those of you remember his vocals licks on “Here I Am” will know what I am talking about.

    I missed his talent in gospel music. Hopefully when he gets better, we may be blessed with that again. But my hunch is he is much happier now than traveling the highways every weekend.

    By the way…Shannon wrote “Oh How Amazing is Amazing Grace” on the Hoppers new CD. Great song and is musical candy to the ear.

  10. noninsider wrote:

    That was very nice piece, one of the best I have read on this site in some time… well done.
    About your quiet masters of gospel music, I agree totally about Wayne and Ginger and Stan, but I feel one more could be added to that list, and it is Tim Parton… He also is a quiet master without a doubt.

  11. Kent McCune wrote:

    I echo everything Doug wrote. My opinion matches Doug’s that the Hoppers were at their best when Shannon was working for the group. His piano playing and arranging were first rate, if understated. Just the way I like it. He made the “talent” look good and I think that is proper.

    One overlooked talent of his was singing bass. At concerts I attended he would join the group on a few songs and he sounded really good. He could sing low and his pitches were spot on. I’m surprised he didn’t do more of that. He was probably too good at keyboards.

    Anyway, thanks, Doug, for a first rate tribute to a deserving musician.

  12. Stan Wikle wrote:

    What a fitting tribute to an humble servant of the Lord. As a promoter, I remember well, working with the Hoppers when Shannon was there. A remarkable talent, a remarkable human being. I pray many good things for him during this chapter of his life. Thanks for including Shannon in your blog.

    Stan Wikle

  13. observor wrote:

    well said… bravo

  14. MOUNTAIN MAN wrote:

    This is the finest piece of writing you’ve done, in my view. Makes me want to hear Shannon, whom I’ve never heard. And add to prayers for God’s touch on him.

  15. Wade wrote:

    It was often said he was the only bass singer the Hoppers ever had!!

  16. Irishlad wrote:

    #4 On a certain recommendation i’ll substitute “eulogy” for “tribute” which may be marginally more appropriate.

  17. Janet B wrote:

    Beautiful, Doug. You made me cry.

    On the recent Best of The Hoppers dvd, I’m assuming that Shannon is playing piano on When He Comes Down…? The more I listen to that song, the more I love it.

    Adding my prayers…God bless him.

  18. Brett wrote:

    Above is the clip of “Anchor to the power of the Cross” written by Shannon

  19. Tjeerd wrote:

    Well said.

  20. Extra Ink wrote:

    Doug, this is the kind of writing that makes me keep coming back to your site. Exceptional.

    Regarding Shannon, I loved a lesser-known song he did with the Hoppers. The chorus said, “If what you talk on Sunday ain’t what you walk on Monday, you better start to practice what you preach…” That was a fantastic song.

    Shannon’s family’s group, the Childress Family, is stunningly good vocally..

  21. Shannon Childress wrote:

    Hello:

    This is Shannon. I don’t even know where to begin. My sister, Teresa (along with my family - The Childress Family) is at NQC this week and my plan is to be there on Friday and Saturday if all goes as planned. I’ll see how things go with my oncology appointment Friday morning.

    I’m doing well overall and will give everyone an update that can be posted if it is appropriate and allowed by averyfineline.

    I will be at The Childresss Family Booth and hope to talk more with all of you.

    Shannon

  22. Sonda Leonard wrote:

    Thank you, Doug, for writing such a strikingly accurate portrait of a man who is, for all intents and purposes, a musical genius. Most people don’t know this about Shannon. They might have heard him play solid, supportive piano and sing the sweetest bass line I’ve ever heard during his tenure with The Hoppers. They may even have seen his name beneath a song title that won multiple awards, but they probably didn’t realize what incredible talent Shannon possesses. I was a young teenager during Shannon’s time with The Hoppers and I too observed his stoicism broken only by a smile now and then. Over the past few years I’ve had the privilege to study piano with Shannon, to watch his incredible arranging prowess in a studio while his family was recording a new project, and to worship with him as he leads an early Sunday morning service at the church we attend. And I must say that “genius” is what comes to mind over and over again. However, the quality that has most impressed me about Shannon is what I think you capture here with your blog, the idea that a man with such incredible abilities prefers sustenance to showmanship. He simply exercises that genius and leaves us all stunned in his wake. That is part of his gift. I am not only one of the many praying daily for the man I so admire and am so fortunate to call friend but also just a plain old fan of one of the greatest talents ever to grace a Southern Gospel stage.

  23. Robert Griffith wrote:

    My Buddy Shannon,

    Is near seeing the Father face to face. Absent from the body. I’m sitting at a desk in a hotel in Secaucus, NJ thinking about my friend. On the way here, I was driving along, listening to some of the songs that Shannon and I have been inspired of The Almighty to write over the years. I’ve only just listened to the song written by our dear friend, George Lewis, “When He Comes Down” and wept. Crying because I love Shannon. Crying because I already miss him and he’s not gone quite yet. Crying because George just wrote me last night to ask me to give him a report on how Shannon is doing and we both know it’s not good. Crying because of all of the wonderful memories that were and all of those that I miss that cannot be in this life.

    Thank you for the wonderful tribute to our friend. You have nailed it. I only wish Shannon were well enough to read and understand how his life has been an encouragement to you, me, my family and so many others.

    I saw him at his house last week. We laughed about so many things. He was moving a little slowly. He couldn’t get up and his speech was slurred… but, we laughed. We remembered… The Hoppers have just recorded a song that he and I wrote several years ago… “Mighty Is The Word”. I wish I had time to tell everyone how that song came to be… he came to the studio in Nashville the other day while they were putting the finishing touches on the song, leaning on a cane, just to say hello to The Hoppers and let them know he loved them and appreciated them recording the song. I arrived into town and got to the studio a few hours after he was there. I wouldn’t have wanted to share his time with them anyway. I know it was perfect.

    I just don’t know how to deal with this. I love The Creator. I love Shannon. The Father does all things well. I trust Him.

    It’s so interesting that, really, Shannon and I and my family have shared nearly everything together and yet, he has not mentioned his mortality to me. He called me and my family on Thanksgiving 2009… he was crying, he told me that he had cancer… he and Patti and I prayed together and cried together… he has kept me up to date with all of his treatments… but he’s never spoken of anything that included his mortality. I can talk to Shannon about anything… everything… but, there’s no way I could bring that up. I wanted to know how he felt… I mean, we could talk about how we felt about everything… we put all our feelings into verse and The Father allowed us to write them into song to encourage others… but, I couldn’t talk to him about dying. I knew he wasn’t willing to confess to that and that is ok… my dad always said, “dying, is a one man job… ” I don’t know how I would act or react should I find that my time was near. I certainly won’t legislate how my buddy goes about it. I will say though that, I love him… I hurt for his family… I hurt for my family because Shannon Childress is a part of my family. I pray that The Father allows me to be at his memorial service… for me, for my family… for his mother Marlene, his sisters, Theresa and Carla and his father… just to say, thank you. I love you, my family loves you and we will always love Shannon… and look forward to seeing him again.

    Thanks for listening and praying with The Griffiths for strength for our buddy Shannon and his family during these days…

    Blessings,
    Robert

  24. Butch Wright wrote:

    Rest In Peace Shannon - We will miss you!

  25. phillip davenport wrote:

    it has been said of past christian brethren of whom had also great musical talent that our Father needed them up there to teach the angels how to sing amazing grace. Shannon is now among those that has blessed many .thank you for giving to the Lord I’m a life thats been changed forever by a servant. phillip

  26. Marcy & SongMasters wrote:

    My dear long time friends,
    Just learned of Shannon’s passing. This note sends our love and prayers for you during these coming days. The last time we saw Shannon was at Madisonville Baptist Temple when he was still small, but we kept tabs on him from Gospel News Magazines. He will be missed, but his talent and love for the Lord will never fade. God Bless you and all the family at this time.

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