RIP, Shannon Childress

In one of those strange convergences of virtual discourse and daily life, the conversation around here over the past few days had turned back round to the topic of Shannon Childress - the well-regarded pianist, songwriter and arranger/producer who was probably best known for his stint with the Hoppers in the 90s. He died early this afternoon.

Fairly early on as a blogger, I learned the merits of giving roses to the living, and so I come not to eulogize Childress, but rather to honor his life and mourn our loss of him by resposting something I wrote last year when I first heard of the seriousness of his illness. After I published the piece below late last summer, I had the great good fortune to meet Childress a few weeks later at NQC (h/t, S). We huddled behind some curtains and a flimsy publicity banner in the exhibition hall, his family and friends politely running interference while we gossiped and giggled and gloried in the immediate recognition between one southern gospel die hard and another. Oh the glory did roll.

Rest in peace, Shannon Childress.

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.

Update: a word on memorial arrangements, since some of you have emailed to ask about these things: my understanding is that visitation will be Thursday, May 19, 5-8 p.m., Springhill Funeral Home on Gallatin Pike in Nashville, TN, and Friday, May 20, 5-8 p.m., at Covenant Community Church on N. Main in Madisonville, KY. Funeral will be Saturday, May 21, 11 a.m., at Covenant Community Church. Memorial donations requested to Nashville CARES in Childress’s name.

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  1. quartet-man wrote:

    I don’t recall what if anything I said on your original post (I suspect I commented in some way :D), but your writing about him was great and made me sorry I missed out on him with the Hoppers. I do have some of their recordings from his time with them I am sure, so someday I hope to listen to them or re-listen more intently and hope his contributions there translate to recordings to at least some degree. I do like the song “Anchor to the Power of the Cross” which I have at least heard.

  2. Janet B wrote:

    Doug, I’m so glad that you got to talk with Shannon that day…and that he got to talk with you. What a wonderful present you gave to him.

    God bless & comfort all those that love Shannon & mourn his passing.

  3. carl wrote:

    The pay phone inorth of Farmington and last September in Louisville–those are what I’d call precious memories. Old John FB Wright got it right about the way they linger and fill the soul.

    Shannon Childress’s music touched people outside the genre too. In the last 5 years of the 1990s one of my grad students was a jazz trumpet player, a prodigy with quite a history of international performance before he was 20. In his mid 20s, for a grad methods course, he was trying to define “groove” in musicological terms, even if he needed a little poetry to do it. He wanted to start by looking for a very small set of piano players who worked in a restricted style, and who seemed gifted beyond description in knowing what to do to make groove happen. He was looking for people who know in their bones every nuance of timing and how it related to timbre. He chose southern gospel as the style–maybe because there are aspects of the the form that don’t vary much. From the 50 or so SG piano players whose videos and audio recordings I showed him, he ended up with Doris Akers and Shannon Childress, and he also chose James Hooker (of the Amazing Rythm Aces, which none of you will think is southern gospel, but he heard what he heard and I agree). Mr Childress had theTRACK to deal with, too, but knew how to use it to maintain musical tension, rather than trot along on it. My young student watched those piano players to get ideas to take into observation of other genres, like big band and then improv. He passed away suddenly 4 years ago and having heard today’s news I’m going to try to find a copy of the paper he wrote because he never got around to publishing it. Maybe giving it a wider circulation now is a good way to memorialize both of those exceptional musicians.

  4. Sonda Leonard wrote:

    Thank you for honoring Shannon with your very kind words. As you’ve noted, he was blessed with musical genius AND humility - truly a rare combination - and upon learning of your post about him, he was genuinely flattered that you’d choose to write about him in such glowing terms. We have suffered a great loss today of a sharp wit, an incredible musician, a tremendous writer, a brilliant arranger, a loving son/brother/uncle, and the most loyal friend for which one could ever ask. As the people of the church Shannon and I attended could attest, we’ve also lost a man of unbelievable strength and faith, who ministered to so many Sunday after Sunday with his music and his testimony of finding peace in the midst of his storms. Rest in peace, dear friend. We are so fortunate to have known and loved you.

  5. yeah... wrote:

    I wish I could have known Shannon well. Like most, I watched in awe from afar, and enjoyed the several quiet hello’s and hand shakes in saying hello. He quietly, humbly anchored The Hoppers in what I also consider their “gloriest” of glory years. His quiet, unassuming bass singing gave real depth to Claude’s parts. But, his piano was indeed the stuff of genius. He was everything that I admire about sgm, and none of the things that so turn me off. RIP, Shannon, and Doug - your original essay from last Fall, reprinted here, is a piece of superlative writing.

  6. Butch Wright wrote:

    Thank you for this eulogy to Shannon. He was a great talent and person. He and his talent will be missed - but look what Heaven has gained! Shannon - We’ll see you again some day!

  7. Aaron Baker wrote:

    Great job of remembering an extremely talented man. I couldn’t agree with you more about ANCHORED being the Hoppers greatest moments, that CD rocked! I always missed seeing Shannon around, and although I heard rumors, it never stopped me from enjoying the memories of the only piano-playing-bass-singer I’d ever heard. RIP Mr. Childress.

  8. Ben Harris wrote:

    Shannon was a good friend and I will miss him. He produced several projects that I worked with him on, and he was always both easy to work with and very professional. He loved gospel music and was a great talented individual. His family sings many of the arrangements that Shannon did for them, and there is not a better mixed group on the planet. RIP Shannon.

  9. irishlad wrote:

    There’s a really good interview taken awhile back on Absolutly Gospel by James Hales with Shannon.It’s interesting insofar that he addresses a few things about SG in general that are mulled over time and time again on Avery.

  10. irishlad wrote:

    9 Absolutely Gospel Where are they now? Shannon Childress with James Hales.

  11. Hector Luna wrote:

    Thanks Irishlad, that was a great read. My earliest memories of The Hoppers were with the quiet and humble, Shannon Childress. He was indeed, a master at the keys, and as an arranger. My favorite work of the Hoppers were in the 90’s, with Childress at the helm. And Doug, I read your original article last year, which was quite stunning. Thank you for your sharing. Prayers are indeed with his family.

  12. LaRolf McCoin wrote:

    #9….That article can be found at this site:

  13. LaRolf McCoin wrote:

    #12 (Cont’) When I posted #12, the comple website did not get completely underlined. (The second line did not get underlined so you will manually have to type the complete 2 lines)

  14. Bryce wrote:

    I regret never hearing Shannon with Sonya’s band. Wishing great comfort through these difficult days for the Childresses and for David.

  15. Ben Storie wrote:

    I appreciate that you gave this rose to Mr. Childress while he was living. Thanks for reposting it again, now.

  16. Helen Jones wrote:

    I loved Shannon…he was my friend! The last time I saw him was in Nashville. He met my husband and I for dinner at Cracker Barrel. He was a special friend, piano teacher and professional musician/song writer. He has made it to Heaven!

  17. NG wrote:

    As someone who has survived cancer twice, it doesn’t seem fair when I think of younger people like Shannon and Roger Bennett.

    This was one of Doug’s best blogs and one of the most positive threads. Hope we can have more of them.

  18. natesings wrote:

    I went to The Steve Hurst School of Music for 3 summers and out of all the private lessons I had, the one with Shannon was by far the best! He took a lot of time to go over what seemed to be minor that added up being large in the scope of things.

  19. Bones wrote:

    Benson music had a Childress family a long time ago “Elmer, June and Pam Too”.

  20. KC wrote:

    Condolences to Shannon’s family. I still enjoy those Hoppers recordings he was on. He was so smooth, and wonderfully talent!

  21. Ode wrote:

    @ 20. Amen. Just bought, and listened to some CDs. What a rare gem of a player. May God, the only true judge, be praised!!

    Shannon,I hope you, painfree and glorious, are playing piano in heaven now, your soul rejoicing. If you still care for earthly stuff, let me bend your ear.(I am jewish,you are in heaven thanks to my people, you owe me, so listen ;)-
    As a former bigot, evolved into fighter for civil rights, I am very sorry that David Storrs is listed in your obituary as just “dear friend”. Sucks. But at least among the family-after parents, before sisters. As I understand how TN operates, it’s still a progress.
    Mizpah. “May God watch between you while you are apart…”

  22. Steve wrote:

    Milk and Honey

  23. Bones wrote:

    I’m sick of gays in Southern Gospel music. Twisting thru the NQC halls. It used to be just diesel sniffers, NOW IT’S Men. Where have all the good men gone ? No one is chase!

  24. Wade wrote:

    BONES… WoW…they always been there… maybe a little more open to ppl who do not have their head ALL the way under the sand but they have always been there… Bless Your Heart!!!

  25. Tommy wrote:

    Bones, I agree. Im always amazed that they would want to listen to a music that clearly preaches against this lifestyle. Whats more sad is the number of those living this way who have found there way onto the bus. Its easy to spot them, they are the only people who get a good review here.

  26. Roberta Robbins wrote:

    Here’s a link to an old clip of the Rangers Quartet with Elmer Childress at the piano.

  27. Tony Rush wrote:

    I’m stunned.

    Genuinely stunned. I haven’t talked to or heard from Shannon in years and years and suddenly he was on my mind strongly a few weeks ago.

    I’ve been out of SGM so long I no longer knew how to reach him. I looked for him on Facebook and didn’t find him.

    I got busy and didn’t think any more about it.

    I’m stunned to hear that he’d been sick and has passed on. I would have loved to have connected with him once more to tell him how inspiring he was to me when I was a young man in SGM.

    Thank you Avery for a great article.

  28. Rick Dean wrote:

    Well it’s been over a year and after returning from NQC 2012, I really miss my friend Shannon. He was an amazing song writer, singer, pianest, friend, confidant and Christian brother. He is and will always be missed. I am thankful that his songs will live on forever and his legacy will not soon be forgotten. Shannon was my friend.

  29. Melissa wrote:

    I met Shannon when we were 3 years old. In 1968 my family moved to Pride Avenue in Madisonville Kentucky and the Childress family live across the street. You could say he was my first best friend. We spent our young years riding bikes all through the neighborhood, played hot wheel cars, hide n seek, and would play for hours in the creek bed near our houses. I would sit on the front porch at his piano teachers house while he had his lessons and listen to the beginning of that very talent. He amazed me even way back then.. I love you Shannon and miss you

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