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.Email this Post