He and the boys are familiar faces at Two Doors Down in Maryville, where they’ll return on Sunday for the annual Acoustic Winter Showcase, but Connor Christian is a little relieved his name is no longer front and center.
For the first several years of the band’s existence, Connor Christian and Southern Gothic made for a fine moniker. After a while, however, it got to be a mouthful for announcers and emcees, it required too much space on venue marquees and it even caused some confusion over the type of music the band played, Christian told The Daily Times recently.
“Even though there are hundreds of thousands of people with the last name Christian, people would get confused and think we were a religious band,” he said. “We would get phone calls inviting us to play things like Bible camps for the finale, and we had to tell them, ‘We’re not music for children to begin with, really, much less people who are there to study religion in any way. We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band!
“Don’t get me wrong — we’re just regular people, and there may have been one or two four-letter words in our songs in the history of this band. But we sing about sex, about drinking, about drugs sometimes — I write stories, and sometimes those things are in the stories. We didn’t want to mislead anybody, so we decided it was time to move away from that.”
Meet The Southern Gothic — older, wiser and back together after a four-year hiatus with a renewed determination to spread the gospel of country music as made by a group of guys who grew up playing it. Christian was playing in bars at 12 or 13 and eventually left home to travel as a rambling teenage musician, a time period that taught him about various regional styles and sounds and introduced him to the untapped talent living on the fringes of mainstream society. In a sense, that’s The Southern Gothic wheelhouse — traditional roots music that eschews the pop shine of radio country, driven by Christian’s restlessness of spirit, a melancholy sense of nostalgia and a gritty feel for hard times. Since 2008, Christian and his bandmates, Shawn Thacker and Jeff Spirko, have found a sweet spot in bars and venues like Two Doors Down, where music lovers can get behind a lazy fishing song as much they can a brokenhearted ballad or a set-the-barn-on-fire-and-dance-around-the-blaze blues-rocker that summons forth Rebel yells and pumping fists.
The guys lost fiddler Elena Martin, an integral part of their sound, in 2014, however, and the next year, Christian moved to Nashville to work with a small publishing company as a songwriter. A replacement fiddler didn’t work out, and the guys decided to take a break, opting to explore other options. If they did choose to reunite, it would be as a unit, Christian added.
“At the time, we had recorded basic tracks for another record, and the following year, little by little, I finished those up and just put them out as Connor,” Christian said. “It was an 11- or 12-song record that was really solid, with a lot of songs that The Southern Gothic had been playing. It sold really well, but I couldn’t find the right band to bring it to life on the road, and some of those shows fell a little flat.
“It wasn’t that audiences were unhappy, but I would get done with the show and feel like something was missing from the songs, because I’d been playing them with my guys. And no matter how good the band was that I hired, it just wasn’t my guys.”
So he focused more on songwriting, which gave him more time to spend with his family, but eventually, the universe nudged the three men back together. Thacker played drums on occasion for Spirko, who did some solo dates and asked Christian’s wife to lend backup vocals to them. Eventually, they started jamming on some of Christian’s songs, picked up a new bass player (their former bassist, Rashad Abu-Azzamn, was too busy to commit) and began working on new material.
The end result: “Burnin’ Moonlight,” a new album scheduled for a spring release. The guys released a new single, “Ain’t Gonna Lie,” last Friday, and while the new sound isn’t a complete sea change, it’s also a sonic evolution from “New Hometown,” the group’s 2013 release that peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart (and No. 17 on the Country Albums chart). The fast-and-furious fiddling has been replaced with guitar pyrotechnics that add an atmospheric indie rock undercurrent to the song, but more than anything else, it sounds like an older, wiser effort by guys who realize they’re better together than they are apart.
“I think when we get in a room and start playing, the old chemistry and the old vibe comes back,” Christian said. “I think that old chemistry will always be there. When Shawn and Jeff and I get in a room, we have a certain energy that I haven’t felt it in any of the other projects I’ve been in. It’s like this extra thing, this extra person, is in there with us somehow.
“That being said, I have been up here writing with other artists, and that colors a little bit the way I write songs and think about songs. I would say that even if we were considered a country band before — and some people did, but some people didn’t — I still wrote songs from a rock ‘n’ roll perspective. The lyrics were important, but they were not the focal point. With the new stuff I’ve been writing for mainstream country artists, lyrics are always the focal point. I think the focus on having a cool twist to the lyrics without a doubt makes the songs a little more modern.
“I don’t think former fans are going to say, ‘Who is this band?,’ because it’s still us,” he added. “We’re a little older, and we just have a few more tricks in our bag.”