It’s an early Tuesday afternoon, and singer-songwriter David Wilcox has just descended from a mountain hike on the other side of the Smokies.
The rain is moving in, he tells The Daily Times, but the winding path beneath a canopy of changing colors was a lovely respite. Ever since COVID-19 shut down the music industry that provides him with a livelihood, he’s found himself all the more grateful for such stolen moments.
“I have written my way out of my sort of sorrow about this pandemic, and it’s fascinating to have a practice where I can find the things that sustain me emotionally,” he said. “Song by song, I can lift myself out of very bad times, and I think this new batch of songs — and there’s a lot of them — will be really useful to people. They’re not that rarified air of some famous person’s experience living a life of luxury; they’re actually really useful themes that can reframe a difficult time and make it feel like a different kind of adventure.”
For Wilcox — who returns to East Tennessee for a performance Sunday at The Open Chord in West Knoxville — it’s been an interior journey rather than an exterior one, and once he climbed the mountains of depression that pushed up from the heart of the pandemic for so many people, he found new landscapes worth exploring with his soothing vocals and gentle fingerpicking style of guitar playing.
“It’s been a fascinating time to be so grateful for having that practice, and having some place to take my sorrows and not just soothe them, but transform them with some sort of emotional alchemy,” he said.
Wilcox has dabbled in the musical musings of heartstrings since the early 1980s, when he began performing around Western North Carolina after moving there in 1981 to attend Warren Wilson College. As a regular performer, he became an Appalachian folk version of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” holding court and attracting followers that snapped up his first record, released in 1987. He picked up the Kerrville Folk Festival New Folk Award in its wake, and by 1989, he was signed to the A&M Records label, which released his best-selling “How Did You Find Me Here,” the first of several albums that Rolling Stone later would describe as “unjustly neglected,” due to the richness of their content.
After leaving A&M in 1994, he’s stuck mostly to self-releases and independent labels, including his most recent, 2018’s “The View From the Edge.” He’s been back in the studio lately, however, and it’s as rewarding as it always is, Wilcox said.
“It’s such a blissful experience, and it’s really satisfying to remember that these songs matter, and that they have a job to do,” he said. “I kind of see it as if you were a craftsman, and you had lots of tools on your workbench, and just like those tools, every song has something it does. It’s a tool for fixing a particular thing, and I love that there are so many of these tools that are so specific.
“On my website, the songs are sorted by emotional category for that very reason, and there are a lot of songs I come to when I need them. It’s so satisfying to have the right tool for the job, a song to find me where I am and show me where I’m going.”
Not every song gets committed to tape — some are for himself, he added, because the last thing the world needs is more noise, and political rants may be cathartic for himself, but they don’t add to the social tapestry he’s been weaving between himself and fans for more than three decades now.
And just like the tapestries once carried back and forth on the Silk Road of the ancient times, it’s a precious thing, guarded by a man with a guitar and the feeling of responsibility for giving the songs their due, no matter how long it takes. That’s one reason, he added, it’s impossible to put a timeline to a possible new David Wilcox record.
“There are so many factors I don’t know, but we are dreaming about making it the whole experience, in line with what I want the music to feel like, so that means it’s not a rush job,” he said. “We’re getting musicians that can feel what I’m feeling and can translate it in ways that can surpass my imagination, so it’s a process that will take its own time.”
But the time to reconvene with East Tennessee fans and perform for them, he added, is nigh. While the pandemic allowed him a period of much-needed introspection, he very much missed the friends and familiar faces of his traveling minstrel lifestyle. And today, more than ever, it feels like a noble calling, he said.
”I do feel like there are some things that we have learned about ourselves as a species, and as a culture, and we have learned how to appreciate the things we took for granted, like how we affect each other,” he said. “We all have this sort of ability to pick up the emotions of others around us, and when those emotions are orchestrated, when there’s a song that has everybody feeling the same thing, then there’s this beautiful phase alignment of emotion as you go from happy song to hopeful song.
”People are experiencing that together, and I think we’re learning now about how deeply we’re affected by the people around us. To me, it’s opened up a whole new frontier about how I think about my emotional waves — the ones emanating not just from my music, but from myself.”