For Georgia-bred country artist Channing Wilson, writing great songs means living each day with an immense depth of empathy, curiosity, and devotion to inspiration. “A songwriter can’t live 50 lifetimes—but if he’s worth his weight in anything, he’d better be able to write like he has,” Wilson says. With his past triumphs including penning songs for heavy-hitters like Luke Combs—as well as sharing bills with the likes of Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver, and Robert Earl Keen—Wilson now brings his warmly nuanced truth-telling to his long-awaited debut album Dead Man. Produced by eight-time Grammy-winner Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton), the result is a timeless and truly singular body of work, revealing Wilson’s rare gift for turning the most painful aspects of the human condition into songs of life-affirming beauty.
The first album ever recorded at Cobb’s new studio in Savannah, Dead Man embodies a bare-bones yet hard-hitting sound perfectly suited to the uncompromising character of Wilson’s songwriting. In laying down its 10 thrillingly raw but finely crafted tracks, Wilson worked with a stellar lineup of musicians including guitarist Leroy Powell (Shooter Jennings, Cody Jinks), bassist Brian Allen (Lori McKenna, Chris Shiflett), and drummer Chris Powell (Brandi Carlile, The Highwomen), drawing abundant inspiration from the classic work of country legends like Willie Nelson. “Those are the kinds of records I’m going after, more than trying to push boundaries with the production,” says Wilson. “My whole intention was to just capture the song the way it should be.”
On the album-opening “They Don’t Make A Drink That Strong,” Wilson immediately proves the power of his instincts, unleashing a glorious feel-bad anthem built on lush 12-string guitar tones and moody riffs in drop-D tuning. Initially written as a Delta blues tune, “Dead Man Walking” arrives as a darkly charged epic whose final minute takes on an exhilarating intensity, fueled by Wilson’s haunted and howling vocal performance. And on “Gettin’ Outta My Mind” (co-written with Kendell Marvel), Dead Man delivers its most wildly joyful moment: a groove-heavy and galloping track showcasing Wilson’s more playful side as a lyricist (from the chorus: “I’m going back to gettin’ outta my mind/Back to getting stoned to the bone/Doing wrong and doing it right”).
All throughout Dead Man, Wilson imbues his songs with a rich emotionality that closely echoes a core tenet of his songwriting practice. “One of my techniques is to never completely get over heartbreak,” he says. “You’ve got to leave those wounds open, so that they’re there whenever you want to write a great song. The side effect is you’re constantly hurting, but that’s the price you pay for inspiration.” On “Beer for Breakfast,” Wilson presents a particularly gutting portrait of heartache, magnifying the song’s lonesome mood with sorrowful guitar work and tender piano melodies. “When I was a kid, the father of a good friend of mine was a bad alcoholic; he was drunk all day every day on the cheapest Canadian whiskey there was,” he recalls. “There’s really nothing sadder than to wake up and start drinking, and that song is me trying to create a snapshot of the saddest room to be in.” Next, on “Blues Coming On,” Dead Man slips into a strangely sublime moment of existential longing, setting Wilson’s unbridled vocals against a psychedelia-tinged sonic backdrop. “Growing up I lived near the railroad tracks, and I remember listening to the trains come through and wondering if I was ever going to get out of town,” he says. “In a way that was my first introduction to the blues: hearing that train go by and knowing I wasn’t on it.”
One of Dead Man’s most shining examples of Wilson’s strength as a storyteller, the pedal-steel-laced “Sunday Morning Blues” centers on a scene as fully realized and vividly detailed as the pages of an all-too-real novel. “It’s a song about a guy who goes out to a bar and bumps into an ex-girlfriend, and then totally loses it: gets drunk, blacks out, makes an ass of himself,” says Wilson. “He wakes up the next morning and just can’t deal with the day, so he’s lying there wallowing in bed and listening to the whole world going on without him. It’s a story that’s been told many times before—but I like tackling the same old stories, as long as I can put my own perspective into it.”
Originally from the small town of LaFayette, Wilson first discovered his love of spinning stories into song in his late teens. “When I was a kid, I was always coming up with ideas for inventions,” he says. “So once I found songwriting, I was excited to have a way to create something without a hammer and a nail.” After attempting college twice, Wilson formed a band in his mid-20s and quickly made his name as a formidable local act, but eventually felt called to take his music to next level. In 2009 he began making frequent trips to Nashville (an endeavor financed by selling off much of his guitar collection along with a fishing boat), then landed a deal with by EMI Music Publishing and soon started working with his longtime musical hero, the late Guy Clark. “There’s that old saying that goes, ‘I just hold the pen and God does the writing,’” he says. “But I know from spending time with Guy that everything he did was incredibly intentional and meticulously thought-out. His ability to say so much in such a simple way is very much an art form to me.”
Now signed to an artist/publishing agreement with Warner Chappell and Low Country Sound (an Elektra Records imprint helmed by Dave Cobb), Wilson unfailingly finds a profound sense of purpose in the sometimes-exacting work of songwriting. “Back in the Depression era Jimmy Rogers was a big hit, and the reason why was that he sang all these sad songs that let people know they weren’t the only ones going through hard times,” says Wilson. “There’s so many people out there right now dealing with problems like mental illness, but we still don’t talk about it nearly as much as we should. So the one thing I hope for this record is that helps people realize that they’re not alone, that someone else feels the way they do. Because to me that’s the first step to feeling okay again.”
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