Dave Perkins and friends
...from the Georgia College Connection Magazine Fall 2009
The Grit and Grace of David Perkins
"It whooped me upside the head," says David Perkins about his first days in Milledgeville. From the gritty Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia, he came to Georgia on a whim after hearing from a friend that a "school was trying to field a soccer team." It was 1968.
"Milledgeville, to me, was a magical place when I was there," he says. "It was so completely different from what I was used to growing up. We didn't have anything like Milledgeville, Georgia. I still love it, and I think it still has a grip on me. And, I want to say that the education stood me well. I guess it did because here I am at Vanderbilt."
David is currently a post-graduate student at Vanderbilt Divinity School where he's working on a dissertation about worship and theology in the Christian church. But that's skipping ahead.
Growing up as the son of musicians, David often shared the stage with his parents and sister as they sang and played music at various churches. At Georgia College, music began to be more of a vehicle to share social and political concerns - "the mark of the time." True to that mark, David formed a band which he called Uncle Pleasant, after the oracle-like character in Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending, a conjuring man that is "something wild in the country," as the play describes. The band name gives note to a certain restlessness that would define David's career.
"My music was eventually a wedge into the trajectory of being a lawyer and to go into politics," he says. While he was playing gigs around central Georgia and dining at Mama Louise's famed H&H Restaurant in Macon, he took charge of bringing the Vietnam protest to campus. "We had a rally against the war on the front lawn," he says, "and that was a momentous afternoon and evening for me. All the cadets from Georgia Military College showed up and [he laughs] let me know, in no uncertain terms that I better not be caught off campus."
His thoughtfulness to education, music and social causes took David from Milledgeville to Macon (during the Allman Brothers heyday) and Athens and Atlanta, before moving to Woodstock, NY, and finally to Nashville, Tenn. By then he was a professional guitarist heading into a career that would be 30 years in the making, criss-crossing nearly every musical genre. He played bluegrass with fiddle-great Vassar Clements, Texas renegade country with
Jerry Jeff Walker, pop with Carole King, alternative rock with Chagall Guevara, Americana with Guy Clark, soul-country with Ray Charles, blues and jazz with violinist Papa John Creach and the list goes on.
Along the way, David "married a girl from Nashville," as he says. Their family grew (they have five children), and as a result, he began to limit his touring schedule. He concentrated, instead, on studio work and producing albums.
In 1996, he took a break from music. He told his wife that if he could get into Vanderbilt Divinity School, he'd attend for one semester and read philosophy and theology, something he always enjoyed doing.
"I fell in love with it, and it was another kind of creative work for me," he says.
David ended up completing a master's in theological studies and rolled that into a master's of divinity degree. "I realized there were some things behind my desire to study; things that were more important life issues that I hadn't explored before." So, he plowed ahead into the intensive world of pursuing a "Ph.D." while garnering a fellowship at Vanderbilt's Center for the Study of Religion and Culture.
But his music didn't die.
In 2009, his O'Connoresque album, titled Pistol City Holiness, was released to critical applause. It is a farewell album of sorts. "It was conceived when I thought maybe I would study for longer than one semester, as I intended," David recalls.
"I wanted to do one more album, and, I wanted to go out playing the music that first impacted me - southern blues - and do it with the people I had played with the longest." He and his friends started laying tracks down and came up with nearly two-thirds of the material. And then it sat on a shelf for several years.
In May 2007, David was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. "It was, of course, a shock," he says, "and really kind of turned everything upside down. There was the thought that the time might be short. My mind, my heart, my body - everything - went back to music. That's all I could think about. I love my work in academics and it's exciting to me, but I had this very surprising and overwhelming desire to think about music making."
The next five months entailed daily chemotherapy and he nearly always had a guitar in his hands.
"The chemo damages the nerves in your hands and feet," he says, "so I was trying to keep playing to stave off this neuropathy. I kept playing and playing, sometimes five or six hours a day, and before too long I was playing better than I ever played in my life."
It was this "morbid" time that David set out to make sure his affairs were squared away. He spent time getting his musical assets together and uncovered some well-aged songs. "Sometimes I'd crank up old demos," he says, "and my wife, every once in a while, would stick her head through the door and say, That's an incredible song; you need to do something with that.' And, I think, in her wifely wisdom, she knew how to get me to live forward - to live into the future - as opposed to being on a short schedule."
Pistol City Holiness comes out of that difficult time. The album includes both retrieved archived sessions as well as a set of new songs written during his lingering cancer - a set "to round out" this collection of music. From start to finish, "this album has so much grace attached to it," David says. And grace defines David Perkins. His career includes playing music with many great artists of our time, but his humility seems to spill out and form genuine community well beyond the stage. Perhaps it's an echo back to Milledgeville and the start of both his academic and music career. Now, on the cusp of completing his dissertation and with conference papers presented at prestigious schools from Princeton to Emory to Harvard, one can expect that the same integrity and spirit will keep intact as he steps into the lecture hall.