A Year Without Chris Conner

An email today from Chris Conner’s Caring Bridge website reminded me that this Friday it will be a year since we lost him to lung cancer. Follow the link in that last sentence to read a message from his family. Here’s what I wrote about Chris last year for the Columbia Free Times:

Remembering the Music
Chris Conner 1970-2007

Last week’s passing of local musician Chris Conner after a ten month battle with lung cancer was marked not only by a standing-room only funeral service but with a “Celebration Service,” the night before where many of his friends and fellow musicians paid their respects in a most appropriate way, through playing music.
I first heard Chris Conner at the Rosewood Drive club Annie’s in the early 1990s, where he and Ryan Goforth debuted an acoustic duo they called Sourwood Honey. Young and inexperienced, Chris’ voice already possessed much of the tone and timbre that would render it instantly recognizable later on. Greg Outlaw of Annie’s nurtured them with frequent bookings, though it didn’t hurt that it seemed like most of Lexington emptied out into the club on the nights Sourwood played. After an early acoustic cassette release, the lineup grew into a full band for 1995’s self-titled CD. Having Les Hall on keyboards and Jessie Jeffcoat on lead guitar really filled out the band’s sound, which was evolving into what would get them unfairly pegged as yet another jam-rock band. Chris’ songs like, “All My Relations,” however, had a radio-friendly, 70’s country-rock vibe to them that no amount of improvisatory jamming could disguise.
By the time 1998’s **(oxydendrum arboretum)** was recorded the band was doing well on stages all over the southeast. The album reflected the confident musicianship of the entire band, and it includes several of their best songs, like, “Follow Me Down,” and, “Blues For You.”
It was Chris’ growth as a songwriter that probably contributed the most to the end of Sourwood Honey’s successful run, at least from a musical standpoint. His material was eclipsing the band’s status as collegiate jam-rock favorites, and it begged for a more focused showcase. The right answer came along in the form of The South, and the 2005 release of **Monsters In the Kudzu**. Taking the best of Chris’ country-rock tendencies and framing the songs on top of a solid rock ‘n’ roll foundation, the band finally gave Chris a chance to put his own stamp on something without filters or alterations. Like the South’s “Let it Sing,” says, “This little bird inside, I’m gonna let it sing.”
Last summer, during one of his good weeks, Chris attended a South Carolina Musicians and Songwriter’s Guild open-mike night at the Red Tub. The respect that the other musicians in the room had for him was obvious, yet Chris took the time to compliment those who played before his brief turn. Introducing his own, “…And the Weaving of Fate,” he reminisced about the song being singled out by me the first time I had given Sourwood Honey a good review in **Free Times**, and how much that had meant to him as a young songwriter. The song itself is about the writing process, opening with the line, “The writer is willing to spill everything, if you’d only dare to listen.”
Though there were plenty listening to his music by the time his lung cancer diagnosis came last January, the medical crisis brought home to Chris the importance of his family and his faith, the two things he held closest in the months to follow. Both of those elements were apparent last December in my own favorite musical memory of Chris. When I began to put together the Christmas at Red Bank program, Chris was one of the first who agreed to perform. One of the songs he chose to play that night was the classic, “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day,” and as he sang his voice rang out clear as the bells in the song, with no indication of the sickness that would make it hard for him to breathe only weeks later. During the closing sing-along of, “Silent Night,” his baby son Ace was brought up to him as we sang, inaugurating the next generation of the Conner family into a life on stage.

This year’s Christmas at Red Bank concert is coming up on Sunday, Dec. 7th, and Chris’ memory will linger over it just as it did last year when it was so fresh in our minds. Then, we remembered him by playing a recording of his performance from the previous year; this time around we’ll have Chris’ younger brother Brian Conner of Villanova on stage as one of the participants, as well as Nicole Hagenmeyer from The South, singing a couple songs with Leslie Branham. Come out and join us, as we kick off the Christmas season the way Chris Conner would have wanted us to–with great music.

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