July 2010

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Musician Promotes Union Values on Stage and CD

Folk hero Woody Guthrie raised eyebrows more than 70 years ago when he scrawled the phrase "this machine kills fascists" on the body of his ratty acoustic guitar, forever endearing himself to patriotic and progressive working Americans.

A similar gesture by Wilmington, N.C., Local 495 member David Gwinn would be fitting—but Gwinn’s guitar would likely boast: "This machine rebuilds America."

By day, the 24-year member works as a supervisor at Philip Sporn Powerhouse in New Haven, W.Va. But several nights a week and most weekends, his band Neon Nickel lights up regional venues with a crowd-pleasing blend of country and white-knuckled classic rock. The hearty-voiced frontman peppers his songs with lyrics about workers’ rights, the importance of a home-grown economy and the erosion of the middle class.

The title track of Neon Nickel’s new CD, "Made in the USA," finds Gwinn sharpening his knives against what he sees as poor trade policies that have decimated the American manufacturing sector:

Another bad day on the market
Another factory closin’ down.
Another day of bad excuses why
They’re killin’ another town.
Between the lawyers and politicians
Tellin’ all the same old lies
I think it’s time we rearrange things
And give us back our way of life.

"In the area I grew up in West Virginia, there were always manufacturing jobs—now they’re gone," said Gwinn, 47. "So that song came out of frustration. I felt like those in power who were making decisions over the past several decades were out of touch with the working class and the people who’ve made this country what it is. We need to bring back manufacturing and make our own products. That creates work for everybody."

While some well-heeled folk revivalists could be criticized for appropriating the discontent of struggling Americans, Gwinn and his bandmates know firsthand about the trials and tribulations of trying to get by in a rocky economic climate. Four of the five players in Neon Nickel have been union members in various trades, and all have been touched by the recession.

"I know people who worked for 20 years just to see their jobs get sent overseas," Gwinn said. "The work picture here is bad. There are lots of folks on the books. So we try to make music to connect with people in this area who are trying hard to get by."

Developing a regional following means packing the gear in the van and constantly hitting the road. But Gwinn’s lengthy stretches behind the wheel aren’t confined to band activities. He lives in southern Crown City, Ohio; works out of Huntington, W.Va., Local 317’s jurisdiction; and spends about two-and-a-half hours each workday commuting to and from his job.

"The drive to work can actually be kind of nice," he said. "It lets me think about musical ideas, and it’s a good chance to try out some new lyrics."

The band’s regional fan base is growing since the release of "Made in the USA," and union brothers are taking note.

"I’ve been to several shows, and they’re dynamite live," said Winston-Salem, N.C., Local 342 member Eddie Clark. "I’m not blowing smoke here, but if this band doesn’t get to Nashville before long, I’ll be surprised."

Gwinn is currently putting finishing touches on a new song called "You Can Hear the Mountains Cry," about the 29 coal miners who died April 5 in an explosion at Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Both of Gwinn’s grandfathers logged time as miners in the state.

"I wanted to pay tribute to those who lost their lives just trying to do their jobs," Gwinn said. The band has been playing a working arrangement of the track at shows and went into the studio in recent weeks to lay down a recorded version.

Check out the band’s Web site at http://neonnickel.com to hear samples from "Made in the USA" or to order a CD.

Wilmington, N.C., Local 495 member David Gwinn, second from right, crafts poignant lyrics and crowd-pleasing music with his band Neon Nickel.

Wilmington, N.C., Local 495 member
David Gwinn