Don Chilton

It might be tough to guess the instrument Newport resident Don Chilton is featured on in the new movie Where the Crawdads Sing. The highly anticipated Reese Witherspoon-produced film has opened in theaters and Chilton contributed to the soundtrack … but not on his usual trumpet. If you listen closely, you’ll hear him playing sea shells.

Chilton, who served as a trumpeter in the US Navy Band for 26 years, is quite active on the local music scene. He plays in several bands including The Winehouse Project, Downcity Band, and the Larry Brown Swinglane Orchestra, which he leads. He’s also the Band Director at Thompson Middle School in Newport where he trains the next generation of musicians.

So how does one get into “shells” as an instrument? It’s certainly not something typically offered in the high school band.

“About eight years ago I kind of stumbled upon a video of Steve Turre playing the seashells,” explained Chilton in an interview last week. “I was super fascinated with it and I ended up getting a conch shell of my own. Over the last four years, I’ve been using them a lot, I play them regularly with Swinglane and other projects.”

“When the pandemic hit, I bought my own home recording studio, which opened up a whole nother realm in the music industry for me, recording tracks, sending them out to people, playing the trumpet. I also played shells on some projects. It kind of grew and grew,” he continued.

Recently Chilton was contacted by a Los Angeles composer who was working on the film. Chilton wasn’t actively looking to be part of a soundtrack, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. He explained what happened next.

“Mychael Danna, an Oscar and Golden Globe-winning film composer reached out. They found me through social media and asked if I would be interested in recording my sea shells, and of course, I was interested. So I ended up doing a zoom call with him, he told me what it was about, what he was looking for. I ended up recording my shells right here in my home studio and he used it for the film.”

The shells are a part of the larger soundtrack for the film which is partially set in the marshlands of North Carolina. The film also features the moving title song “Carolina” by Taylor Swift.

“I was hired as a soloist but it was put into the orchestration of the music. It’s me playing conch shells with an orchestra. At the time I didn’t even know what he (Danna) was recording for – he just said it was going to be a big movie, he couldn’t tell me apparently. I found out later,” said Chilton.

Photo provided by Don Chilton

The process involved some zoom calls with Danna. “In the zoom calls, he gave me an idea of what he wanted in terms of the feel or the mood. He told me to think about loneliness and despair. He showed me the opening scene where it pans across the marshland to give me an idea,” Chilton explained.

“So I grabbed my seashells, started playing some different ideas, he gave me the freedom to come up with different melodic ideas, different textures, we just went back and forth. At the time I had like 16 different seashells, some with higher pitches, others with lower pitches, each shell has a different timbre,” he added.

When we spoke last week, Chilton wasn’t exactly sure where his music would appear in the film. He had already bought tickets for opening day.

“It was just a thrill working with Mychael Danna and the process of doing the recording. I’m looking forward to hearing the finished product. I’m pretty sure it’s in the opening. I know it’s going to sound great, I just don’t know how much is in the movie.”

To experience Don Chilton playing shells, visit his YouTube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/c/DonChilton

For tickets to the film at the Showcase Cinemas in Warwick, click here.

Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music and more for What'sUpNewp, Providence Monthly, SO RI, and The Bay. He DJ's "The Kingston Coffeehouse" Tuesday nights, 6-9 PM on WRIU 90.3 FM.