Alweer eentje die door de mazen van mijn net is geglipt. Davis brengt oerdegelijke country rock gedipt in blues. Met een diepe, warme, krachtige stem, bij momenten stevig gitaarwerk (o.a. van een zekere Scott Ian) en het episch gehalte van zijn nummers doet hij mij soms denken aan een Chris Stapleton. Yep, muziek die er bij mij vlotjes in gaat. Black Cats and Crows is verschenen op 20 november 2020 via Ward Davis Music.
Sitting on the porch of his house in the foothills of the Smokies, Ward Davis exchanges a few friendly words with a neighbor and lights another cigarette. “When you put a record out, it’s a forever thing,” says Davis, breathing deeply. “Whether they mean something to me now or meant something to me then, these songs are part of my life.”
Davis’s much-anticipated third album, Black Cats and Crows, is a triumph: a muscly country-rock record filled with murderous story songs, heartbreaking vulnerability, and that unmistakable voice––Davis’s weathered croon, a gift, barrel-aged then left out in the sun.
Produced once again by Jim “Moose” Brown, Black Cats and Crows is anchored in twin pillars: care for craft and disdain for sterility. Crackles and breaths come alongside outright virtuosity and skill, and the effect is warm and humanizing. “This is my coping mechanism. I know music is a coping mechanism for a lot of people,” Davis says. “It’s important that it’s crafted well, but it’s also important that it’s honest so that people can relate to it and get something out of it.”
Davis has earned a legion of fans, loyal and spread out across the country. His 2015 debut album, 15 Years in a 10 Year Town, introduced a compelling artist who, up until then, had turned Nashville heads as a player and writer for others: Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Trace Adkins, Wade Hayes, Sammy Kershaw, The Roys, Jimmie Van Zant, and more recorded nuggets penned by Davis, and he’d held down a steady gig as Ray Scott’s keyboard player for years. In 2018, he released a gut-wrenchingly beautiful EP, Asunder, and continued to tour hard, winning over city after city.
Working himself raw to pay dues has always been part of Davis’s story. “I grew up in Arkansas. I don’t like to say I’m a country boy, but I kind of am. When I was a kid, I didn’t wear shoes unless I had to,” he says, laughing. At just 7-years-old, he fell hard for piano, but his piano teacher grew frustrated with the Garth Brooks songs he insisted on learning by ear––and the notes he refused to learn to read. “One day, before my lesson, she told me to call my mom. She said, ‘Tell her to come get you. I can’t teach you to do what you’re doing. You need to find somebody who can,’” Davis says, chuckling. “But I never really did. From there, I just kind of took it out on my own.”
Davis cops to letting up on piano when he realized the “guy with the guitar was getting all the girls.” He began teaching himself chords on an old guitar his dad, a wildlife biologist, had won in a poker game. His father encouraged him to buy his own. Working summers in tomato fields earning about $3.75 an hour, Davis saved. “I spent all my tomato money on a Martin guitar,” he says with a grin.
When Davis moved to Nashville in 2000, he joined the Music Row community, writing songs by day, waiting tables by night. “You do the 10:30 a.m. co-write, then the 2:30 p.m. co-write, then you go wait tables at Applebee’s,” Davis says. “That was my life for a long time. It became like a factory job. What’s the point? It sucks all the creativity out of you. Now, I don’t write unless I want to. If I don’t have something to write about, I don’t.”
For Davis, freedom works. Black Cats and Crows opens with “Ain’t Gonna Be Today,” a vocal showcase and tongue-in-cheek confession over crying electric guitars. He wrote the song with Kendell Marvel. Crowd favorite “Get to Work Whiskey,” another clever ode to surrender, first generated attention via a YouTube video Davis shot himself and is now a staple in Davis’s live set.
With ominous guitars––including a mean electric guitar played by Anthrax’s Scott Ian––“Sound of Chains” is a welcome modern addition to country music’s proud murder ballad tradition, with a dark, playful twist. Calling it the funniest song he’s ever written, Davis wrote the tune with Greg Jones. “We wanted to write a song about the guy who has never shown one sign of empathy––no remorse,” Davis says.
Davis continues themes of love and bloody revenge in the swampy “Papa and Mama,” written by Ray Scott. After earning his first publishing deal, Davis took many of his early songs to Scott. “He’s got a great songwriting brain, and he let me have access to it,” Davis says. “Some of the best songs I’ve ever heard are Ray Scott songs, and I want other people to hear them.”
The other cover on the record is a vocal showcase: Alabama’s “Lady Down on Love,” delivered with tear- jerking sincerity by Davis, who first sang the song at his high school homecoming when he was 15. He laughs as he remembers, then adds, “That song––what a tragedy. I’ve always loved it.”
Written with Cody Jinks and TN Jet, the album’s title track toys with tradition, eschewing linear narrative and instead indulging in despondent musings. Davis points to it as his favorite on the record. “It’s not a country lyric––it’s like a Metallica lyric,” Davis says. “I had just come out of a dark time in my life, and there was residual darkness in me. So, we wrote this song that is completely hopeless, and it felt really good. It’s not really a story––it’s just a sad thought, manifesting.”
Jinks and Davis also partnered to write “Colorado,” a stunner that is at turns nostalgic, conversational, and forlorn. The pair’s individual writing styles––Jinks’ tactile realism and dismissal of rules, plus Davis’s brutal honesty and impeccable structure––bring out the best in each other. With out-front vocals and stark imagery, “Book of Matches” documents a long night of self-governed purging. A moving tribute to deep roots, “Where I Learned to Live” achieves relatability through specificity, and gives further evidence of the album’s implied argument that the best way to honor our pasts is to be honest about them.
Several songs on Black Cats and Crows also remedy the often-overlooked role of piano in outlaw music. A fine pianist who shrugs off any praise of his own playing, Davis looks up to the slip-note stylings of master Floyd Cramer. “He would do these little flickers with the keys that aren’t complicated but really create a sound,” Davis says. “I mimic him a lot.” Kicking off with piano and fiddle, “Threads” lays a weary heart bare, while the beautifully written “Good to Say Goodbye” traces the push and pull that ensues when it’s time to go.
“Good and Drunk” is a lesson in songwriting, heartbreaking and real. “That was a hard one to write,” Davis says. “It was a bad day. I came home from a tour with Sunny Sweeney, and my ex-wife had packed up everything and put the boxes in the garage. I was sitting there alone, hungover, wanting a whiskey drink, and I realized I didn’t know where the whiskey was. But I had my legal pad out. So, I started writing this song.”
Written 15 years ago, “Heaven Had a Hand” reaches for a bigger plan in the midst of uncertainty. “I realize now it’s about my daughter, even though it was written before she existed,” he says. “When I hear it, I don’t think about my ex-wife. I think about my oldest daughter.” Davis’s evolving relationship with his own song is a testament to the power of honest art.
Written with Shawn Camp, standout track “Nobody” is sad-eyed humility, wrapped up in a song. Davis got the idea sitting on the couch, giving his youngest daughter a bottle. “Nobody knows what a nobody I am,” he sings over plaintive acoustic guitar. “I don’t think I can be more personal than this song,” Davis says.
Davis mines his own worries and pain for a song without ever forgetting the other person who will eventually listen to it. “I want people to know these songs mean something to me,” he says. “I hope they mean something to them. Maybe they’ll hear something that’ll make them feel better.”