John William Davis makes music from his life

Posted 11/20/19

Everett Moran has hosted a number of musicians at Rainshadow Recording whose talents have impressed him, but John William Davis is a performer of whom he is particularly fond.

Davis is slated to …

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John William Davis makes music from his life

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Everett Moran has hosted a number of musicians at Rainshadow Recording whose talents have impressed him, but John William Davis is a performer of whom he is particularly fond.

Davis is slated to make his Washington state debut at Rainshadow at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 21, but they have a long association: Moran’s life as a producer is wrapped up with Davis’ recording career.

“I met John when I was the concert director at Swallow Hill Music Association in Denver,” Moran said. “After hearing John play a couple of hootenannies there, I was sufficiently impressed to book him.”

In 2002, at the age of 50, Davis decided to record his first CD, and turned to Moran for help.

Moran co-produced the record, Davis’ first, “Dreams of the Lost Tribe,” with Davis himself.

The result not only won Best CD by a Newcomer in Westword — “Denver’s equivalent to Seattle’s The Stranger,” Moran said — but also led to Moran co-producing Davis’ followup, “Revelation Land.”

“The critical success of those two records led to more studio work, making John directly responsible for my return to recording,” Moran said. “Rainshadow Recording might well not exist today if John had not asked me to work on those records.”

It’s not just their shared past that endears Moran to Davis, but also what Moran sees as the singular quality of Davis’ output as a musician.

“John is one of the most unique and wonderful songwriters with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work,” Moran said. “His lyrics are borne of the wide variety of experiences life has thrown at him. He’s packed vegetables at the A&P, he’s worked in a paper mill, he’s dealt blackjack, and he’s taught Shakespeare as a university English professor. His guitar playing is equally prodigious, displaying a remarkable command of chord theory, a hard-picking finger style, and driving slide work.”

Moran claims to have known from Davis’ first song on the ”Dreams” album that what he came up with would be “something special.”

The record goes from an opening invocation to a six-and-a-half-minute-long “epic” about the Okefenokee Swamp, what Moran deemed “a lush arrangement” that includes the violin, viola, cello, string bass, pedal steel guitar, clawhammer banjo, accordion and tambourine, “all held together by John’s acoustic guitar picking, the images portrayed immediately transport the listener to the hot, sticky climes of South Georgia.”

Davis recounted how he grew up on a tributary of the St. Mary’s River in South Georgia, a few miles east of the Okefenokee Swamp.

“My aunt once told me that we were part of the lost tribe of Israel, so I grew up believing that said lost tribe had devolved into a pack of Baptists and bootleggers,” Davis said.

In addition to playing lead guitar in a wide range of bands, including an almost all-black soul band called Two Shades of Soul — “Yours truly was the token white boy,” Davis said — he’s also worked in his father’s liquor store and gas station, on a horse farm, and as “an overpaid member of the IT sector before the big bubble burst.”

It wasn’t until Davis had left the working life behind for good that he finally decided to make a CD.

COMING BACK TO THE CRAFT

Carrying on a conversation with Davis is similar to reading his resume, in that what might initially seem like tangents eventually circle back toward his true passion of music-making.

Counter-intuitively for a songwriter, Davis claims he’s never been good with words, but he’s always felt a deeper need to express himself, whether through telling his own story, or those of others.

“I suppose I’m a frustrated novelist at heart,” Davis said. “All our stories are so wound up together that, when you tell someone else’s story, you’re often telling a little of your own.”

For someone who so modestly assess his own skill at word-smithing, Davis cares deeply about “the use of language,” to the point that his own songwriting process can be occasionally protected.

“I don’t write to fill my pocketbook,” Davis said. “I write what I want to hear.”

Davis named Mark Knopfler and Randy Newman among his inspirations, praising their ability to compose lyrics whose meanings can be read on multiple levels, so that listeners can return to the same songs and still find something new.

“What they also taught me was, if you’re going to be a preacher, do it sideways, so it doesn’t seem like preaching,” Davis said. “If you can do that, audiences will swallow your message like a lump of sugar.”

Davis learned the guitar at the age of 12 from “one of God’s best experiments in improving the species,” Enman Cobb, a South Georgia bluesman. Among the lessons Cobb taught Davis were his first chord (E9), that “there isn’t a right or wrong way to play the instrument,” and an admonition against “working” the guitar, as opposed to playing it.

“Careful, Johnny, you white folks have a tendency to work the guitar,” Davis still recalls Cobb telling him. “But you’re supposed to play the guitar. Don’t you be working it.”

Davis added, “I owe him much. My music contains several E9 chords, some probably ‘wrong’ ways of doing things that I happen to like, and, I sincerely hope, a lot of playfulness.”

In the decades since those lessons, a series of significant events, both good and bad, have pulled Davis off the path of music, from his mother’s death from cancer, through the decade he spent studying poetry, to the “wonderful woman” he married, but in spite of those events tugging him off the musical track, he’s always come back to it, finally collaborating with Moran.

“Everett is one of my closest friends in the world,” Davis said. “He’s like a lost brother to me. He’s a hell of an engineer, and he’s got a world-class studio.”

Davis acknowledged he’s “kind of hard to categorize,” since “I’m not quite folk or country. I play all kinds of genres, and I let the needs of the song dictate the direction it’ll go. Maybe that’s a symptom of having lived all over creation. It makes me hard to sum up to audiences.”

Moran would assert that it’s this very eclecticism that makes Davis so appealing to listen to, but audiences can judge for themselves, Nov. 21 at the Rainshadow Recording Studio.

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