The cliché about a specific genre of country music songs being exclusively sad stories of down-and-out regular folks struggling with love, truck, dog and gun troubles is not entirely without merit. The reality, of course, is more complex and fans with a sense of humor can laugh that off knowing the upper echelon of country singer-songwriters capture blue-collar tales with all the grit and detail of well-established storytellers like Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash. Ward Davis is one of those artists. He lived the rollercoaster ride of the Nashville machine for 15 years before striking out on his own, and boy, does he have stories to tell. His most recent album “Black Cats and Crows” displays a maturity and confidence honed over years of brief highs and longer lows.
Connect Savannah: So, you’re doing well in Arkansas and you head out to Nashville. What were your expectations?
Ward Davis: Honestly, I thought I’d be there two weeks, somebody would discover me and I was going to be famous in a year. I was slightly out of touch with how reality works. I grew up in Monticello, Arkansas, a tiny, tiny … well, not that tiny, but not big enough to know anything about the real world. I moved there expecting things to be pretty quick. Then, I started meeting people and I realized it wasn’t going to happen overnight.
CS: What was the first thing to happen that made you believe you were on to something?
WD: I think anyone who has lived in Nashville for any amount of time will tell you they tried to move home, but something — especially in my case — something always happens … nothing really big, but something always happened that kept me there. The first thing that happened for me of any consequence is Sammy Kershaw recorded a song I’d written in 2002. That kept me around for a while and everything moves slow.
Then, I started playing keyboards for a buddy of mine, Ray Scott. He was on Warner Bros. and I got to tour the country with him. After a few years I recommitted myself to my own craft and my own artistry and started writing songs. I’d get songs cut here and there by different people, but no big hit, no real showing.
CS: Some bigger stars did record your songs.
WD: Yeah, when Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard recorded one of my songs, that was my cue. I was never going to get a better cut than that, and it was a sign that the guys that like your music aren’t the guys they are playing on the radio.
So, I took that as a sign and cut my little “15 Years in a 10-Year Town” record and got a booking agent and started grinding. I hit the road and played anywhere they would hire me. I’d sit in the corner of a sports bar for $200 a thousand miles from home just to have a gig. Slowly but surely, I started meeting people and realized there was another world of country artists out there that weren’t doing it the traditional way, they weren’t going to Nashville, they weren’t getting a record deal, getting a production deal, getting a publishing deal.
CS: But, they were the ones playing the more traditional country music that you like.
WD: Exactly. One of the first people I met when I started touring was Cody Jinks. I ended up on a show with him in Texas and listened to a bit of his music. We became fast friends and started writing together, started hanging out together, started touring together. Since then it’s been up and up and up, slowly, but it’s a lot faster than it was in Nashville.
CS: Speaking of Cody, before he started playing country, he fronted Dallas-Ft. Worth thrash metal band Unchecked Aggression.
WD: I grew up in a … well, my dad wasn’t militant, but there were some types of music we just didn’t listen to growing up and one of those was thrash metal.
CS: Thrash specifically?
WD: And hip hop and jazz, whatever. It’s been fun because Cody still writes and lyrically leans into that metal lyricism and I didn’t realize it. We would listen to one of his metal songs and he’d hit stop and tell me what the guy was singing. Man, thrash metal is just really beautiful poetry when you hear it.
CS: On “Black Cats and Crows” there are some full-band songs, some piano-forward songs, and some acoustic guitar songs. Is that pre-planned?
WD: Man, you don’t really know until you get there. I’ve got a really great producer Jim “Moose” Brown. One of the best piano players in the world, he’s in Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet band, Grammy-winning songwriter, Grammy-nominated producer. He can hear things that I can’t even think to hear. When I went in to cut “Black Cats and Crowes,” it wasn’t going to be anything like it is. It was going to be me and a piano, maybe a B3 organ, that was it. But Moose heard more, and it turned out totally different than what I imagined and totally better. I’m really lucky to have that guy.
CS: Tell me about the online shows in what you called the former mancave, and the Hawaiian-shirt performances.
WD: Those things actually, at the time, saved [me]. When the pandemic hit we didn’t have anywhere to play. Just being honest, I was looking at filing bankruptcy. I’m in the t-shirt business, basically. We have to go play shows and sell t-shirts and all of that dried up overnight. I straight up panicked. I was scared. But, I have a great management company; they … promoted those online shows and made sure it all went off without a hitch. They set me up so I wouldn’t lose everything I have.
CS: Have you played Savannah before?
WD: I know I played there a couple of times with Cody in a theater, I can’t remember the name.
CS: Trustees Theater?
WD: That sounds right. Man, I don’t know, I got the memory of a cat. I don’t know if you know about us outlaw country singers, but we drink and smoke a lot. Our short-term memory is hell.
CS: Regarding lyrics, a lot of your stories are autobiographical, but all of them can’t be. How do you make sure you’re giving an authentic voice to stories that aren’t your own?
WD: As a general rule, I like to say that the two most important things to me when writing is perspective and empathy. It’s very difficult to put yourself in someone else’s shoes because you don’t know. The songs I have written that are not about me, there’s been something very close to me where lines cross. “I don’t know how that feels, but I know how this feels, and it sounds to me that it’s like how this feels.” The song “The Sounds of Chains,” my buddy Greg Jones and I wrote after watching a documentary on the Oklahoma City bombing and Timothy McVeigh. He was a veteran and if you listen to interviews, he wasn’t a stupid man. Incredibly misguided, but he wasn’t a fool. What struck me about it was he was so dug into his conviction that he was doing the right thing. He thought he was justified. Completely 100% zero remorse or regret.
CS: Fully dogmatic.
WD: Yes, he felt he had done no wrong so after we watched it, I said I want to write a song about a guy like that. Somebody who thinks he’s going to glory after doing something so awful. While we didn’t write a song about this crazy militant whatever blowing up and killing a bunch of families, we wrote a song about a guy that had the same wheels turning in his head. He killed his wife and her boyfriend, but he didn’t feel bad about it because they were bad people. So, we wrote that song and I don’t know anybody like that, or I hope I don’t, but after watching that documentary and listening, you see how the same kind of guy can do the same kind of thing for a different reason with the same emotional justification. I try to pick up on things like that when I’m writing. I’d way rather write about things I’ve experienced because it’s easier, but people don’t always want to hear about me.
Given the success he’s found lately, many people do want to hear about Ward Davis and what he has to say. Join them at Victory North, April 10 at 7 p.m., and become one yourself.