Merle, Willie, Johnny, and… Yo-Yo Ma? Ward Davis Talks On His Musical Influences [INTERVIEW]

Before his show at The Cabooze, we sat down with Ward Davis to talk about his critically acclaimed album, his influences, and a multitude of other things

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Ward Davis is an American Singer/Songwriter from Nashville, Tennessee. Born in Monticello, Arkansas, Ward moved to Nashville in 2000 and has since had songs recorded by Trace Adkins, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Wade Hayes, Sammy Kershaw, Bucky Covington, Jimmie Van Zant, Buddy Jewel, Carolina Rain, The Roys, and many others. Ward and his band, The Beagles, were featured and performed on the A&E reality series, Crazy Hearts: Nashville in early 2014.

Since then, Davis has released his critically acclaimed album, 15 Years in a 10 Year Town, and has been touring very heavily in support of the album. We were able to catch up with him before his show here in Minneapolis at The Cabooze, and asked a few questions about the album, his life, and other things he enjoys in life!

MIM: Your debut record is titled 15 Years in a 10 Year Town, which refers to your journey as a hard-working artist, are there any moments in your career that stick out as turning points?

Davis: Oh yeah man, a ton of them. First of all, every success I’ve had has been preceded by some kind of barren wasteland of nothing for awhile. And about 3 years ago, well three years ago yesterday willie nelson and merle haggard recorded one of my songs. Up until that point I’d been trying to break into the Nashville songwriting community.

MIM: Is it hard to break into?

Davis: Oh yeah man, damn near impossible.

MIM: I Imagine its the politics of it too?

Davis: Yeah the politics are hard. But the thing that happened to me, was that the industry changed. Like politically I know so many people in Nashville, But the sound of the music changed, the type of the songs being recorded changed. I was trying to write songs like country songs I grew up listening to, and now they’re putting out poppier shit, and I don’t do that, so when Willie and Merle recorded it I was like “Ok, I don’t have to prove I’m a songwriter anymore” but at the same time now if I keep doing it in Nashville I’d just be doing it for the money and I don’t want to do that, So I just decided to cut a record and put it out.

I actually finished that song 15 Years in a 10 Year Town, three years ago today. I went and told my cowriter pat auger, whose written like the thunder rolls, he wrote with garth, unanswered prayers, small town Saturday night, he’s had a bunch of hits. I went in and I was real excited because I didn’t have anything real big under my belt at that point. I told him about that, and he was like “Oh yeah, well you felt like shit last week, listen to this,” and we had started it the week before.

I wish I could have warned me what I was getting into…#lifeofmusic

A post shared by Ward Davis (@warddavismusic) on

MIM: So that leads really well to my next question. One of your strong suits seems to be collaboration. From that song with Willie and Merle to recording with Willie and Jamey Johnson on the last record, writing for Cody Jinks. It seems like you have so many cool collaborations under your belt. Are there any that stick out and is there anybody you want to collaborate with in the future?

Davis: Yeah, actually yesterday me and Cody had a conference call with Clint Black, we’re recording with him for Cody’s next project. With the Willie and Jamey thing I pulled a favor because I knew I was putting that record out on my own, So I asked Willie if he’d sing on it and they’d already recorded Unfairweather Friends, so I thought he might owe me a favor that he agreed to, and then I asked Jamie and he said sure. I write well with others, I’ve always done that. WithCodyy, I’d toured with him a bit and knew what his music was about, with I’m not the Devil and Others, we’re always on the same wavelength.

MIM: You can hear natural chemistry in the songs you guys write together.

Davis: Yeah we enjoy it, I think our process is similar, the way Ideas fall, the way we bounce off one another, and that’s true with any really good songwriting partnership, you’ve got to have that give and take where I’m not afraid to tell him if i don’t like something and he’s not afraid to tell me. I like working with others, and, you know I like singing with Willie and Jamey.

MIM: I mean, Clint Black, It’s cool to me that a guy like him, with that kind of track record will work with anybody with chops.

Davis: Clint was a huge influence on me, he’s a great songwriter, and there was a block of time when he was one of the biggest stars out there. I feel like Garth overshadowed that entire time in country music. Like there were a lot of great artists where people remember them, but they don’t get the respect they deserve.

MIM: Garth was so dominant.

Davis: Yeah everybody loves Garth. Everybody loves Clint Black, but they forgot they love him. There’s a lot of guys like him, and there’s a lot of guys I want to work with that I think are the best.

MIM: Real heroes of yours. One of the more exciting developments for me the past few years has been to see some of the great underground country records coming out the last few years from you, Whitey Morgan, Cody Jinks, and some other guys. Do you feel like you’re a part of a broader movement with those guys or are you just out there doing your thing?

Davis: Both. Me and Whitey and Cody have the same management. Whitey was the first guy, then Cody came along, and then they signed me. I do feel like I am a part of that, and we all have the same game plan, but at the same time, even though my music isn’t like theirs and their’s isn’t like mine, even if there’s some overlap. There is a team effort but we’re all doing our individual thing, and the music is different, but it’s under the same umbrella.

Awesome shot by @chriscouturephotography. Thank you!

A post shared by Ward Davis (@warddavismusic) on

MIM: So you talked about some of your influences and heroes, be it old country stars, and relationships you have. I’m curious what you’re listening to right now?

Davis: It’s a little embarrassing. I listen to mostly classical music. Every now and then I’ll hear something I really love and I’ll buy it. I think the last album I bought was a Yo-Yo Ma album.

MIM: I love the Goat Rodeo One.

Davis: The one I bought was Appalachian Journey, with him, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor. I don’t find a lot of new stuff that I like. I’ll call Cody and be like “Hey man tell me a good anthrax album to listen to,” because I didn’t listen to that growing up. Its new to me.I don’t have to bear down and find new stuff. I guess the only reason to seek out new music is to see it and hear it and seek it out, and I don’t have time for that.I’ve missed a lot of good shit.

MIM: As a music fan that’s one of the more gratifying things, going back and finding that old stuff. It can be really inspiring.

Davis: Where I grew up, in southeast Arkansas, in a real conservative area where rock and roll was the devil. So I wasn’t allowed to listen to Bob Dylan as a kid.

A post shared by Ward Davis (@warddavismusic) on

MIM: Not even the Gospel records?

Davis: A lot of Waylon, a lot of Merle, a lot of stuff I loved, but there was just a lot that I missed.

MIM: The journey as a fan never ends, Its a bottomless well in a lot of ways. I was actually going to ask you about growing up in Arkansas. I don’t know much about that part of the country. How was it for you? What did you do growing up? Were you always sort of into music?

Davis: I always played music, but Arkansas is its own thing. I had a pretty normal existence. I started playing jamborees and local oprys around 14. A lot of hunting.

MIM: Sports?

Davis: I didn’t really give a shit about sports, I was too uncoordinated.

MIM: You found your calling though.

Davis: I knew pretty quick, I figured out early on that that was what I liked doing That set me apart from the other kids. I wasn’t an introvert, but I had big thick-rimmed glasses. Kids used to pick on me but music was like armor. When Garth Brook’s first record came out, it had a lot of piano on it, and it had a lot of piano on it, and I became the kid who could play Garth Brooks.

MIM: At what point was Nashville the dream?

Davis: Probably 14 or 15, whenever I started really singing and really appreciating country music as an art form. I was 20 when I moved.

MIM: Being you’re both from Arkansas, Do you have a favorite Johnny Cash song?

Davis: Yeah, haha. You heard me warming up on it; “Big River”.

Written by Aaron Williams


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