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By Kevin Broughton
Kicking off with a blaze of harmonized electric guitars sounding like when the Allman’s Elizabeth Reed checked into the Eagles’ Hotel California, Ward Davis’s new album Black Cats and Crows doesn’t waste a second on formalities. Out Friday on Thirty Tigers, the record is a triumph on all fronts. A muscly country-rock record filled with murderous story songs, heartbreaking vulnerability, and that unmistakable voice—Davis’s weathered croon, barrel-aged then left out in the sun—are all brought to life through Davis’s and producer Jim “Moose” Brown’s care for their craft and disdain for sterility.
We’ve said here many times that as bad as 2020 has been on so many fronts, it’s been a great year for independent music. Davis’s Black Cats and Crows – upon its Friday release – will keep that hot streak alive. It’s an outstanding country-rock album that will leave fans wanting more from this songwriter coming into his own. We caught up with Mr. Davis for a lightning-round set of questions, mostly about the writing process and the music industry.
Kevin: It’s been a couple years since we last heard from you, on your 2018 EP Asunder. Are the 14 cuts on Black Cats and Crows songs you’ve developed since then, or do some of them stretch back beyond the EP?
Ward: Some of the songs on this record go back 15, 16 years. Some are just a few months old. I spent 15 years writing songs every day in Nashville hoping a George Strait or Tim McGraw would hear one and cut it, but it never happened. It’s a scary thing to think about, all the great songs that slipped through the cracks in the pavement on Music Row. The ones I cut on here that are aged, are the ones I was proudest of when I wrote them.
KB: There’s a line in the chorus of the title song, “God must have it in for me, why He only knows.” Is that coming from a historical point in your own story, a metaphor for alienation and sense of unfairness in people in general, neither or a little of both?
WD: I mean, bad luck is bad luck. Hard times are hard times. Bad stuff happens sometimes for no good reason. I’ve had a lot of friends that aren’t here anymore for reasons that I can’t even begin to comprehend. A lot of different scenarios do a lot of people in. I think a lot of times we ask God “Why?” and He doesn’t give us a straight answer. We were just pointing that out. It might feel like alienation, but it’s a pretty normal feeling, most people understand.
KB: You have a lengthy and impressive list of artists for whom you’ve written: Willie, Merle, Sammy Kershaw and Trace Adkins, just to name a few. How is your songwriting/thought process different when you’re writing them for yourself?
WD: I honestly don’t remember how I used to write songs. I was always chasing the golden geese of Nashville. I was putting songs together like Legos. I stopped that about six or seven years ago. Now I just write when I want. Or when I feel something. Or when I need some therapy. I’ll sit down and write a song in 20 minutes, but I won’t write another one for five or six months. I don’t think I have a process. I think I just write songs with people who like to write songs with me and that I like to write with.
KB: Over the last two to three years, there’s been a slew of artists churning out quality, thoughtful, earnest music that in a sane world would have a natural home on country radio. Stapleton, Jinx, Tennessee Jet, Jesse Daniel…this album would certainly fall into that category. Two-part question: Do you see country radio ever moving back from the pop/bro brink, and if not, what is the path going forward for indie artists without terrestrial radio airplay?
WD: I hope they don’t change it. All that shitty music on the radio drives people towards guys like me. The path is, “Stay real. Stay honest. Be human. Humans are listening.”
KB: For those not familiar with your history, how deep into the world of Nashville co-writes and publishing are you, and regardless of future releases of yours, will that remain part of your livelihood?
WD: I haven’t been a part of that world in over 6 years. I barely know anyone down there anymore.
Black Cats and Crows is available everywhere you consume music this Friday.
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From Kendell's excellent 2017 album Lowdown & Lonesome.