If you took a map of Tennessee and North Carolina and asked someone to put a pin in the exact middle of it, they’d probably land near the bohemian redoubt of Asheville, nestled snug in the Southern Appalachians.
Brew Davis has divided most of his 41 years between those two states. (As a former history teacher, he’s quick to point out that Tennessee used to be part of North Carolina.) So it’s fitting he landed in Asheville, smack in the middle of ‘um.
It’s also fitting that he’d draw from their shared musical heritages- country and bluegrass- to create his own unique blend of “Brewgrass,” a sound that runs the gamut from energy-infused country to string-laden mountain ballads- all smothered in some of the most inventive lyrics you’ll find either side of the Blue Ridge.
“You can get the boy out of the twang,” Davis quips, referencing his Nashville roots, “but you can’t get the twang out of the boy.” Anyone with a pulse and a pair of eyes can attest that Music City has experienced unprecedented growth the past decade. Davis’s hometown is not the same, and his coming-of-age anthem “Harpeth River Road” speaks to that fact as much as any song in recent memory.
“’Harpeth River Road’ isn’t my song,” he’s says, with a hint of anger, “It’s our song. All of us who grew up in Nashville but can hardly recognize our hometown anymore. He’s quick to point out the evolution has taken many forms. “Nashville Cats [Music City musicians] have had the rug pulled out from under ‘um time and time again. The Station Inn’s surrounded by million-dollar condos and hipster sushi bars. And the fields where my friends and I used to camp out and go muddin’ are full of McMansions. I just got a little tired of all the so-called ‘growth’ and had to get it off my chest.”
The rest of the album pivots from past to present and picks up where “Harpeth River Road” leaves off. Songs like “Not the Man You Knew,” “Oh Louise” and “Worth Fighting For” speak to the perseverance that middle age requires. “I’ve got friends being diagnosed with terminal illnesses, going through divorces, committing suicide,” Davis laments. “You can’t run from that stuff. You’ve got to face it head on. Songwriting is one way I can process it, grieve, and eventually start to heal and hope again.”
He certainly doesn’t pull any punches, not on “Cross the Divide” which he calls “the parable of the Prodigal Son if it were set in Wyoming.” And certainly not on “Turpentine- Greenwood, Oklahoma 1921.” Speaking in hushed tones, Davis explains that a young African American friend he mentored and nearly adopted over a decade ago was murdered in a gang-related incident this past spring. “I’ve had trouble figuring out why I’m where I am and why he’s where he is,” Davis says.
Of “Turpentine,” the string-laden dirge about the post-World War I race riots that rocked Tulsa, he explains, “White folks literally dropped buckets of turpentine on their neighbors from military airplanes. You can’t make this stuff up. It weighs on you,” he says. “But it’s cathartic to write about injustices when you can’t really explain them any other way.”
The album is not all dirges and death rattles. The title track itself speaks to overcoming the milieu of life. Ever the book lover, Davis references the “malaise” that Walker Percy writes about in his great Southern novel The Moviegoer, saying, “We all want something more. We’re fighting this tendency of getting stuck in a rut- like starlings murmurating in the same direction, instinctively without giving it any thought. Unless we listen to the better voices in our heads- the ones that come down from heaven- we're not gonna transcend it.”
Sometimes Davis uses brute strength to overcome those slings and arrows; and sometimes he uses humor. He admits, “Picking up a guitar and a note pad at this phase of my life is inherently laughable. I’ll finish up a song when the kids go to bed and immediately turn to the stack of laundry I have to fold so my son has a clean pair of Spider Man underwear for school tomorrow.” Davis has managed to turn those contrasts into strengths, penning gut-splitting satires like “Vasectomy Blues,” which he and the crew recorded in a single take.
“These days I’m all about leaning into the reality of my situation,” he confesses. “I’m not gonna shy away from anything, no matter how personal or silly.”
While his music may sink down in the valleys, it always seems to end with a summit view. So it’s fitting the album closes with “I’ll Climb the Mountain with You,” a song for his wife, renowned North Carolina adventurer Jennifer Pharr Davis. “She complained I’d never written her a love song,” he says with a grin, “so I got on it quick.”
Whatever listeners take away from “Scarecrow,” one thing’s for certain- like the ancient mountains he calls home, Brew Davis isn’t going anywhere. He’s sunk his roots deep into a complex landscape rich with musical history, a place that spurs songwriters on. Like the Scots-Irish who settled hundreds of years ago- or the Cherokee who were here long before that- Davis will keep drawing inspiration from the ridges and hollers that straddle his Southern Appalachian home- drawing influences from both sides of the mountain, carving out a place in them, and creating a “Brewgrass” sound that’s all his own.