All it took was 39 years...
It’s midday at Red Fern Recording Studio in the Berry Hill section of South Nashville. Brew Davis is taking a break on the back patio, Baja burrito in one hand, can of Fat Tire in the other. He doesn’t look the part of an Americana singer-songwriter. Not that I know what that is, but I know they don’t usually wear running shoes bright enough to be seen from space.
“I got into trail running when I moved to Asheville,” Davis says, “that’s where I met Charles.” “Charles” is none other than Charles Humphrey III, hirsute bassist for Grammy-winning bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers and one heck of a songwriter to boot, having penned hits with A-listers like Shawn Camp and Jim Lauderdale.
“Charles got all these great musicians on board,” Davis says. “He got Charlie (Chamberlain) to co-produce it. He even roped Noam Pikelny in. So that's one musical degree of separation between me and Chris Thile." Davis is not short on humor. "We’ve spent four days in the studio," he says, " the four most intense days of my life. But I think we’re making something really special and something I’m incredibly proud of. So it’s worth it.”
What they're making here is true Americana. Or as Chamberlain calls it, “Ameri-kinda.” And Davis came by the blend of sounds honestly. "I grew up three miles from here,” he says. “My dad’s office was literally five doors down from the Bluebird (Café). I saw Waylon Jennings once at a parent teacher conference, Earl Scruggs at an elementary school grandparents day."
He didn’t grow up in a particularly musical family (the name “Brew,” by the way, is short for “Brewer,” his mother’s maiden name). He just kept seeking it out- trips to the Station Inn on weekends and summer breaks, working a stint at Sugar Hill Records in Durham after college, and moving to the bluegrass mecca of Asheville ten years ago. “I don’t know why but I just gravitated toward bluegrass in my late teens. Most kids start listening to grunge rock. I got hooked on the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Sam Bush, and Robert Earl Keen. Then I saw Doc Watson my freshman year of college and it was all over.”
He started noodling around on the guitar in his twenties but didn’t write his first song until two years ago, around the time he and his wife were finishing up an 18-month, 50 state book tour. “My wife’s a big hiker,” he says in what is sure to be the understatement of the recording session. His wife Jennifer Pharr Davis owns Blue Ridge Hiking Company and has walked more than 14,000 miles of long distance trail all over the world. She’s also written a half dozen hiking books, set the “fastest known time” on the Appalachian Trail (covering 47 miles a day) and was named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012.
“I was teaching when our daughter Charley was born,” Davis says. “We knew one of us would have to dial it back career-wise and Jen had more earning power so it just made sense that it would be me.” He didn’t have much down time on the road but at some point he started thinking about writing songs. “Maybe it was that we were driving through all these stark, beautiful landscapes and seeing places for the first time.”
It’s not every day an artist releases his first album at age 39. But Davis figures he finally has something to say so he might as well say it. The twelve songs he's recorded cover a range of sound and emotion. Fans of Todd Snider (he of “Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” and “B-e-e-r R-u-n, Beer Run”) will love the self-deprecating humor of “Song on the Radio” and the cell phone shorthand in “You Don’t Text Me Anymore.” The more plaintive tracks like “Billings” and “One More Christmas” are James McMurtry light. “Shades of Gray” is a straight up protest song, a second cousin to John Prine’s “Muhlenberg County.” North Carolina-centric tracks like “Soul in the Wood,” “Redbird and Blackbird,” and “State of Franklin” pine for days gone by without losing hope for the future. There's even a lullaby for his daughter Charley called “We’ll Catch You on the Flipside of the Moon.”
Davis' debut release is not unlike the burrito he's scarfing down- a blend of spicy, sweet, savory, and smooth, combining to make one unexpectedly tasty concoction.
“Three years ago, if you'd told me I'd be in my hometown making a record with Charles Humphrey and Noam Pikelny, I'd have slapped you in your face." He looks up at the clear blue sky, takes another sip of Fat Tire, then smiles. "We got home from Jen's book tour a few years ago and when I finished writing 'Soul in the Wood' I thought 'Hey, this is pretty good. I guess I'll keep doing it.' And I have."