In the heart of Texas, between Austin and San Antonio, singer-songwriter Jimmy Davis has planted some roots.
They’re not deep; he and his significant other just moved into the log cabin in the town of Wimberley back in April. They’re preparing to close it up for a couple of months while Davis hits the road again, on a tour that’ll take him back to Blount County (where he’ll play at The Station on Wednesday) and up toward the Great Lakes, a series of intimate performances and house shows and picking parties by folks who appreciate Davis for the type of troubadour he is: an old soul with a gift for painting pictures in his songs.
“My first record came out 30 years ago, and the thing is, that’s a whirlwind kind of life,” Davis told The Daily Times this week. “We were young and in our 20s, and it was rock ‘n’ roll — you’re in and out of town, and it’s all wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. You never get to know your fans. Now, I’m 56, and I’m still able to travel pretty hard, but we do these house concerts, and everything’s so much more intimate and close. You have time to meet people and develop friendships beyond the music, and that’s what keeps me making it.”
There’s an authenticity to Davis that’s extends beyond the surface charm of his smile. When he picks up a guitar and starts to spin his tales and observations, he picks and chooses his words carefully, crafting narratives that are vibrant and heartfelt, windows into the places he’s seen and played. He’s not in it for the money; that train came and went a long time ago, when he and his band, Junction, signed to MTV’s QMI/MCA label. Their song, “Kick the Wall,” got some airplay and even some MTV rotation; that record was recently released for its 30th anniversary, and he and the boys have kicked around the idea for some reunion shows, but nothing’s been set, he said.
Besides, the rock ‘n’ roll thing didn’t hold his interest for long. And when he went solo and went to Nashville, he faced the same roadblocks that so many independent-minded artists do — closed doors and encouragement to get on the bandwagon. That wasn’t his bag, so he headed home to Memphis and began fusing a myriad of styles into one that’s his own. Along the way, he gained the respect of his peers, both as a performer (he’s backed everyone from Jonny Lang to Iris DeMent to Oak Ridge Boy William Lee Golden to Bernie Leadon of The Eagles) and as a songwriter (his songs have been recorded by Martina McBride, Restless Heart, Joy White and others).
He went back to the band well from time to time — in 1996, he and his Junction bandmate, Tommy Burroughs, re-formed The Riverbluff Clan, a Memphis country-rock-bluegrass outfit from the 1970s — and he kept putting out solo records. In 2011, he was invited to join the Mystiqueros, the backing band of fellow songwriter Walt Wilkins, and so he moved to Texas.
“Texas has been really good for me as a singer-songwriter,” he said. “It’s a thing down here.”
Blount County, however, is something of a second home. Not only did he raise his children hiking and camping in the Smokies — they made an annual pilgrimage to Elkmont for 20 years, he said — he also struck up a friendship with Blount-based musicians Jeff Barbra, Sarah Pirkle and Jay Clark. The Riverbluff Clan was picked up for airplay by the fledgling WDVX-FM in the late 1990s, and the group played one of the first Camperfest festivals organized by the station. When he comes to town, he stays with Clark or Scott Bell, one of the members of Capt. Suck and the Mediocre Band (which, incidentally, performs at Barley’s Maryville the day after Davis’ show).
“I’ve had some killer jam parties with those guys in Capt. Suck,” he said. “That’s kind of the world that we live in as singer-songwriters and independent artists these days. We have several little honey hole places where we feel like we’re part of the family when we get there, and Maryville is one of those places. We’ve even talked about moving there.”
That won’t be happening anytime soon; circumstances dictate he stay in Texas, but given his near-constant state of travel, his home might as well be the highway. He’s working on a new set of songs that he hasn’t recorded yet, and he’s gotten good enough over the years (he’s been doing it since he was 10, after all) that he’s asked to lead songwriting workshops in some of the cities where he plays. And whether he’s singing a tune or teaching others how to write one, you can count on one thing: He’ll be doing it all with a smile on his face.
“I get to play with a man named Dick Gimble, whose father, Johnny, played with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys,” Davis said. “Dick said his dad told him years ago, ‘When you go on stage and it’s time for your solo, smile!’ And if you ever see a clip of Johnny, he’s always smiling. Nobody ever had to tell me that. I started performing at a really young age, and I’ve always gotten some sort of gratification or satisfaction just from being up there. To me, it’s still fun.”