Roy Davis: We Are a Lightning Bolt

Lightning strikes

Weather the storm with Roy Davis’ third LP

When Hank Williams sang a song like “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy” he could sell it because he’d been down low: born with spina bifida, father with a paralyzed face thanks to a stroke, brother he never knew because he was already dead. And when Williams died at 29 no one was over-much surprised, since he’d been drunk most of the time he’d been alive anyway.

It can be fun to sing country songs about lives busted-up and broken, but unless you’ve got the empathy to feel those hurts, the songs just become the clichéd joke mainstream country music has often found itself.

So whatever it is that Roy Davis experienced in his travels over the past year down [this was early 2010] to Nashville and over to Wyoming and back, you’ll be thankful after you hear We Are a Lightning Bolt, his third full-length release and the record on which something important seems to have clicked. The twang and the lilt of alt-country were always there, but somewhere in the country’s small towns and wide open spaces Davis put his hands in the country’s dirt, too, and his always-smart songs have never been so fully realized, so full of real people, as they are here.

Recording down in Portsmouth with Jon Nolan — himself no stranger to great alt-country sounds, but never as dark as Davis is here — and helped out with “Dregs” like Kerry Ryan (Jeremiah Freed) on drums, Travis Kline (an up-and-coming solo artist in his own right) on guitar and backing vocals, Bernie Nye (Pete Kilpatrick) on banjo and bass, and Justin Maxwell (the Coming Grass/Sara Cox/Cindy Bullens) on bass, Davis seems to have needed to get out of his comfort zone, feel what it’s like to truly be uncomfortable, in order to make the record he’s been trying to make all along.

I still listen to those first two records—Grey Town and Deadweight. They’re good. And I like that Ryan Adams/Jayhawks/Uncle Tupelo sandbox in which Davis plays. But on the first listen, I heard something different in Lightning Bolt. Right around “Barbara Lang,” it struck me that Davis had discovered a pipeline to pathos, where chimes of piano match his tentative reaches into a squeaky falsetto like Townes van Zandt, and “he sits at a bar by the Super 8/ She cooks him food, but she waits.” Ryan’s shuffling drumline gives the song texture like sandpaper while “we get up, go get coffee/ Walk around like a couple of darlings/ Just as sweet as the sun.”

Nolan captures vocals especially well, as when you hear Davis close the “k” on “boardwalk,” part of a naked vocal part over cello and indie-rock-flavored alternating notes, before the song charges up with a heavy acoustic strum and a wood-block beat into an alt-country orchestra, staying all-instrumental through the finish where a pair of laconic electric guitars harmonize. And on “Stranger’s House” every instrument is so terrifically crisp that the pedal steel in the song’s second half is like liquid amber pouring over dry, brittle sticks.

In that song, as on album-opener “You Don’t Have to Fall in Love,” Davis explores the nuances of relationships, the degree expressed by a line like “I’m not going to fight you in a stranger’s house/ I’m not gonna give you what you want right now,” in that voice-crack of knowing that can come through with a simple “oh, honey.” The implied plea in “you don’t have to fall in love” he can make heart-breaking.

By the album’s end, Davis seems almost stripped of emotional charge. The songs become more and more bare, as presaged by the 2:02-long “Sweet Release,” where a father does his best to crush the life out of his son: “By now you’re old enough to know your mother’s dead/ And everything’s a lie … maybe you’ll fix cars, or drink yourself to death.” And so, with the finishing track, the falsetto is ever more warbly, the guitar most ghostly, the lyrics more plaintive: “I need a fix/ I need to be fixed/ For ten dollars I’ll sell all my things/ And there’s nothing that I won’t admit.”

Maybe Davis does have a secret or two. He sings with the depth of a man who’s got a few skeletons in the closet. For a songwriter, that can never be a bad thing.

Sara Cox: Firewater

There’s a line off Golden Smog’s Down by the Old Mainstream that encapsulates alt-country lyricism: “I’m lonely when you hate me, you hate me when I’m lonely, but mostly I’m just here to kick around.” It’s a realization, a resignation, that sometimes life just sucks, but it doesn’t have to get you down. And only a certain kind of voice — a Gary Louris, Jeff Tweedy, Gillian Welch, or a Sara Cox — can pull it off without sounding like a (gasp) country music singer.

Here on Cox’s Firewater [released back in 2000, I can’t find a place to stream this, though two other Sara Cox records are on Spotify. Here’s where you can buy the record on eBay], a sadness pervades, but it’s not the sadness of self-pity. It’s the sadness you feel when you go back and visit a house you haven’t lived in for a while: You can’t help but miss everything that went on there, even if it wasn’t always good times and smiles. Every song is about a relationship that didn’t, isn’t, or won’t work, but somehow that’s okay, because it has to be.

The opening “Waste of Time,” appearing first on the Area Code 207, Volume 1 compilation, breaks your heart right away: “Well I’ve been thinking ‘bout the way you left that day,” Cox sings plaintively, “making jokes like it was not the end. And if I thought of something smarter to say, maybe now we’d still be friends.” Does anyone not have a relationship lurking in their past that ended that way? Or maybe that’s the relationship you’re in right now.

Cox sings about making do with what you’ve got on her contribution to Area Code 207, Volume 2, “Sticking (Not Stuck).” “Although your mouth is now closed when we kiss,” she emotes. “I know your head’s still open. Despite all the details that somehow we missed, I know our hearts still need them, oh yeah.” And when she sings “oh yeah,” it doesn’t sound like filler.

“Sticking” also showcases Cox with a full backing band of talented musicians including Nate Schrock — whose brilliant slide is all over this record — and drummer Ginger Cote, quite adept at keeping Cox’s morphine-haze-like pace. That’s impressive, but so is “SUGAR,” one of two songs where Cox is all alone. “Baby, don’t let your sugar turn hard,” she advises in the chorus. “It’s too hard to taste that way.”

One gets the feeling that Cox has had plenty of reasons for letting her sugar turn hard, but she’s used her music as a salve, and we’re the luckier for it.