Mixing jamband creativity and electricity with country and bluegrass to make mountain rock.
Regular visitors to Americana UK will be aware of the ongoing debate about what is and isn’t americana. The Davisson Brothers Band, a family band whose family have lived in Appalachia for hundreds of years, are contributing to this debate as they have mixed the worlds of jambands, Nashville and bluegrass to create music that has been called mountain rock. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with guitarist Chris Davisson over Zoom at his home in Clarksburg, West Virginia, to discuss their new record, ‘Home Is Where The Heart Is’, and asks why Appalachia is so important to him and the other band members. Chris explains that musically he has friends in the jamband, country, and bluegrass communities, and he brought them all together in a musical retreat to see if he could achieve his musical vision. This vision is captured on ‘Home Is Where The Heart Is’ with guests like Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman, Tim O’Brien, Rob McCoury, and Stuart Duncan, and with songwriting co-writes with Nashville songwriters like Wyatt Durrette, Adam Hood, and Rob Snyder. The pull of Appalachia and its influence on the band is described in detail, including his family history which goes right back to an ancestor founding Clarksburg, West Virginia. Finally, Chris shares his secret to succeed in the music business, be the least talented guy in the room and just absorb things.
How are you and are you in Nashville?
I’m good, and I’m back home in West Virginia. We split our time between Nashville and our home in West Virginia, and we’ve just come off the road and I had some business in Nashville, and some writing sessions for about a month, and I’m home for a couple of days before we go back on the road.
Why does Appalachia have such a pull for people born there?
First of all, it is the people who keep us coming back, and then if you are brought up with these mountains any time you are outside of them, you feel like you are spending your time trying to get back to them. It is something special and it comes with the people, the mountains, we live in and the lifestyle, it is just home and anywhere else in the world isn’t home.
How influenced by the local music were you when you were growing up?
Oh my, we have pictures dating back to us being just little babies, one and two years old with guitars in our hands. Everything we’ve been around growing up there was music involved, we are several generations of musicians, and our family also founded the town where we live here in the 1700s. So, we were the first settlers here in West Virginia, and my family were all mountain fiddlers back then clear up to my grandfather, and they all had gatherings back then. It has been part of my family as far back as we’ve been here, and my grandfather was the first in the family to get into the guitar and he played big band jazz-style guitar.
There were coalmines up in what we call the hollers, and the people from the city would come out to work the coalmines and brought these songs with them, and it was some of this folk and bluegrass stuff that worked its way into my family through guys working in the coalmines in their lunchbreak passing these songs down through us. My uncle was more the folkie bluegrassy guy, and my dad was a country rocker type of guy, but they all had their own little Appalachian twist to it. We have nephews, and my brother Donnie has a son, Nicholas, coming up, so there are three generations of us on the road right now. My dad still does something like 200 dates on the road at seventy years old, and my brother and I tour with our nephews so I guess we’ve had a lifetime of music here in Appalachia. Wherever you go around here somebody is playing some kind of music, if we went out on Sundays to the local feed store and there would be a guy there with a banjo, fiddle, and a mandolin, just playing on the porch. So we were just surrounded by music our whole life, and you kind of absorbed it whether you wanted to or not.
You mentioned adding an Appalachian twist to the music, can you define what is unique to Appalachian music?
It’s kind of like an accent, I guess. Here in the States, you can tell where certain people are from just by the way they talk and act, I can almost tell which part of Appalachia someone is from just by hearing them talk for five seconds because I’m dialled in and I’m around it. You can go an hour south from where I am in Central Appalachia and the people talk completely differently, you can go an hour to the east and the west and there are different mountains and hollers and the flatlands of Appalachia. I can tell within five or ten seconds of the sound of something if it is authentic Appalachia, I can feel it more than I hear it. It is just one of those things, when you know you know, people twenty minutes away from here talk differently than we do, it is different locations of Appalachia within Appalachia that have their own little thing. Coming back to the music, I guess I feel it more than I hear it.
You are in a family band, what are the benefits and challenges of working with your family?
We’ve just recently taken the two nephews I mentioned before, and our current bass player Gerrod Bee is my sister’s boy, has been literally standing in the wings and the side of the stage with an instrument in his hand since he was three years old. He went on to become an amazing guitar player, and about three years ago we had an opening for a bass player and there was no better fit than this kid who has been feeling the kick of our bass drum since he was three years old, so it is instilled in him so he is in on bass and singing backup vocals. We have just recently added a fifth member to the band and he is his brother, Landon McFadden, and he is twenty years old and he has just got out of school, and he sings and plays guitar like I do, but he sings a family harmony with his brother and my brother Donnie who is the lead singer. That family connection, you just can’t beat it, and so I’ve got two kids who have been on stage with us since they were three years old, and my brother Donnie and me have done thousands and thousands of shows together. Another plus side of that is you can get into arguments and still love each other.
‘Home Is Where The Heart Is’ is your third album and sees the band move to a new level. What was the inspiration behind it?
This album is so special to us, and coming from West Virginia our whole lives these sounds, as you said, of Appalachia surrounds you and you live with it and it becomes part of you, and we’ve always said every lyric we’ve sung and every note we’ve played, we’ve lived it. We’ve been in the vans, we haven’t always been in a tour bus, we’ve done hundreds and thousands of miles in the vans in Appalachia, every little nook and cranny we played it, we’ve been on those porches, we’ve been in on those bluegrass jam circles, these folk circles, and these old time circles, and that’s stayed with us. We like to think we are always evolving as artists and I like to tell people this record represents where we came from, where we are at, and where we are heading all at the same time. Over the years we’ve learnt to play the business, and there is no music business in West Virginia, very few music venues, and we’ve had a tough time coming up and we’ve had to work our way into Nashville and get into this Nashville cycle.
There are no outlets here, you can’t just go into a studio and record your music, and you can’t find someone to help you get your music out, you have to go where the business is, and we feel that is Nashville. Over the years we’ve learnt through trial and error, we’ve had record deals and we’ve been writing, and we started in a family band playing country rock with our dad, and when we got out of high school we got into the jamband world and we were surrounded by guys like Dickie Betts and opening for Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule, Derek Trucks, and some of the Leftover Salmon guys, Trey from Phish, these bigger than life jam guys who just did their own thing. We did things with John Cowan of New Grass Revival and Sam Bush, and we watched these guys to see how they did it and we always had a dream of going and pursuing the radio thing,
My brother always had the dream of getting some songs on the radio because when we were growing up country radio was just a big deal to us and everybody we were around. So we pursued that for a while, we wrote and recorded songs, and put some songs out on the radio and we had some influence from some producers and writer buddies of ours. When COVID hit we decided to take a break for the first time in our lives ever, we had stopped touring and we are a touring act, we’ve done 280 shows a year sometimes and when COVID hit and the brakes got put on we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We like to say we are always on tour because we tour fifty-one to fifty-two weeks a year at all times, and we’ve never really had a week or a weekend off or a Saturday night off, and when COVID hit we were like, man, this is awesome and we went off to our mountains to our camps and we trapped fish, big rainbow brown trout, and we hunted morel mushrooms, and we just stayed in the woods. We were about two months into that we started missing the music, man, you can only hunt and fish so much, and we didn’t realise how much this was actually in our blood.
While we had this down time I started thinking I had always wanted to take these Nashville poet guys who are our brothers and are kind of part of our band at times, they are not just writers they come out on the road with us at times, and they see our family farms where our family has been rooted here in West Virginia. They have seen all this, they know our history and our music, and they do opening acts for us all the time, and I wondered what would happen if I took all these jamband americana artist friends of mine and took them somewhere secluded with the writers from Nashville. So, I’ve got these jamband friends of mine and bluegrassers and stuff, who are the best pickers and players in the world, just the best entertaining guys. I took them to South Carolina on a twelve hundred acre farm and got the Nashville guys out of Nashville and I got the jam guys out of their home bases, and we spent a week with nothing in mind other than seeing what would happen, and on the first night the banjos and the fiddles came out, and the mandolins and I watched these writers circle round it was like magic happened.
I had both sides of my world, the Nashville side and the jam side all in one room and we came out with like ten songs, and I called my manager Allen Mitchell at Erv Woolsey and I said we’re onto something here, we have to continue with this. We ended up putting together two or three more of these retreats and we had fifty or so songs and we knew we had something special. So, I went and found our producer, David Ferguson, and I called the Del McCoury band and said I need a special producer who can capture this Appalachia feel I’ve got in mind, and all this amazing songwriting and put it all together. The McCourys introduced me to David Ferguson who is a legendary producer and grew up with Johnny Cash and did like sixty sessions with him, he did the Rick Ruben sessions, he went on to do all the John Prine stuff, and recently he has done the Tyler Childers Sturgill Simpson, and Margo Price records.
He agreed to do it in about five minutes, and I’m like how are we going to take this a step further, and I asked David if he minded if I call my friend, Brent Cobb, who is an amazing artist and producer, and his first cousin is the legendary producer Dave Cobb in Nashville. He was all in, and we got in the studio and I was like at home, it was the record we always want to make. It felt so good, we started out loud, we went in with our band loud, and we brought in Tim O’Brien on the mandolin, and Stuart Duncan on the fiddle, we just did a live session and hit record. We started out with no click, and by the time the first song was over we just looked at each other and we knew we had something different here. A couple of days in Brent called and said I don’t know if you know it, but about 90% of those songs you sent me we are talking about home in West Virginia and Appalachia, and he said I’d like to name the album ‘Home Is Where The Heart Is’. That’s how the title came about, and this record just feels like home to us.
How easy was it to get your two worlds to meld together, was it a purely natural process?
Yes, and that was the magic in it, I didn’t want to force it at all. I didn’t know whether these guys would just be like, let’s have another beer and then go back home. I just sat back and watched, I watched the writers because I didn’t know that some of these writers had never been in a little bluegrass jam circle, where they are playing fiddle songs and fiddle melodies. They were just amazed and got in the circle, and I’ve got one writer friend, Wyatt Durrette, who has written thirteen number-one hits for Zac Brown, and he’s done a lot of the Luke Combs stuff recently and he wrote a song with Luke Combs and Billy Strings, and he doesn’t play any instrument he just writes off the vocal patterns and melody, and he’s always got a song in his head. I just watched him in these circles and the ideas were just sparking, they got it and everybody got each other. These writers are poets, they are born with this special gift, and one in millions and millions of people may be born with this gift. You can tell them one or two lines and they come right back at you and say the same thing in this brilliant way, and it is a gift like being able to play amazing guitar or something. They have this gift with words and I think there is something really special about that, and I think you are born with that I don’t think you can teach that.
What did your dad think of ‘Home Is Where The Heart Is’?
My dad, he cried the first time he heard it and he is actually singing with us on two songs on it too, so he is a part of it.
Your music has been called mountain rock, is that fair and what is mountain rock?
I do, I do. It means we are too country bluegrass for rock and too rock for country bluegrass. It is hard to pigeonhole us, we are authentic and we play these country music festivals, you know, these top forty things, and then we’ll play these jam festivals, and we bring a piece of both sides. We will do a top forty country music festival and there will be some jaws dropping after a five minute guitar solo, where did that come from, and it is the same with the jam scene we will do something that leans to country with verse chorus verse chorus and you’re out, and they are like, hell, they’ve just played a song that is under four minutes long, what’s going on here.
How would you describe your audience?
We are very fortunate, we have a very loyal audience and fan base. We have this one fan who carries every day of his life this picture in his wallet that my brother Donnie signed when he came on stage at four years old, and every time we see him we have to resign his picture. I guess looking down on it they are the working men and women of this world, they are the hard-working people who make a living with their hands mostly. Here in Appalachia, we depend on each other and on our neighbours, and up some of these hollers there are families living on farms who have been living together with nothing but each other for hundreds of years here in Appalachia. I guess that comes through in our fan base and our audience, people always trying to lift each other up and it is the same at our shows. We get a lot of support and we are getting ready to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in April, and it is amazing to see that our fan base is getting ready to travel from all over the country just to support us at the Grand Ole Opry. We’ve got dozens of messages from people in West Virginia asking if there is going to be an after-show party at the Grand Ole Opry. They support us through everything, the highs and the lows, and that is more than we can ask for.
Do you have any plans to come to the UK and Europe?
We were coming over just before COVID hit, we were going to do C2C or something but COVID stopped that. We are about to go back on tour to Australia, and we are trying to get something together to put you guys in, and we have a fan base over there we have to get to because we’ve never been there and we’re looking forward to that.
You are still not having any time off.
I know I thought we might have a lighter schedule this year, but it is probably double the dates coming in that we’ve ever had, but I guess that is a good thing and that is what new music does.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
I’ve really been digging into our producer, Brent Cobb, who is a real close friend of ours and he is so inspiring to us, we grew up with him in the music industry and he just keeps putting out these records that I think are going to stand the test of time. I’ve been listening to another good friend of ours over here, Adam Hood, who is an amazing singer-songwriter and artist. I listen to a lot of things, and then again I can go a long time without listening to anything at all. We are surrounded by so much music, when we get on the bus the silence is kind of a good thing every now and then. There are a lot of live acts, I’ve been working with, some guys in Nashville in the americana world, I’ve been around the Del McCoury Band a lot, and those guys are good friends of mine. I’ve just got done writing something on the Del McCoury Travelin’ McCourys project. Also Ronnie Bowman, another friend of ours who is a bluegrass vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, we’ve just been surrounding ourselves with lots of artists that we learn from, I like to be the least talented guy in the room and just absorb things.
Would you class the Travelin’ McCourys as mountain rock or are they bluegrass?
The Del McCoury Band is definitely traditional bluegrass, but the Travelin’ McCourys are kind of americana and pushing the edge of bluegrass, keeping that traditional rootsy thing going but they are pushing the envelope, and I think this new thing they are working on will really push the envelope. There are areas in Nashville, and it has taken us a lifetime to get into these rooms, and we’ve had to earn the respect and get some street cred to get in these circles and be around some of this. We don’t take it lightly, we’ve kind of had to earn it.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
We are looking forward to coming over and meeting everybody, we want to come over and we don’t want to just fly in and fly out we want to see the culture and meet the folks in the off the beaten path areas. We love people, and we love meeting new people and making new friendships.
The Davisson Brothers’ ‘Home Is Where The Heart Is’ is released on 28th April on Rollin’ The Dice Records.