Pretty Poison

John Davis's vision of American roots music is wet, mean, dirty -- and downright brilliant.

Born on Georgia soil and bred on Southern music, John Davis is the first to admit that he's a fish out of water here in the higher, drier land of Colorado. But that hasn't prevented him from finding a home and a musical career along the Front Range, where he moved five years ago. This summer, he deepened his local roots with the release of Dreams of the Lost Tribe, a whopper of a debut that plays like some Tennessee Williams version of "O Dixie, Where Art Thou?" Dreams is an astounding, cinematic collection of what Davis calls "Southern degenerate acoustic" music. Swelling with expertly played and arranged American musical forms -- everything from rural blues, bayou reels and ragtime romps to wistful, magnolia-scented mood pieces -- the album is rich in literary-quality lyrics sung in a voice that falls somewhere between that of Randy Newman and a Mississippi bluesman.

The disc also smolders with enough Delta darkness to make 16 Horsepower's David Eugene Edwards and others enthralled with sin and salvation in the South seem like backwater tourists. And while the Southern fixations of many such artists take on a biblical tinge, Davis's does not.

"Flannery O'Connor talked about the South being 'Christ haunted,'" Davis says. "It is. You grow up down there, and it's a part of your life. I love all that stuff, but I don't believe a word of it. Not unless I'm in terrible trouble. I'm a staunch agnostic. I'm a Frisbeetarian. I believe your soul just kind of flies around through the air above the earth."

Dreams weaver: John Davis and the tools of his trade.
Dreams weaver: John Davis and the tools of his trade.

On terra firma, Davis's music seeps up through the soles of the feet and into the soul, kind of like dew poisoning. It takes listeners to a humid fantasyland where, despite their tribulations, good country people overcome Satan, gale-force winds, floods and more to find Spanish-moss-draped salvation.

"It's certainly hotter, wetter, meaner and more poisonous than anywhere I've ever lived," Davis -- a native of Waycross, Georgia, birthplace of Gram Parsons -- says of the South. "But the natives, black and white, survive somehow. I think it's largely a matter of pure cussedness. I try to capture that spirit in a French phrase that recurs in two places on the CD: 'S'il pleur tous les jours, je m'en fou, je m'en fou' -- 'I don't give a damn if it rains every day.'"

Davis succeeds in capturing that spirit. Dreams opens with "Invocation," delivered by local preacher Reverend Demaster Servine III, who rails over a swampy slide guitar and hummed field-holler vocals. "But what, my brothers and sisters," Servine asks, "about those who did not prevail?" As an answer to that question, the album skips into the bouncy ragtime of "Okefenokee," in which catfish, cypress knees and other tannin-stained images form a loving set piece about Davis's homeland. In the song, a woman who thinks she's Dale Evans finds comfort in a friend who dances her around the yard, pretending he's Roy Rogers; the two are beckoned to their feet by smiling fiddles and banjos. "Dirty Old World" sounds like Mose Allison on a bleak bender ("Reach out and touch someone in a latex rendezvous," Davis croons), highlighted by John Magnie's sinister piano. The darkness breaks in the bittersweet sunshine of "Waiting" and the Tom Waits-meets-Leon Redbone fun of "Hobo Supper."

Elsewhere, Dreams addresses Vietnam vets on "In Remembrance of Steve" ("Each night I build perimeters out of cigarettes and beers," Davis sings) and rising tides on "Cajun Flood." In that novelette of a song, natives call to each other as they wash out to sea, past the tops of cypress trees, only to meet down in Yucatan for a Cajun jamboree. "Hey, hey, what a lovely day, floating out here where the mermaids play," a chorus chimes over the waves. The song, like so many on this disc, features soaring strings and lush, symphonic arrangements paired with quiet passages of immense dynamics and depth. The CD wraps up with "Lullaby for Ruth" and leaves listeners stunned and misty-eyed: "May your goodnight breed a good night tonight/May your dreams take you over the moon," Davis whispers in the song, which he penned for his daughter. "May your wishing well wish you well tonight/May the wishes fill your bucket with delight."

Dreams of the Lost Tribe is a stunning piece of work by any standard, and a debut of masterful, almost scary proportions. Davis's ambition for the recording was not so lofty, however.

"My goal was to have a CD people could listen to more than once," he says. " I buy a lot of local CDs, but I hear them once, and I feel like I've got everything from them in that first listen. If I ever make another one, I want one you can wash dishes to. Put on Sergeant Pepper: You can put on your headphones, grab a beer, a bong or whatever, and have a wonderful experience. But you can also wash dishes and enjoy the heck out of it. That's my ultimate goal."

Dreams's narrative, deliberately paced feel -- many of the songs are over five minutes and the CD checks in at over sixty -- is a reflection of Davis's geographical and musical upbringing. "I'm from the Deep South, land of the long-winded," Davis says. "Also, I love the classics -- Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare -- especially because those works evoke vivid pictures in the audience's mind. My favorite albums always seem to have some kind of glue that ties the individual pieces together."

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