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Pretty Poison

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

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."

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."

Davis's journey to recording his own masterpiece traces back over many years. In 1997, following the breakup of his first marriage, he moved to Colorado to spend time with his girlfriend and to work as a technical writer with US West. During the ten years that preceded the move, Davis had been on an extended break from music: He had laid down his electric guitar in order to earn a post-graduate degree in Shakespeare from the University of Maryland. Once in Denver, he returned to the fray as an acoustic artist and discovered Swallow Hill, where he took lessons from local blues great Mary Flower and began playing open-stage events. Encouragement from Flower, as well as his participation in the organization's regular "Hootenanny," hosted by Harry Tuft, gave his songwriting a boost.

"I love Swallow Hill," Davis says. "As I got more into Swallow Hill, I got more into writing. I'd think, 'Harry's got a Hootenanny; I'd better write one.' Pretty soon I had a bunch of them." In summer of 2001, Davis was laid off from his job and began work on Dreams with an A-list of friends he'd met through the school. The disc was co-produced by Everett Moran, a former Hill director, recorded at a handful of local studios and paid for by Davis.

Davis's Swallow Hill connection has recently helped him in other ways. He won the organization's 2002 songwriter competition, the finals of which were held at this summer's Folks Festival at Four Mile Park. Playing against songwriters who'd all worked their way through the contest's ranks, Davis cleaned house with a single acoustic blues number, "Billion Dollar Lie," that left Four Mile Park listeners in stitches. The song tells of rich men who dress up in "poor people" clothes (bought at the local Kmart by hirelings) and hang out at bars in order to perpetuate the blue-collar belief that money makes life miserable: "In walked the billionaires in perfect disguise," Davis sang, "from their Winston Cup caps to their dirty Levis...When the string on your finger is made out of dough/The whole round world is your own yo-yo."

Davis's range allows him to stretch out across such rich and varied terrain -- dropping dimes on so many targets and conjuring the marrow from Dixieland's bones. Despite his diversity, though, he remains a patriot of the music of his youth.

"The South is the wellspring for most American music," he says. "Rock, blues, country, Appalachian, jazz -- the South birthed all that stuff. Maybe it's the estrogen in the mud. Doesn't matter where you hail from, if you're playing American music, it's likely that on some level, you're playing music from the South."

This week, Davis will do just that when he opens for Otis Taylor at Swallow Hill. Violinist Julia Hays, pedal-steel player Tony Rowe and bassist/collaborator Sean Kelly are scheduled to join him on stage. His intermittent live appearances have also been augmented by the increased visibility of Dreams: Davis recently placed the album in the bins at Twist & Shout and is about to launch a Web site, losttribedreams.com, to help him spread his unique musical word.

As for that Gospel that he sings about but doesn't take to heart, well, that's another story. Davis was recently invited to perform at a Christian church near his home in Evergreen, a gig he took despite his lack of traditional belief.

"Me being there was like them asking Ray Charles to execute a paint-by-numbers picture of the Last Supper," he says. "There's no doubt that, culturally, I'm a Christian. And the best Christians I know are some of the best people I know. I can say the same for the best Jews and Buddhists. But because I don't have the answers and I'm not sure, don't hold that against me."

"Don't take that to mean I've got something against it," he cautions. "I just have this thing in me that wants to ask a question even if I can't find the answer. Sometimes a good question is worth as much as a good answer."


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