Along with artists like Keb' Mo', Alvin Youngblood Hart and Denver-born Corey Harris, Davis, 42, is hailed as a leader in the renaissance of acoustic country blues. But his pedigree could not be more different from that of the men and women who initially popularized the style. The son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, whose pioneering work as actors, writers and directors helped open untold doors for future generations of African-American performers, he has traveled quite a distance in his famous parents' footsteps. He acted in a variety of television and film projects and made his debut on Broadway during the late Eighties in Mulebone, a play adapted from the works of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston that featured the music of Taj Mahal. He went on to star in the title role of the off-Broadway production Robert Johnson: Trick of the Devil, and subsequently created his own one-man show, In Bed With the Blues: The Adventures of Fishy Waters. (Muddy Waters served as the latter's inspiration.) Such efforts resulted in Davis's receiving a W.C. Handy Keeping the Blues Alive award in 1993.
According to Davis, he discovered the music he's made his life "when I was a teenager and I heard Buddy Guy and Junior Wells playing. Man, there was just something about how Buddy was bending those strings. I thought the whole guitar would pop. He did things on that guitar that made me just want to move. Before that, I had heard old-time country blues, folk blues, acoustic music. And you know, most of it was played by white college boys. So for a very long time, I thought that they invented it. It's a tribute to the music that even though they were playing it, it did not lessen the quality of it in any way. For me, it seemed like whoever was playing it, they transported me into a world where all this beautiful music was possible."
That enthusiasm for the form echoes through Call Down the Thunder, Davis's latest recording for Red House Records. The disc sports a few covers, including Robert Johnson's "When You Got a Good Friend," but it's dominated by Davis originals like "Georgia Jelly Roll" and "Mama's Gonna Fix It Right" that showcase lyrics encompassing everything from moving confessionals to snappy, infectious humor. Davis also exhibits a wide variety of blues-guitar techniques, incorporating the alternating-thumb-and-finger approach associated with the Piedmont subgenre, a right-handed hybrid of Elizabeth Cotton's "cotton-picking" method, Delta-blues finger-picking and just a touch of Maybelle Carter's country/folk "church lick" into the joyous mongrel that is his personal style. Moreover, he combines freshness and exuberance with a strong respect for tradition.
In conversation, Davis is every inch the urban intellectual. Although it's after midnight in New York and he's dog-tired from a full day of recording, he has no trouble defending himself against those who would dismiss his act as mere nostalgia. "The way the world is today, you can't start going backwards," he notes. "There's really no way you could, even if that was where you were focused. So as much as it might seem like a good thing, spiritually, to get back to simpler times, you still have to go ahead, move forward." By the same token, Davis recognizes that the music he plays "is no longer cutting-edge--but it used to be. It used to be the devil's music. That's what they called it. Now it's just historical old relics."
Davis offers a relaxed laugh after the last comment to let you know he's ribbing himself. But when it comes to discussing his love of the blues, the joking stops and the reverence begins. "You know, to me, this old style, this old-timey way of playing music, is gold," he declares. "It's treasure. It's platinum. Diamonds. It's riches. It's what they looked for when they dug up the pyramids. It's mummies. It's dust. It's the old things that you have to wipe the dust off of and shine them to see how beautiful they are.
"You know, there's an idealism associated with this old-timey music to some extent," he acknowledges. "But there's also alcoholism and a lot of other things associated with it as well. So when I do shows, not only do I like to include those old, sad-ass, depressing blues songs that are classics, but I also find, or I write, tunes that are 'up' tunes--tunes that will hopefully make you feel good about yourself. Have you patting your foot. I know the main thrust of my entertainment is to have people feeling good and find something in that music that they can just kind of roll along with and let it speak for them." He adds, "There's something about the rhythm of blues--the drive, the really sexy kind of drive to it. The music goes right to your hips. And it's really kind of a beautiful thing, because that's what makes up the world. That's how people get made. I'm not talking in the commercial sex kind of thing--I'm talking about something that just makes your bones come alive."
The best of Davis's music has the same effect on people, but he's too modest to crow about it. When asked what listeners should expect to hear when he plays live, his response is cool and sanguine yet enticing. "Just tell them," he says, "that everything is going to be all right."
Guy Davis. 8 p.m. Friday, May 16, Swallow Hill Music Hall, 1905 South Pearl Street, $12/$10 members, 777-1003.