On a cold, January night in Des Moines, Iowa, I head down East Grand Avenue in search of Quinton’s Bar and Deli to meet up with singer-songwriter, Ward Davis. Greg Jones, sometimes songwriter and full time tour manager for Ward, invited me to a pre show sit down for some conversation before photographing the show that night. Ward, Greg, and I catch up at the bar about the drive in before Ward and I take up a nearby booth for some conversation
Americana Highways: Do you remember what the first piece of music was that made you want to start playing music?
Ward Davis: I took piano lessons when I was a kid and you know nobody gave a sh-t about Chopin and anyway. (laughs) When Garth Brooks’ first album came out, it had a lot of piano on it and that got me into playing country. My dad was hardcore Waylon, Merle, Willie, so I had that plugged into me at the same time.
AH: Since you switch between piano and guitar during your set, do the songs dictate the instrument or, do you have a preference when you sit down to write?
WD: I don’t think I have a preference. I write more on the guitar because it’s easier to go grab a guitar in a hotel room than to drag in your keyboard. A lot of my songs I’ll write on guitar but I’ll hear piano in my head. “Good and Drunk,” on my last EP, Asunder, I wrote on guitar but when I got to the studio to record it, I sat down and played it on piano.
AH: Any personal favorite songs to perform either because of what it means to you or how the audience may react when it comes up in the set list?
WD: There’s a Johnny Cash song called “Big River” that I always enjoy, and it’s kind of a standard, I really love doing that one. It almost depends on the night, man. Some nights I’m not in the mood for one song or the other but as far as my songs, I always like playing “Live a Lie” or “Good and Drunk.”
AH: Going back in the catalog a little, what did it mean to you to have Willie Nelson and Jamey Johnson sing on your cover of “Old Wore out Cowboys” on your 15 Years in a 10 Year Town album.
WD: Yeah man that was really generous of both of them first of all and, it’s cool as sh-t! I didn’t expect Willie to say yes but after Willie said yes, I figured Jamey would too. I’ve known Jamey a long time, I don’t know Wilie that well but he and Merle (Haggard) recorded that song and I know how Willie is, he loves to help. It’s very surreal, sometimes it will come on through my playlist or something and I have to pinch myself.
AH: What’s the best and worst about being out on the road?
WD: Well, the hardest is definitely being away from home, from my wife and kids. The best is playing and sometimes it’s a truck stop hotdog at 2 o’clock in the morning it just depends. The last couple days were other examples of the worst. The bus broke down and I had to hook a U-haul trailer up to my Jeep and haul that around so just getting out and walking around was good for me after about 10 hours of driving.
AH: What’s it like having a partner in this thing like your management company, True Grit?
WD: True grit started when I met Cody Jinks a few years ago and the same night I met him, I met his manager, Arthur Penhallow Jr. I’d call Art and ask him for advice and at some point he called and said, “Do you want to work together? If we do this we’re gonna do it, and you gotta listen to me.” And I said OK, and I listen to him, and to be a part of that and… I tell people this all the time, it’s a handshake deal. There’s a lot of trust involved and man, I trust them. It’s a business and I know they bust their asses everyday. A lot of these shows, I don’t make a lot of money on but, they always bust their ass like it’s a big show no matter what.
As I put away the questions and we just talk, Ward hits on some real truths in the industry.
WD: The way people hear about music coming out of Nashville is the same way they hear about me, through Spofity and social media. Obviously I don’t have as much money behind me as say Luke Bryant and those guys but man, as far as just having a platform were all on the same platform. That algorithm keeps us all going and keeps the streams coming. It’s just a different world.
I never thought I’d be doing this. I just decided a few years ago that I was so sick of Nashville, the music changed and I just don’t do “that”. Not that I don’t change but, I don’t know how to do what they’re doing there. What I do, it’s not programmed, and I’m too old to learn.
I just didn’t know there was another audience basically. That’s what I’m learning, more and more, is that people do like to go hear music that they know that not a lot of people know about. They own it differently.
Ward is exactly right about that and fans of this brand of what many consider “real country” music are gaining in numbers. With Covid-19 locking down many of our favorite artists, it’s been a real treat to share live streams of artists I love and help draw new fans to singer songwriters, like Ward Davis. Follow him on any of his social media and also hit his website, www.warddavismusic.com, to stay up to date on new merch, new music, and where you can see him perform.