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David Davis and the Warrior River Boys - Self-Titled (CD, 2004)

by Jerome Clark, 03/17/2004

David Davis and the Warrior River Boys

In 1939 Cullman, Alabama, native Cleo Davis, then driving an ice truck in Atlanta, auditioned for a man who'd placed a newspaper ad seeking someone who could play guitar and sing old-time songs. In his nervousness Davis missed the man's name but suggested they try a couple of songs by his favorite duet, the Monroe Brothers. The stranger picked mandolin while, still battling stage fright, Davis struggled to do his best. As he heard the other man's voice come in on the harmony, he suddenly knew who he was: Bill Monroe. Monroe hired him on the spot, and thus Cleo Davis became the first Blue Grass Boy.

Cleo Davis was also David Davis's uncle. David's father Leddell played old-time banjo, his grandfather J. H. Bailey the fiddle. In short, David's credentials are impeccable, and the Warrior River Boys, which a young David Davis took over from an ailing Garry Thurmond in 1984, are as rooted a bluegrass band as one could hope to hear. Davis is a link in the rich Alabama tradition which also claims some of country music's towering figures, Hank Williams, the Delmores, and the Louvins.

The Warrior River Boys are a bunch of youngish guys who sound a whole lot older: Josh Smith (banjo); Marty Hays (bass); Owen Saunders (fiddle); and Jeff Griffy (guitar). Mandolinist Davis handles most of the lead vocals, though Hays ably takes charge of "Leavin' Tennessee" and "It's Just an Old Body." With the exception of the hackneyed "My Rocky Mountain Sweetheart" - a by-the-numbers recitation of some of bluegrass' hoariest clichés -- the selections and performances are essentially critic-proof. These guys know what they're doing, which is their own distinctive take on first-generation bluegrass, when the music was equal parts Southern folk music and innovative commercial sound. Today, of course, this sort of bluegrass, no longer the latter, sounds as if it has been around a whole lot longer than 50 or 60 years. Yet this album features not a single song that is traditional in the sense of, say, "Waterbound" or "Shady Grove" or "Pretty Polly."

Still, they're songs inspired by ones from another age. Bill Grant's unsparing "In the Shade of the Big Buffalo" - proving, yet again, what a master of soulful songcraft this man is -- feels as intense as a medieval murder ballad, offering up not one violent death but three separate ones. Others share the sensibility of the 19th-Century parlor songs that the Carter Family and other early country musicians caused to seem like indigenous mountain anthems - songs of death, Mother, broken families, and the hope of eventual escape to heaven beyond the bars of this earthly prison. Like the masters, Davis and the Boys look life's hardships and sorrows in the face and from that unblinking gaze create music of power and grace.

Well, it's not all grief, of course. My favorite cut, Tommy Freeman's biting "Today's the Day I Get My Gold Watch and Chain," is probably as close as this band is going to get to a protest song. Don Kelley's "Leavin' Tennessee" is often recorded, but DD&WRB make its reappearance entirely welcome. I'm always happy, too, to hear "Freight Train Blues," but the composer credit here notwithstanding, the writer was not Roy Acuff (who made it famous in 1936 and again in 1947), but John ("Renfro Valley") Lair.

David Davis and the Warrior River Boys have created a profound, darkly beautiful art. Bluegrass for the ages, you might call it.

1. The Lonesome Cry Of The Whippoorwill
2. Leavin' Tennessee
3. The Old Leather Bag
4. Today's The Day I Get My Gold Watch And Chain
5. My Rocky Mountain Sweetheart
6. In The Shade Of The Big Buffalo
7. It's Just An Old Body
8. Coat Of Southern Gray
9. Lonesome In Life
10. Freight Train Blues
11. I Haven't Seen Mary In Years
12. For a Few Dollars More

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