David Davis doesn't want to sound like Bill Monroe.
Don't get him wrong. There isn't a bluegrass legend Davis respects more than the late Monroe, it's just that he knows you can't beat someone at a game they invented.
Davis grew up on Monroe's music. His uncle Cleo was a charter member of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, which formed in 1938, and Davis grew up in a musical household where Monroe records were always spinning.
In 1984, around the time Garry Thurmond was handing the reins of the Warrior River Boys to a 23-year-old Davis, Monroe contributed to one of the group's albums.
"I just tried to learn from him," Davis said in a phone interview from his home in Cullman, Ala. "I had a desire to use the sound of his music as a foundation for what I do, and then try to find my own sound."
Despite being nervous and star struck in the recording studio, Davis picked up a lesson from the fellow mandolin player that has formed his music for the last 20 years.
"Monroe said, 'Create your own thing. You can be the best at your thing but not the best at somebody else's thing.' So I've always tried to dig for something that would identify my style as something different."
Most of their fans would agree the Warrior River Boys have done that, releasing and contributing to about 30 albums in the past 20 years. Yet the group is unapologetically traditional, and there's no denying that echoes of Monroe are present in their work. Davis describes the legend's style as "playing at the edge of a mountain."
"The thing about Bill's music that appealed to me is he was challenging to play with," Davis said. "He was a real man's man physically and personally and there was a lot of competitiveness in his being. His philosophy was you gotta be on top of what you're doing, because every time you play, you will either master the instrument or it will beat you. Bill would play on the front side of the beat. His music sounded urgent."
Mandolin player and singer for David Davis and the Warrior River Boys
Favorite bands: Nashville Bluegrass Band, Allman Brothers
Favorite song: "Today is the Day I Get My Gold Watch and Chain," written by former band mate Tommy Freeman and recorded on Warrior River Boys' new album
Favorite movies: "Casablanca," "The Ghost in Mrs. Muir"
Favorite TV show: "Frasier"
Favorite books: "Just As I Am" (Rev. Billy Graham autobiography), "Man in Black" (Johnny Cash biography), "Will You Miss Me?" (Carter Family autobiography)
What do you do in your spare time? "I live on a farm where my wife and I raise some cattle and bale some hay. We're also into antiques and learning about them. And we've got a dog."
Davis, at least when he's offstage, is the furthest thing from urgent you could find. He's lived his whole life in the farm country of north Alabama, playing music for a living, raising cattle as a hobby and speaking with a soft southern drawl you could listen to all day.
Still, he has a worldly knowledge of bluegrass music. He knows the history of bluegrass (he said the 2000 album "O Brother Where Art Thou?" was the genre's best shot in the arm in the last 30 years) and the geography (a surprising bluegrass hotbed: Baltimore), and he's happy to put in his two cents on an age-old question that may never have a definitive answer.
Just what exactly is the difference between bluegrass and country?
"You can't take this to the bank, but country is more electric and bluegrass primarily acoustic," Davis said. "But to me there's no difference. People say country music is three chords and the truth. Well, bluegrass is three chords and the truth also."
Country shows tend to be bigger and glitzier with pop elements, Davis said. But despite being a traditionalist, he isn't bothered by the commercialism of country. In fact, he'd be thrilled if some WE Fest fans showed up to see his band this weekend at the Lakes Bluegrass Festival at Ski Gull near Lake Shore.
"Any artist should want to sell to as large an audience as possible. But here's the kicker: How much are you willing to compromise your music to sell to a larger audience? Some are willing to compromise totally. My barometer is if it moves me it's OK, it's within the boundary. If I think it's watered down too much I won't do it. If I can't get off on what I'm doing, it wouldn't take too long for people to catch on to that, and then you can't be believable to an audience."
When gathering songs to record, Davis culls originals, lesser known covers and new work by professional songwriters. The Warrior River Boys' new self-titled album wasn't compiled with a theme in mind, Davis said, but it had one anyway: "Don't do that." Most of the songs -- notably "For a Few Dollars More," a tale of a naive bank robber -- are about learning from those who have experienced life's lessons before you.
Bill Monroe would be proud. And he'd probably challenge Davis to a mandolin playing contest.
JOHN HANSEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5863.
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