Singer-songwriter Ward Davis on being 'pretty miserable' in Nashville, working (and smoking) with Willie Nelson and playing Buckin' Wild
By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
When Ward Davis first moved to Nashville, he was pretty sure he was going to be a big deal — and soon.
"I was green and hungry and ready to be George Strait just any day," Davis said.
It didn't quite happen that fast. But Davis happened to befriend fellow singer Ray Scott and joined his band for a while as a keyboardist while looking for that big break.
"Ray said, 'I can tell you're excited ... but this is a 10-year town, so just settle in'," recounted Davis, meaning that it takes about 10 years to even become an overnight sensation in a city where virtually everyone is battling for a shot at success.
Turns out, Scott — who'll perform along with Davis at Saturday's inaugural Buckin' Wild Music Fest in Amarillo — was about five years off in his prediction.
Last year, 15 years after moving to Nashville, Davis started thinking again about Scott's words of wisdom and started sketching out a song with Pat Alger, who penned several huge hits for Garth Brooks. The next day, Davis got some big news — Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard had picked one of his songs, "Unfair Weather Friend," to record for a duets album, one of the late Haggard's last projects. The song was cowritten with Marla Cannon-Goodman, a daughter of longtime Nelson producer Buddy Cannon.
"Unfair Weather Friend," Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard
"When I went back to Pat, I told him I got this big cut, and he reminded me what we had been working on," Davis said. "I had totally forgotten."
That song — "15 Years in a 10-Year Town" — ended up being the title track to Davis' solo album, also released last year.
"15 Years in a 10-Year Town," Ward Davis
But a funny thing happened on Davis' way to success: He decided he was chasing the wrong dream. He wasn't looking for Nashville stardom anymore; he just wanted to play his own music and carve out a career on his own terms.
"I have divorced myself from that whole mess down there," Davis said. "When I got here, it was like a group of friends all hanging out. Now, it's turned into this clique-y, industrial cesspool. I don't want to be a hater, but man, at some point, it got by me."
Having two of his musical icons record one of his tracks certainly helped — "the chip just flew off my shoulder," he said — but deciding to chart a path as an independent singer rather than a Music Row songwriter cemented the deal.
"Mainstream radio success doesn't appeal to me anymore," Davis said. "I'd have to sell my soul, and I just don't want to do it."
Slugging it out for 15 years had gotten "pretty miserable," he said.
"I didn't have the success that I wanted. I couldn't put my name next to anything I was really, really proud of," Davis said. "It was a little demoralizing. But at the same time, it really did teach me to be very, very patient.
"I remember the day that Willie and Merle recorded my song, I kept myself busy. There's always a chance that things will fall apart. Even when I got the call that they cut it, I was so surprised. Even though I knew it was in the stack of songs and that Willie loved it, I still expected everything to fall apart."
Turns out, he didn't have to worry, and he ended up bonding with Nelson.
"I've gotten to spend some time with him since then," Davis said. "Him and I and Melonie (Cannon, a singer and sister of Marla's) sat behind the Ryman on his bus and smoked some joints and listened to the whole album.
"It was magnanimous, man."
Now, Davis wants to pattern his career after folks like Scott and Jamey Johnson (who joined Nelson to sing backup on Davis' version of the Ed Bruce song "Old Worn-Out Cowboys") and Cody Jinks, the Texas country artist who picked a song he cowrote with Davis to be the title track and first single for his next album, I'm Not the Devil.
"Old Worn-Out Cowboys," Ward Davis, featuring Jamey Johnson and Willie Nelson
"They're on the fringes of country music, and I think that's where I fit in," Davis said.
Davis performed in April at Buckin' Wild in Erick, Okla., where the festival got its start, and he said he's looking forward to another go-round.
"It went great, man. I want to say it was my first rodeo," Davis said.
Saturday's festival runs from noon to midnight in the Amarillo National Center on the Tri-State Fairgrounds, 3301 S.E. 10th Ave. Tickets are $55 for adults, $40 for students ages 13 to 17 or military, and $25 for children ages 6 to 12.