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(Recluse Records 471828 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/21/2004)
Nowadays, the term "singer-songwriter" is used so often to describe a performer that one does not often think that the jobs can be separated. But there are still those who, in the great tradition of Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building, work primarily as composers of songs for others to record. These days, that usually happen in Nashville, where there are still a fair number of popular performers who are not composers. But probably a majority of those composers are also performers, and so even among those known to specialize in writing music for others, the singer-songwriter description can still be apt. Carole King, who wrote many early rock & roll hits became a hot performer in her own right in the early 1970s.
This week we have a delightful album by an artist who spent a few years in Nashville writing songs for such big-name performers as Garth Brooks, with whom she toured and often opened shows, Roger Whittaker and Shelby Lynne, among others. But she decided to give up that life and concentrate on her own music, as well her family's ranch in Montana. She is Stephanie Davis, and her new CD is called Crocus in the Snow.
Described as a fourth-generation Montanan, Ms. Davis created songs, running from the poignant to the humorous that began to attract attention. So she decided to leave her beloved Big Sky Country to make the move to Nashville, where she found a good deal of success as a songwriter. But like quite a few people in the commercial music business, Ms. Davis decided that the life of songwriter for hire was not for her, and gave it up to return home and pursue her own career. So far she has released two previous CDs, as well as a book of poetry. In the past couple of years, she has been known for her semi-regular appearances on A Prairie Home Companion on Public Radio.
For this CD, which she produced herself and released on her own Recluse label, Ms. Davis journeyed to Austin, Texas, where some of the city's Western Swing influence is evident. But there is also acoustic country and folk on this rather wide-ranging collection of songs, and one poem. She is joined by some tasteful backing musicians, including Lloyd Maines on steel guitar and Dobro, Mitch Watkins, who often plays jazz-rock fusion, on guitar; and Floyd Domino of Asleep at the Wheel on piano. Other notable guests include Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson, Garrison Keillor and Riders in the Sky member Ranger Doug Green helping out on vocals.
In a day when folk-oriented singer-songwriters are becoming more sophisticated in their sound and vocal style, Ms. Davis is a refreshing change. Her honest, slightly rough-hewn vocals seem to epitomize her Montana ranch background, and I find them thoroughly charming. In her own way, she can effectively impart the various moods of her songs, running as they do from humorous to almost maudlin. And as a lyricist she is among the most skillful of the genre, writing songs that range from autobiographical to almost Gospel in mood. As a poet, she also has a tendency to break out into spoken lyrics, and includes one track with no music at all -- it's a long humorous, double-entendre filled story in verse.
Things get under way with a kind of classic-style song in praise of home, Somethin' 'Bout Montana. She does it in an understated Western Swing style, quite appropriate for the lyrical sentiments. <<>>
The title piece is a minor masterpiece. Crocus in the Snow uses the early the blooming flower as a metaphor for hope. About halfway through we learn that the one seeking a better time is a woman who fled from an abusive relationship. <<>>
Some Things Cost Too Much is a nice autobiographical song revolving around her experience in Nashville as a hired songwriter, and how she decided to give it up. <<>>
One of the most amusing pieces is a song in the Woody Guthrie talking blues tradition. Talkin' Harvest Time Blues is one of the wordiest songs you're likely to hear, and every word deftly paints the scene of an obsessive gardener. <<>>
In contrast to that is Ikey the story of a homeless character who lives on collecting garbage in a landfill and selling it at a pawn shop. It turns out Ikey was a notable figure in a previous occupation. <<>>
Ray Benson makes his appearance on You Been a Friend to Me, done in an upbeat Tex Mex style, with some fun impromptu exchanges between Ms. Davis and Benson. <<>>
The most unexpected track is a kind of Cowboy poetry epic in done in a live recording called The Spotted Ass, referring to the animal -- or at least one of the characters in the story knows what it is -- in this live recording. <<>>
Garrison Keillor returns the favor of Ms. Davis' appearances on Prairie Home Companion by adding his bass backing vocals to Turning to the Light, an appealing Gospel-styled song. <<>>
Though Stephanie Davis is still probably best-known as a Nashville songwriter for people like Garth Brooks, on her new third CD Crocus in the Snow, she reminds us of what a appealing performer she is in her own right. While the musical settings for these songs are tasteful and Ms. Davis exudes a kind of sophisticated rural Western charm, the CD's strongest suit are the songs, beautifully written, most of them being little masterpieces of musical narrative. The CD is also very nicely sequenced, with the song order effectively highlighting the variety from one track to the next.
We'll also give the CD kudos in the audio quality department. It's well-recorded with a pleasing sound on the acoustic instrumentation, an intimate treatment of Ms. Davis' vocals and a fairly reasonable dynamic range.
With her appearances on Prairie Home Companion, Stephanie Davis is starting to get the reputation as a performer that she enjoyed within the Nashville music scene as a songwriter. The new CD should further that well-deserved recognition.
(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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