I’m a long-time fan of David Davis — his mandolin playing, his singing, his background (nephew of Bill Monroe’s first Blue Grass Boy, guitarist Cleo Davis), his courtly Alabama manners, his band, and his work ethic. He’s been playing bluegrass in the style of Bill Monroe for 35 years.
So I hope this wonderful recording will return David Davis & The Warrior River Boys to the bluegrass limelight. The album offers: historically significant music that references the origins of bluegrass, master-level instrumental work, and PURE harmony singing – all done with real feeling. The liner notes are plentiful and highly informed. The black and white photos are excellent. It’s the usual Rounder quality package.
David’s singing partner of 20+ years is bassist Marty Hayes of Illinois. Champion banjoist (and co-producer) Robert Montgomery — “the Ham from Alabam” — has 10 years under his belt with the band, and he’s a fine singer too. Stan Wilemon, also from Alabama, the young bass player during the band’s initial 1990s heyday, has returned on rhythm guitar. For this recording David snagged the great Virginia fiddler Billy Hurt – steeped in the Clark Kessinger style. Their picking and singing are terrific. Each band member is “creating” here, since there is no Charlie Poole “bluegrass template” to confine them.
David describes 1920s banjoist Charlie Poole of North Carolina as the “grandfather of bluegrass”. Charlie sang in a rough reedy voice, playing a simple 3-finger chordal banjo style (without picks). His North Carolina Ramblers included one or two fiddlers and one or two guitarists/singers. The young Monroe Brothers bought Poole’s records (he cut 80 sides from 1925-1930) before they became pro musicians. David Davis decided to mine the origins of bluegrass by studying up on this music that Bill and Charlie Monroe were listening to in the 1920s.
Thankfully David did not try to duplicate Poole’s “sound”. I find Charlie Poole’s records difficult to listen to — they are stiff, rustic, simple, too old fashioned. David and the band skillfully draw out the essence of each song in a satisfying traditional bluegrass style.
The opening number is currently playing on Sirius/XM – “He Rambled”. This folk song from the British Isles is centuries old. It began as a “tall tale” ditty about a giant ram (sheep). It punned on the words “ram” and “rambled” as this gigantic animal terrorized the countryside. But by the time the tune got to Charlie Poole it had morphed into a novelty song about a no-account brother! This poor dude has a series of sad adventures until finally “the butchers cut him down” (a line from the original folk song about the giant sheep!). The music is bouncy, with lots of sparkling split breaks (even a bass solo) and nifty trio harmony.
“One Moonlight Night” is a very old parlor duet sung in brisk Stanley-style waltz time. A girl of questionable honor takes pity on her fiancé and gives back his ring, rather than shame him in marriage. This cut shows why David and Marty may be the best old-time bluegrass duet in the business today. Their harmony is so pretty it almost hurts. Other fine, slower duets include “Old and In the Way” and “Good-bye Mary Dear”.
“One Moonlight Night”
“Ramblin’ Blues”, from WC Handy, extolls the virtues of Memphis Tennessee. Where Poole’s music was at best “jaunty”, the Warrior River Boys swing on this number. David yodels his hat off in the high key of C. The boys play a great “hook” with complex runs between each verse and break.“The Girl I Left in Sunny Tennessee” is perhaps the most recognizable bluegrassy number. I first heard this decades ago as a sprightly ballad by Bill Clifton, and The Stoneman Family. It’s familiar here, although the chords are a bit different, as Poole played them.
A great Poole tune that David features in his personal appearances is “The Highwayman”, an ancient-sounding ballad about the girlfriend coming to save her scalawag boyfriend from justice. Again, it’s a brisk waltz number, banjo-driven, featuring the perfect Davis/Hayes duet.
“Leaving Home” is the familiar Frankie & Johnny story in a different arrangement. It was last recorded this way by the Nashville Bluegrass Band in the 1990s. On this song, as well as “If The River Was Whiskey” and “Milwaukee Blues”, the Warrior River Boys make the music jump with 1940s swing beat and HOT pickin’.
“White House Blues” is known nowadays as a Del McCoury barn-burner. Avoiding the bluegrass temptation to burn the barn, the song is taken at Poole’s moderate speed. The instrumentalists do some great playing here. Billy’s fiddling is old-timey and driving. Robert does a particularly fine job taking a banjo break in the spirit of Don Reno, playing in one continuous roll throughout! David exhibits his masterful Monroe mandolin skills.
The mood sweetens as David and Robert close the album with a couple of exquisite duets: “Where the Whippoorwill is Whispering Goodnight” and the old favorite “Sweet Sunny South”. This latter offering exudes dignity, longing, and wistfulness. It made my eyes mist up a little. “Whippoorwill” was unfamiliar to me, but where Poole and his band sort of barked it out, David and Robert duet as smoothly as the Louvins or Delmores.
Perhaps another “review” is in order of Charlie Poole’s records, for those who want to know more about his music and career.
For solidly traditional bluegrass that “makes a point”, get this CD or mp3 or whatever the kids buy nowadays. Also, go see David Davis & The Warrior River Boys when they’re in the area and you’ll enjoy the bonus of their choreography and David’s expressive body language. In the last year they’ve journeyed from Alabama to the northeast for several concerts and festivals. They’ll be back in 2019.