When Hank Williams sang a song like "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy" he could sell it because he'd been down low: born with spina bifida, father with a paralyzed face thanks to a stroke, brother he never knew because he was already dead. And when Williams died at 29 no one was over-much surprised, since he'd been drunk most of the time he'd been alive anyway.
It can be fun to sing country songs about lives busted up and broken, but unless you've got the empathy to feel those hurts, the songs just become the clichéd joke mainstream country music has often found itself.
So whatever it is that Roy Davis experienced in his travels over the past year down to Nashville and over to Wyoming and back, you'll be thankful after you hear We Are a Lightning Bolt, his third full-length release and the record on which something important seems to have clicked. The twang and the lilt of alt-country were always there, but somewhere in the country's small towns and wide open spaces Davis put his hands in the country's dirt, too, and his always-smart songs have never been so fully realized, so full of actual people, as they are here.
Recording down in Portsmouth with Jon Nolan — himself no stranger to great alt-country sounds, but never as dark as Davis is here — and helped out with "Dregs" like Kerry Ryan (Jeremiah Freed) on drums, Travis Kline (an up-and-coming solo artist in his own right) on guitar and backing vocals, Bernie Nye (Pete Kilpatrick) on banjo and bass, and Justin Maxwell (the Coming Grass/Sara Cox/Cindy Bullens) on bass, Davis seems to have needed to get out of his comfort zone, feel what it's like to truly be uncomfortable, in order to make the record he's been trying to make all along.
I still listen to those first two records — Grey Town and Deadweight. They're good. And I like that Ryan Adams/Jayhawks/Uncle Tupelo sandbox in which Davis plays. But on the first listen, I heard something different in Lightning Bolt. Right around "Barbara Lang," it struck me that Davis had discovered a pipeline to pathos, where chimes of piano match his tentative reaches into a squeaky falsetto like Townes van Zandt, and "he sits at a bar by the Super 8/She cooks him food, but she waits." Ryan's shuffling drumline gives the song texture like sandpaper while "we get up, go get coffee/Walk around like a couple of darlings/Just as sweet as the sun."
Nolan captures vocals especially well, as when you hear Davis close the "k" on "boardwalk," part of a naked vocal part over cello and indie-rock-flavored alternating notes, before the song charges up with a heavy acoustic strum and a wood-block beat into an alt-country orchestra, staying all-instrumental through the finish, where a pair of laconic electric guitars harmonize. And on "Stranger's House" every instrument is so terrifically crisp that the pedal steel in the song's second half is like liquid amber pouring over dry, brittle sticks.
In that song, as on album-opener "You Don't Have to Fall in Love," Davis explores the nuances of relationships, the degree expressed by a line like "I'm not going to fight you in a stranger's house/I'm not gonna give you what you want right now," that voice-crack of knowing that can come through with a simple "oh, honey." The implied plea in "you don't have to fall in love" he can make heart-breaking.