Going after ‘the crowd that loves to hate’ country radio: Ward Davis plays Wildwood

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Ward Davis w/ Josh Morningstar

Wildwood Smokehouse & Saloon — Saturday, Sept. 14 at 8 p.m.

Ward Davis plays Wildwood Smokehouse & Saloon, Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 14. — courtesy of the artist

For over a decade, Ward Davis did his best at playing the role of a Nashville songwriter. Davis moved to Nashville in 2000 from Monticello, Arkansas, and like every other aspiring songwriter, he sat in rooms with strangers, guitar in hand, trying to fill the room with a song somebody would want to play. Then, somewhere in there, everything changed.

“It was really cool when I moved there, and then the whole thing just kind of went to shit. It got real cliquey and the music changed and the attitude changed among the writers and the producers and everything,” Davis says. “I mean, I saw more business get done at the Longhorn Steakhouse downtown than I ever did in an office or a writing room. Anymore, everything is so in-house. You see the same five or six guys on just about every song on the radio.”

“It went from songs about life and songs about country people, and then it turned into Fireball and trucks and short shorts. I’m gonna be 40 this year and I don’t really relate.”

By 2015, he had spent what he referred to as 15 years in a 10-year town. One day, he started working on a song with that very title: “15 Years in a 10-Year Town.”

That same day, he got a phone call telling him his song, “Unfair Weather Friend,” was going to be recorded by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard for their album Django and Jimmie.

“I think that was the moment where I realized ‘Hey, I’m a songwriter.’ I may not be a great songwriter, but the craft of writing a song is just a wonderful, beautiful process to me, and the thought of dumbing it down so that I could make money … When that happened, I just decided that if I’m going to go down to Music Row every day and try to write songs, I’d just be doing it to make money. And if that’s all I’m doing is trying to make money, then I might as well get a job or go out and try to do this on my own,” he says.

He’s been doing it on his own, with the help of a few friends, ever since. Ward Davis plays the Wildwood Smokehouse & Saloon this Saturday. The show starts at 8 p.m.; tickets are $20.

In 2016, Davis co-wrote “I’m Not the Devil” with his friend and touring partner Cody Jinks. The song became the title track of Jinks’ record, and he played the song on Conan. Jinks brought Davis along to play keys and sing harmony for the show, and they’ve been writing and touring together ever since.

“Cody is just one of the best dudes that I’ve ever known,” Davis says. “Maybe the most empathetic human being on the planet.”

Davis’ latest solo release is last year’s EP, Asunder. It’s a four-song companion to Davis’ divorce, an unrelenting country dirge that includes a Tom Petty cover that Davis says finally helped him get through it all. Davis’ song “Good and Drunk” could serve as a long-awaited response to Tammy Wynette’s classic “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”

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“I don’t think a lot of 22-year-olds understand what it’s like to pack your bag and leave your kids at your ex-wife’s house,” Davis says. “They don’t get that, but man, so many people do.”

“Most people don’t even want to acknowledge that that shit happens. You have to go through this really painful thing, and you know, you make mistakes and you have to live with them and life changes,” Davis says. “It’s just this whole terrible thing, but at the same time, I needed to put that record out, because I felt like I was walking around lying to everybody. I felt like there was something inside of me that I was hiding. I couldn’t look people in the eye.”

With Asunder and everything that it represents behind him, Davis is trying to take refuge in the work, writing songs that he hopes will make both him and his audience feel a little less alone.

“The way I figure it is if I’m writing something about myself, about something that happens every day, then it makes people feel less alone and it appeals to them. If I can write a song about me, that’s about somebody else as well, that’s a pretty cool thing,” he says. “I try to lock in on those moments and those experiences that are unique to me, but aren’t really unique. They’re pretty normal, you know, in the grand scheme of things, and they’re just things that people don’t like to say out loud.”

In giving up on the myth of Nashville, Ward Davis is finally achieving what he’s always wanted: for someone to play his songs. That someone turns out to be him.

“What I’m doing now is so much more gratifying. I don’t feel like I’m selling my soul to do it. I don’t feel like I’m doing it for anybody except me,” he says. “That’s something I never got out of Nashville. Ever. I mean it was doors slamming every day. ‘Yes’ means ‘Maybe,’ ‘Maybe’ means ‘No,’ and ‘No’ means ‘Don’t ever come here again, kid.’ That’s the one good thing about what is coming out of Nashville: It’s extremely polarizing. And I think just as a genre, people either love what’s on country radio, or you love to hate it.”

“I’m going after the crowd that loves to hate it.”

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