MerleFest 2013 CASC Finalists with Jim Lauderdale (Small)

The first time I heard Daniel Davis sing with Folk Soul Revival, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Maybe it was the rug-like beard or the gauged ear rings and tattoos scrawled across his forearms. He was a curious package indeed, but as he sang “Sweet Virginia” from the Piedmont stage at Bristol Rhythm and Roots back in 2008, I’ve always wanted to know the songwriter – what makes him tick and the reason why his songs resonate so much to the fans who follow the band.

For the past several months, I’ve been inspired by what it means to be a songwriter as Daniel and the guys in Folk Soul continue to build fans beyond East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. And the reason why they’re gaining ground across the Southeast is how their songs are gaining recognition among professionals in the industry. 

A few weeks ago, Daniel invited me to accompany him at the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition in Wilksboro, NC – a regular part of the Merlefest Music Festival held each year on the campus of Wilksboro Community College.

This was quite an honor too. Past winners of this competition include Gillian Welch, Tift Merritt, Sam Quinn and many other distinctive artists.

I’ve been performing with Folk Soul for several months and to share this experience with Daniel and his wife Mandy was a real treat and there’s a few interesting stories from our adventure.

Besides the stage performances, we spent some time in the Davis living room in Bristol rehearsing ‘Homesick.” These intimate family moments were accented by 2-year old Lennon scampering around as we tested a few variations while Mandy listened nearby on the couch.

I took the day off work on Friday, April 26th to attend the competition and it was an absolutely glorious Spring day in East Tennessee. The drive over the mountains into North Carolina along the banks of Watauga Lake was amazing as usual with bright pastel colors popping out all across the countryside.

This was my first visit to Merlefest. The folks at Bristol Rhythm and Roots speak highly of this festival and for good reason too. It’s probably one of the most organized events I’ve attended. Have to admit – it was a bit strange though to be at a music festival with no smoking (campus policy) or drinks, but the focus seemed to be on the music.

Named after Doc and Merle Watson, Merlefest is celebrates 25 years in 2013. This year’s festival included headliners The Avett Brothers, Sythian, Sam Bush, The Charlie Daniel’s Band, Government Mule, Leon Russell and plenty more.

When we arrived, I didn’t have a parking pass. It wasn’t to difficult to manage the creative transfer of my fear to the performance hall where the Songwriting Festival was being held. We made our way past several stages already active for the Friday afternoon schedule. We were to meet the hosts for the competition at the alumni hall at 1.30 to grab our passes.

From there, we were lead to a large lecture hall and all songwriters were gathering to hear the next phase of the competition. There were performers everywhere too – many with their cases open, guitars in their laps and deeply focused on last minute rehearsals of lyrics and harmonies in preparation for the competition.

There must have been 30 people inside the waiting area when Grammy Award winning songwriter Jim Lauderdale entered the room.

Jim is a terrific representative of the Americana genre. We first met at Music City Roots last Summer and he surprised me then with his humility and genuine interest of all artists. He’s a regular performer at Bristol Rhythm and Roots too and one of those guys that makes you feel…real. In fact, he introduced himself to everyone in the room.

After a few last minute details with organizers, Jim encouraged everyone to realize that they were all winners and no matter who wins, “songwriting is one of the most important things in the world because it heals people.”

We were introduced to the competition organizer who shared the stage lineup and a few words from the stage manager and within minutes, we were all calming the anxiety and getting ready for the 3.00 showtime.

The songwriting competition was held in a large auditorium and as I moved around a little early to setup my piano behind the stage, there must have been 300 or more people already seated for this event. The stage was set, the lights were ready and like clockwork, the performances began right on time.

The stage managers had everything moving quickly too. Jim introduced the first act and each songwriter were given a couple of minutes to setup, a few minutes to play their song before the judges out front and on to the next.

My estimates were about 12 songwriters were performing that day. From Bluegrass, Gospel and Country, each artist had a few minutes under the lights and left the stage with applause as the judges scored their cards.

One my favorite memories of this event was watching Daniel walk around with his Hummingbird Gibson warming up with “Homesick.” He was finishing up the lyric and Elliot Bronson from Atlanta, Georgia walked up to Daniel to compliment him on his work. Elliot was competing with Daniel in the same category with a song called “Sad Town.” He would go on to place first, but his kindness and character will long be remembered for that moment.

By the time they called Daniel to the stage, I managed a lifetime record for getting my piano ready. A few guys helped me get it on stage and within two minutes, I was playing along in D minor as we began the 6/8 time of “Homesick.” And just like that, we were finished. Applause – exit stage left.

After our performance, I listened to several songwriters get ready in the hall and many others from the back of the auditorium and Jim was right. There were no losers this day. The mere fact they were finalists in this competition was quite the honor.

Shortly after everyone finished their performance, Jim came back to the stage and quickly introduced the winners. It was a bit unfortunate that Daniel did not place first – sure, but like I told him walking away from the stage, there were two takeaways. The first was, this should make you want it more and the second, the winning song was a good one.

532752_10151643105007953_631035390_nI’m proud of Daniel Davis. In fact, a few weeks later, we were riding together to Knoxville and he surprised once again playing me his favorite songwriter.

I would have never guessed it in a million years, but the songs coming from the iPod were Roger Miller. Daniel describes his love for Miller’s simple storytelling style and I think that’s part of the Davis DNA too.

Besides the fact that he’s an easy-going humble soul, he loves to tell a story in his music and the fans love it. If you don’t believe me, show up to a Folk Soul performance and listen to the crowd sing louder than the band. There’s something about the lyrics, the simplicity and the shared experiences in his music that continues to earn him and the band a lot of respect in an industry that’s hard to stand out in.

One final note about Merlefest.

On the way out, the stage managers were amazing. Paul and his son helped me get my gear to the loading dock and called one of the volunteers in a golf cart to take me to my car. Daniel had to drive to Raleigh for a Folk Soul show later that night and I was ready to go back to Tennessee.

I waited for a short time and a gentleman drove up and gladly helped me pack my gear. As we motored through the crowds coming into the campus for the evening performances, Robert Dulas introduced himself as an Engineering professor at the college. He looked to be well educated, calm and kind. He also shared with me that he was also the personal chaffeur to Doc Watson for more than 25 years.

homepageRobert was a great storyteller too. He described how Doc would call him up and want to go to the grocery store, to Nashville or some other regional festival and “I’d be right there for him.” He was at Doc’s bedside and a pallbearer at his funeral. He shared stories about his music and the man that continues to echo as a regional legend – and the namesake of Merlefest.

One of the most important questions I had for Robert waited until I could absorb all the stories he could tell. We were standing outside my Jeep – all the gear was packed and I asked him, “What do you think Doc Watson had that made him such a powerful personality and wonderful songwriter?”

Robert answered me without hesitation. He turned his head quickly and said, “Doc was Doc Watson 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

He continued to say, “No matter where he was or what he was doing. Whether it was in his living room, playing with kids, or entertaining heads of state – he was the same everywhere he went.”

Perhaps that’s the connection for great character and enduring songs. Be true to yourself was the message for this experience at Merlefest and Robert helped write my last sentence. I couldn’t have said it better myself.