Detroit Funk in Music City USA
Longtime Epiphone fan and Detroit native Dominic Davis stopped by the House of Stathopoulo showroom in Nashville just before wrapping up his year-long tour with boyhood pal Jack White to check out the new Masterbilt Century De Luxe Classic Acoustic/Electric 4-string Bass. Davis, who is quickly becoming one of Nashville's first-call producers, has been on the road with White supporting Boarding House Reach, White's third solo album outside of the White Stripes and perhaps sonically--and musically-his most daring album so far. We also spoke about the filming of the PBS documentary and all-star performance film American Epic in which Davis helped support Willie Nelson, Nas, and Rhiannon Giddens among many others.
Dominic Davis was born in Detroit ("my mom worked for the Detroit Tigers") and attended Cass Tech High School whose graduates include Ron Carter, Diana Ross, Paul Chambers, and boyhood pal Jack White. There, Davis majored in music, became a fluent and creative bassist as well as guitarist, and discovered he had a natural ear for arranging and leading a band. Davis also traveled the world as part of White's touring group to support Lazaretto (2014)--White's second solo album--and performed much of the tour with an Epiphone Jack Casady Signature Bass along with a rare 1930s era Alcoa aluminum upright. As a fan of electric bass legends like Carol Kaye, James Jamerson, and Duck Dunn, at first, Davis was skeptical of how much he would enjoy an acoustic/electric bass but very quickly changed his mind with one pluck of the "A" string. "Wow... that is strong. Ok... I want one!"
It's great to speak with you again, Dominic. What do you think of the new Masterbilt Century De Luxe Bass?
This is unlike any other bass I've played. It's truly an acoustic archtop instrument. Before I played it, I thought it was going to be more like and old Harmony or Kay but it's not tubby at all. It's very articulate while giving a lot of bottom end. I really was floored immediately. I've only had it a short time and can't wait to try it in a number of settings to see what it can do.
Fill us in on what you've been up to since we last spoke during the Lazaretto tour.
Before the new album, Jack hadn't toured in almost 3 years, but there is still a lot happening with him and Third Man Records. Over the past few years, we filmed the American Epic documentary, did a little press for his acoustic record and before the Boarding House Reach tour I finished a song I wrote and produced for a Detroit Tigers and Third Man Records vinyl giveaway. That was certainly a dream come true!
I've been mainly jumping between working with Jack, Buddy Miller and The North Mississippi All Stars while playing with my wife Rachael Davis as much as possible. All four are great situations to be in and I'm grateful.
I've also been in the studio quite a bit. Nashville has been very good to me in that regard. I played on Will Hoge's most recent record and have recorded for The Voice, The Muppet Show and the NBC variety show Maya & Marty in the last year. Before the tour there was a great session for Paul Thorn's album with the Blind Boys of Alabama and the McCrary Sisters. It's times like that where I really have to thank my Mom and who ever else pushed me to pursue playing in the first place. She bought me a $100 pawn shop "Vista" brand P-Bass copy which in hindsight, changed my life.
Also, I started managing my longtime musical partner Joshua Davis (no relation) a few years ago both to help him out and to fill the snack-and-famine cycles that come with being a side musician.
Joshua Davis had a very successful run on The Voice. How did you meet?
I met Joshua at Michigan State University. I was studying art and music and he was a theater major. We started a folk/country-blues/string band and toured for years before he started his solo career. Josh is a singer-songwriter who is also a student of fingerstyle blues and marries the two in the pop idiom. His most new album coming his fall was produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos and recorded in Michigan with my longtime friend and engineer Glenn Brown.
It's always nice to take what I've learned here in Nashville and bring it back home. Most importantly we used the Nashville work flow. He would play a song while I chart it and we work it up and cut it immediately after. Before I moved here, we would have rehearsal days and run through all of the material and forget what we had worked up by time we were tracking. Even if you record demos you have to listen through everything to figure out where you were. I like the immediacy of working this way. You can hear it in the final product. Joshua's songs are deep and literate a la Paul Simon. We were always inventing new ways to work with folk and country blues guitar rhythms, halving them, or syncopating more traditionally straight grooves.
On the business side of things, I worked in libraries in my former life. Organization and managerial duties always came easy to me but its a bit of a struggle because that isn't what I want to do with my career. Ask any side musician and they will tell you that you need a side job of some sort. I should've learned to tune pianos!
I've seen you perform in both small settings and on big stages and it seems like whatever band you're in, the other players instinctively look your way to gauge the temperature of how the gig is going. Do you see yourself leaning towards more producing and arranging in the future?
Lately, I've been trying to do more work of any kind that starts on my end. It can be a drag waiting for the phone to ring. However, I've always been careful in the studio when it comes to the separation between being a studio musician and a producer. Everyone is a producer these days and that's great but not everyone needs to be producer all of the time. If I'm in the studio with Buddy Miller, he's certainly got a handle on the production end of things. That's tried and true. It's important to know your role. Half of being a producer is getting asked to produce in the first place. I hear stories where a session musician suggest doubling a chorus or using an intro for an outro then asks for production or writing credit later and that doesn't seem right to me.
By the end of this year I will have produced four or five records. It was a goal of mine to produce more and it's great to help some of my friends make records. I think it works the other way around though. Being a session musician and seeing these great producers in the studio from my point of view has made me a better producer.
Nashville has changed dramatically in the past few years. Despite small budgets and low payback people are still making records! What's the music environment like for you?
Things have changed but I never was here for the major label bloated budget days. A lot of the records I work on now are self-funded or crowd sourced and self produced. That is certainly new. I think things are worse off for the industry but in many ways have gotten better for the DIY artist. As for musicianship, I've always tried to be as professional as possible and contribute as much as I can to the projects that I'm working on whether I'm working with Tom Jones or a hobby songwriter/music lover who is making their debut record. As for having fun, we're making music, it doesn't get much better than that.
A lot of people are drawn to Nashville because of its long reputation as being the city in America for music. Do you feel like that is true? In other words, if you want to be a professional musician, is it necessary to come to Nashville and take that chance?
That is true for studio musicians and producers like myself, but less so for bands and artists. If you're making music that people love and want to hear, you can be successful anywhere. But, a big part of this conversation is about expectations as well. I have a lot of friends in Michigan who tour locally and play in a number of projects around the state and I don't think that's any less successful than what I've done here in Nashville. I moved here simply because I play on and make records and there isn't another town that makes more of them.
Over the last year or so you've been working with the North Mississippi All Stars who share your love of classic American forms. Without necessarily comparing the two outright, how do you approach working with the All-Stars compared to Jack's touring group?
I've been so lucky to be playing with both, having grown up loving blues music. The All Stars are a dance band. They came up learning from RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough first hand and seeing blues played at juke joints and dancehalls. I think that's the biggest difference. Luther will take a Fred McDowell song and simplify the structure even further while Cody is coming from this modern Hip-Hop/soul world on the rhythmic end of things. They've taught me so much about Mississippi and Memphis music.
Jack on the other hand is coming from the raw emotional side of the blues. For him, it's all about the story, intent, and personas that inhabit the blues. Having grown up with Jack, I find it interesting that bluesmen were these mythical beings to us while Luther and Cody lived down the street from them.
Congrats on the American Epic documentary.
Thank you! There is a lot of footage that didn't wind up in the film, too. That was a joy and really meant a lot to me. I've always loved folk music and it was an honor to continue that tradition. What is great about that project is it highlights a lot of what we were doing on the Jack White tour when we weren't on the stage. Playing fiddle tunes (Epiphone's Fats Kaplin played fiddle and steel guitar) on the bus and just jamming acoustically. Once we got in that setting on camera it felt like home.
There are two stories that stand out. We were playing an old Bob Wills song with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. At one point, Merle snatched Lillie Mae Rische's fiddle and swapped her his mandolin and started scratching on it just like Bob. At the time I had forgotten he played fiddle all together. That was a moment I won't soon forget.
Another is playing with one of my idols, Taj Mahal. We were recording a Charlie Patton song and he asked that no one play the "one", the first beat of each bar. It's sort of a reggae thing to do but worked entirely different in this context. After we wrapped his song, he hung in the dressing room with Fats Kaplin and I and talked for quite a while about the multicultural origins of the song "Dixie". He's truly an American treasure and historian.
How did that recording lathe (recording direct to disc) sound close up and how well did it pick up your upright?
I found it intriguing how much the smallest change in placement affected the sound and volume of the bass. Many times simply keeping the endpin of my upright where it is and angling the body of the bass upward would make a huge difference. You have to remember that we couldn't hear playback until we cut a record. So we would record, cut a lacquer, listen back, change placement for the mix, and then repeat the process over and over until we got it right.
When you feel like you need to practice, how do you go about getting limber? What do you like to listen to warm up?
One of my music teachers in high school once told me: "If you hear something you like, learn it" and I've always stuck with that. This week I'm learning everything from "'My Girl" to soundtrack to Moana. I've never been keen on scales but recently I've been digging deep into Carol Kaye's "chordal scale" theory. No one wants to hear scales in songs but she developed a series of scales that are much more vocal and follow chords and modes. She's really the best there was when it comes to tone and parts in pop songs.
Are there any other bassists that you've been listening to lately?
In 2012, we had the Alabama Shakes open for us on Jack's tour before their debut album had even come out. I was floored by the whole band but Zac Cockrell on the bass in particular. I've been learning everything off of their latest record but they're about due for another if you ask me! I'm also a huge Dylan fan and have been digging deep into his Rolling Thunder era. He toured with a guy named Rob Stoner on the bass who really took all of those songs to another place while singing some incredible harmonies.
I really do love playing the bass. It came natural the first time I played one and continues to inspire me. Thanks for talking with me, Paul.