By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The old man onstage at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios--the guy with the face like a weathered catcher's mitt who is sitting in a wheelchair in his satin coach's jacket and gimme cap, fretting his baby-blue Gretsch with a butter knife clutched in his polio-stricken right hand--is probably the only person in the room who doesn't know who his bass player is. Actually, strike that: He's definitely the only one here who's not aware that the scruffy man to his left, in rock-star leather pants and jacket, usually plays guitar for one of the most famous rock bands in the country, R.E.M. In fact, not only does CeDell Davis have no idea that Peter Buck is in his band on this brisk night in late January, he couldn't tell you who anyone onstage is. Well, except for Joe Cripps, who's been trying to coax a new album out of him for years, and Thomas Jones, the young guitarist who has been dropping by Davis' house in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, for the past few years just so he can play with him.
Everyone else--keys player Alex Veley, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin and guitarist Scott McCaughey of The Minus 5 and the Young Fresh Fellows--Davis only knows by reputation. Not, however, the reps they'd built in their other bands; he couldn't care less about any of that. He doesn't care about much except playing: As he said before the show, "I'm from Arkansas. Grew up about 40 miles outside of Little Rock. We're not gonna talk tonight. We're just gonna do what we came to do."
Davis only knows what he's seen and heard during the past few days as the musicians backed him up on the new album he's recording in Denton at the vacant Dan's Bar. "These guys are some blues players," Davis says from the Rubber Gloves stage. It's late January and the ad hoc band is playing a gig to work out the kinks, since most of them had never played with Davis until a few days ago. "They can do it all. I don't even know their names." Everyone laughs. "I'll let them tell you their names. I won't even try to pronounce their names. I'll tell you once I find out who they are."
He may not know who they are, but thanks to their presence on his pending album, set for release on August 20 on Cripps and Martin's Fast Horse Recordings, people outside Pine Bluff may finally find out who Davis is. The blues guitarist--who has told Cripps for his last three birthdays that he's turning 72, but is more likely 74--hasn't been performing in complete obscurity, at least not for the past decade or so. Capricorn Records released a self-titled album by Davis in 1994, the same year Fat Possum issued Feel Like Doin' Something Wrong. Fat Possum, the Mississippi-based label that has resurrected many a lost blues musician's career, also put out The Best of CeDell Davis in 1995 and The Horror of It All in 1998.
But the Fast Horse album is the one that might finally expose him to a wider audience, thanks to the listeners who'll check out anything that Buck is involved in, the people attracted by Davis' new all-star band. That's the hope anyway. It has happened before: R.L. Burnside did the same thing when he recorded 1996's A Ass Pocket of Whiskey with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Of course, Cripps didn't set out with that goal in mind; he just wanted to talk to him. When he tracked Davis down in Pine Bluff and began interviewing him for a documentary project he was starting, talk soon shifted to Davis' recent troubles with finding a steady drummer and lining up gigs. So Cripps took on both roles, playing in the band with Davis and Jones and finding places to play.
"That evolved and evolved, and it started sounding better and better," Cripps says from his home near Argyle. "We were all clicking and I started immediately just, as a natural part of the way I am anyway, let's start recording...Then it evolved into what happened here in Denton kind of by chance, just because of all the other things in my life that were going on."
Originally, Cripps didn't plan for Buck, Martin or McCaughey to appear on the record. In November, he, Davis and Jones spent a few days recording at Casey Diiorio's Denton studio with Matt Pence engineering. (And many of the songs from those sessions, featuring Jones' surprisingly dirty guitar sound, will turn up on the finished record.) He also didn't intend for the album to wind up on the label he was starting with Martin; he says now that he always assumed that Fat Possum would release Davis' disc. "But for whatever reason, he did not want to do another record, the next album on Fat Possum," Cripps says. "I think he just kind of felt like nothing was happening for him, time was short and he wanted to try something else."
Eventually, trying something else brought Buck, Martin and McCaughey to Denton. They'd done this kind of work before, backing up Mark Eitzel on his 1997 album West, and Buck and McCaughey played sidemen on Bed of Roses, the recent album by McCaughey's wife, Christy McWilson. But there was a limit to just how far Davis would let them take him.
"I wanted to try some real African kind of drumming instead of a drum set on a tune, and we did it," Cripps remembers. "And you could just see the look of disgust in CeDell's face as we did it. You could tell he's just like, he's letting us do this, but he's just, like, looking out the window. As Peter said later, he goes, 'If you were teaching an acting class and were showing videos of different emotions, that would be disgust. That would be the perfect disgusted look.' We get done and I said, 'You didn't care for that too much, did you?' And he goes, 'That wasn't even half right.' I said, 'Well, I just wanted to see, CeDell, I just wanted to see. We don't have to keep it, I just wanted to see.' And he said, 'Well, do you see?' I said, 'Yeah.' And he goes, 'Do you see?'"
Some of Davis' ideas failed as well. A couple of days after the Rubber Gloves show, Cripps and the band decided to re-create the energy and excitement of that show by bringing in an audience to listen to them record at Dan's Bar. But they quickly realized they'd missed their chance; the crowd at Dan's sat on their hands, not wanting to intrude on the recording process, and much of the time, Davis was confused as well, wondering if he should be entertaining the people or concentrating on recording. Still, he gamely attempts to pull off a standard feature of blues gigs, where each member of the group is given a chance to solo. Nice idea, but the band isn't comfortable enough with Davis to know where he's heading, and his mumbled explanation isn't helping much.
"And the main guy I want to come to is the drummer," Davis says, wrapping up his instructions to the band. "I want him to do a little solo on the drums. You understand what I'm saying? When I nod my head, I want everybody else to stop. I want you to kick them drums. And you have to kick the bottom outta 'em. Kick 'em. And look, I'm gonna cut it short. Ain't going through pointing out stuff. This is fast time, 6/8 time. Yessir."
By the time Davis comes to Martin and Cripps' solo, the song has fallen apart to the point where it can no longer be recognized by anything other than dental records. "Oh, God," Buck groans when reminded of the give-the-drummer-some train wreck, after the band finished its first set of the night. Since he's been standing by Davis for much of the sessions, he's become the de facto bandleader. "That's how it works--if you're next to him, you're the bandleader," Buck says. "Everything we did on the record is a first take. He plays in G, but basically, you have to listen to him to figure out what riff goes where, because every G that he plays is different than the next one. And you don't really know what's going to be on the record, and what he's fooling with, and what's important...But, you know, hey, I'm in for it. I like to think on my feet. This is a musical experience. Once he and R.L. Burnside are gone, that's it. It's all going to be people just like me, whether they're black or white, that grew up hearing it second-hand. I'm just really pleased about this."
And so is Cripps.
"It's just been a real education for me," he says. "One, about music because he's just been playing music so long, and anytime you can talk to a musician who's been doing it that long, you're going to learn something. But, two, just learning about other people. When I thought I had him figured out and knew what he was all about and we were going to do a documentary, that was a very two-dimension image of who he was. And now that we play music together and we work together and get in business arrangements together and we have to travel together, it's much more complex and it's not as simple and clear-cut, and he's a really, really inspirational guy in a lot of ways. And just fun to play with, fun to be around, no hassle, great outlook, and I'm learning a lot, and it's just been a real good thing. It's been a real good thing."