Ricky and Micol Davis
By Derek Halsey
Blue Mother Tupelo is a blues/rock/roots band out of Tennessee that has as good a thing going as any southern band out there. There are a lot of so-called 'southern rock' bands roaming the countryside right now, but this bunch is the real thing. Actually they are much more than a 'southern rock' band. They are a blues band with influences that range from the mountains of Appalachia to the Delta of Mississippi. At the core of Blue Mother Tupelo is the husband and wife team of Ricky and Micol Davis. Micol is a songwriter, keyboardist, and a singer with a sweet and earthy singing voice. Ricky is a songwriter as well but is also as good a slide guitar player as there is in the country right now. Their second CD, "Delta Low, Mountain High" is proof that these guys are a band that is making real southern music in these modern times with their heart in the right place. For more information on the CD and their tour schedule check them out at www.bluemothertupelo.com.
If you get a chance to see them live don't pass it up. As good as they are on CD, they are even better in person. That is the test of a truly hot group, and Blue Mother Tupelo is just that. I talked to Ricky and Micol from their home in Nashville, Tennessee about their music, their roots, and their trip to the Delta of Mississippi to find the heart of blues music in America.
You guys recently played an outdoor blues festival in the heart of Nashville and I heard that you guys got a standing ovation. How did that feel to you?
Micol:" It's great. A lot of times it's just a surprise, you know? You're not even thinking about anything like that and then, 'oh Lord, their standing up'. Very nice."
Ricky:"It was cool. It kind of leaves you speechless. It does me any way."
"Delta Low, Mountain High" it is one heck of a CD. All of the songs on the CD are written by someone in the Davis family but one. It smokes.
Ricky; " Thank you. That CD is filled with the kind of stuff that to me is what I am feeling in my soul. And the whole way through no matter kind of obstacle we had to cross, from the first note we recorded all the way down to getting the whole thing finished, we stuck to are guns. We said that this is the way we want the whole thing to sound and this is the way it is going to sound, hell or high water. It was kind of a labor of love because we were using our own money that we went out and earned by playing the clubs. And then when the recording process came around the music took a slightly different direction in the production so we ended up having to go and capture our tapes and go to another studio. The guy that was working with us was a really good engineer, a good producer that has won some awards you know, but I told Micol from the very beginning that I could tell what we needed with this music and I'm sure she could to. But we went to mix it down and we worked on it for a while and we got maybe a quarter of the way through it when I came to the conclusion that something ain't right. Finally I decided that I needed to just go and get the master tapes. So I showed up one day and said that I needed to get the tapes and he was pretty upset about that. But I think it was the best thing that I could have done. I got the tapes and went to another studio and at the other studio I didn't have anyone standing in the way with how I wanted this thing produced. I sat down with a good engineer that knew how to make things happen like I was hearing it in my head. We wanted to make something that we could listen to down the road and say that this is the best we could have done at that time. We feel real good about it."
Micol; " Well, we kept mixing the same songs over and over again in order to get them right the first time. Of course, later on we were working by appointment. It's not like we could just go in and work on it. You only have so much time. The guy who helped us engineer would let us go in when somebody canceled a session, or very late, or when nobody else wanted the studio. It was here, there, and yonder when we could go in and work on it. But we would be there every chance we could."
On the song "What She's Doin' To Me" you have Bobby Keys, who has played with the Rolling Stones and other legendary groups over the years, playing his sax on it. How did you get Bobby to sit in with you guys?
Ricky:" Well, we left a spot open on that song for a sax solo so I was looking to get Jimmy Hall from Wet Willie, excellent musician, excellent singer, songwriter, nice person, great performer. I was going to get him to play on that song and the guy that played drums on that session, Chucke Burke, said, 'well, Bobby would sound good on this'. I said 'Bobby who?' He said, 'Bobby Keys'. I said, 'yeah, Bobby Keys would sound great on this' (laughing). I love Bobby Keys. I love his saxophone style and that sort of thing. He's one of my favorite sax players. My favorite is King Curtis, but Bobby is near the top. Chucke said, 'well, I can call him'. It wasn't that I didn’t believe him but it was like, well, yeah. I was kind of half way kidding around because I didn't really think it was going to happen. Sure enough the next day Bobby Keys called up and said, 'This is Bobby Keys. I heard that you all are needin' a sax player'. I said yeah! The next day he came down and we worked together. He did a great job playing sax and he played the same sax that he played the hits on with Joe Cocker and the Rolling Stones. I asked him specifically, because we got to talking about saxophones because I have played sax too, hadn't played in a long time, but we got talking about saxophones and I said that I bet that sax that you played on all that stuff with, like the Stones, "Can't You Hear Me Knocking", stuff like that, I said I bet that it is in the Hall of Fame. He said no. This is it. I said, 'Oh. Man'. But I could tell. Of course it was a combination of that saxophone and his God given gift, but when he started playing it was like, that's him. Ain't no two ways about that. "
The song, "I Feel Like A Dog", who wrote that?
Micol:"Ricky's Dad wrote that song. He wrote that and he had another verse in there about a cat eating a rat, but we took that one out (laughs)."
Ricky:" Dad is a real good song writer. Most of his stuff is like classic country. He is an excellent songwriter. He has been driving a tractor and trailer his whole life. He will be retired next May so hopefully I can get him out. I've got him into some songwriters nights and stuff but I want to get him out playing more. His songs need to be sung and I like to do as much as I can, you know. If I was trying to pursue a little bit more of a country sound I might do a little bit more. Maybe one of these days I might record an old country record with his songs or something. I want to hear him do that. Maybe I will do a album with him, so it's something in the back of my mind that I hope to get a chance to do here pretty soon."
Micol, the song "Without You", how did you come up with that?
"Oh wow. I was actually alone. I think Rick had left, he needed some time alone too. It was like one of those times when he was frustrated and he got in the truck and went away for a few hours or whatever. I don't even know. We got into a little disagreement which people do I guess. I don't know. I was just feelin' it. Feeling sad and lonely. I had the keyboard plugged in and I remember sitting down and sort of working out part of it and then going back in to one of the back bedrooms and sitting in a rocking chair and working out the rest of it."
Ricky, what is the story behind the song "Como Dust"?
" Well, that is something that came from a trip to Mississippi, Como, Mississippi. Clarksdale. We took a trip, a little vacation for a couple of weeks, came over to Nashville, went to Memphis, went down to Austin, Texas, through Louisiana and then up Highway 61. We went over to Como to see where Mississippi Fred McDowell stomped around. And actually went to his church and outside of his church met some people that he went to church with."
Micol; "Wasn't it on a Wednesday night? People were out milling around. I don't know if it was over with or they were getting ready to have their service, but it was already dark and we just pulled up. He is buried in that church, in that cemetery."
I have made that Highway 61 pilgrimage myself. And you talked to the folk at the church a little bit?
Ricky:" Yeah, we talked to one of the deacons a little bit that knew Fred McDowell. He said that pretty much after he got started getting a little famous with his blues he kind of laid out of the church. But before then he sang and played in the church mostly."
I took the time to track down Muddy Waters log cabin, the one he grew up in. But one thing for sure is you get a real sense of where the music came from when you go down there.
Ricky:" Going back to that "Como Dust " song, the idea that I had for that song was that seeing how people lived down there reminded me of a lot of things I had seen when I was a kid in East Tennessee. Like in Eastern Kentucky, in Appalachia, where people were dirt farmers. The only difference was that they were tobacco farmers over there in East Tennessee and in Mississippi they were cotton farmers. Of course most of the folks in Mississippi were black, and most folks in East Tennessee were white. But there is not a whole lot of difference. You know, we were talking to some folks yesterday and it ended up in a general conversation about Mississippi. And this one guy said, 'Man, that's just a dump', talking about how terrible Mississippi is. I guess you can look at it that way in one sense. But as far as from an artistic viewpoint, to me it's like the Promised Land. It's like one of those kinds of places that I can go and get rejuvenated, inspired. It's very inspiring for me."
Micol, where are you from?
"Well, I was born in Memphis and I lived in lots of places before I settled in east Tennessee. I lived in West Tennessee, Memphis, Mississippi, Arkansas, Indiana, several places in Tennessee."
Anybody in your family play any instruments while you were growing up Micol?
"No, not really. We had people that loved to sing, but nobody really played. When I was a little girl I started peckin' on the piano, the piano at church. We didn't have one at home, and they say I was peckin' out melody's and stuff on the piano when I was four. Playing the piano is a real special thing for me. Not that I'm a great piano player, but it's like, when I play the piano, especially if I'm by myself, I'm in another world."
Ricky, where are you from, and did anyone in your family play?
"I'm from Knoxville, Tennessee. Born and raised. I had cousins and uncles, my Dad, they all kind of played different instruments. My Dad plays guitar. I have uncles that play guitar. They play mainly rhythm, acoustic, that sort of thing. My Dad was always a lead guitar player, still is when they get together. But they just played local functions like the Eagles club, things like that on the weekends. I don't remember ever deciding to play, I just remember playing. I think the first time a guitar was actually put in my hands for me to try to actually play was when I was about five years old. When I was seven years old I kind of took it on myself to start messing around with it. When I was five I was too little. I think my Dad kind of got frustrated because it was hard for me to get started at that age. The interest was there as far back as I can remember so when I got up around seven I started doing it on my own and as time went on I learned stuff from records and watching my Dad and uncles play, that sort of thing. Of course my Dad taught me some licks over the years. He never did pressure me, really, to do anything with it. I guess like a lot of people's parents might. I think he just wanted me to play guitar first and I was too small for it and maybe a little bit stubborn at the time. So, I think he just decided to forget it and not fool with it, and that’s when I started playing with it. He is a truck driver and so a lot of times I'd practice on my own. He was out on the road and after a couple of years I had already learned a lot off of some of his records, his record collection. Chuck Berry licks, Lonnie Mack, pickin' stuff like that. When he heard me doing some Chuck Berry stuff it sparked his interest again. A lot of it was from watching him though, watching when he played. Seeing that that was where the sound was made and whatever. But for some of the licks that didn't sound quite like I thought it should sound, according to the way it would sound on the record, then I'd go and ask him,' What am I doing wrong here?' and he would show me."
How long, Ricky, was it when you started to catch up to your father as far as playing goes, and what did he think about that?
"I don't know, somewhere in my early teens. About 14 years old. He just seemed to be proud of it, proud that I was apparently catching on to it. I never have tried to play just like him, try to out do him or something. I always steered toward stuff that always caught my ear. I had cousins that were into southern rock stuff and I fell into that at that time. A year or so later, about 17 or so, I really started to get into Hendrix and Cream and all of that psychedelic stuff."
Micol, when did you first start singing?
"Oh, like Ricky, it's like I have always been singing. School choirs and things like that. High School. I would sing at church. My Dad was a preacher. He would ask me to sing at church. He'd ask me to sing solos. So, I started to do that when I was a teenager. Actually I was the church pianist from the time I was about 14. I was always nervous. Any time I would go to sing I would get nervous. If it was just playing the hymn's for everybody than that was fine.'
When did you first start writing songs Micol? Do you remember the first song?
"Actually I do remember the first song that I wrote. It was when I was in the fifth grade I think. It was just a little tune. It was something about Donny Osmond or something like that. (laughs) 'Donny, I love You, Yes I Do'. It was just crazy. I remember that line being in there."
Ricky, how much did you get into the southern rock with your cousins back then?
"A lot. It is just one of those kind of things where, kind of like music itself, it was always in my blood, in my brain, in the back of my mind. When I finally caught on to the southern rock groups that my cousins were into it was like the next step in music after the early rock stuff. To me that was like the next place that music should have been going. Of course that was in real time. That was when southern rock was really kicking. All of this other stuff that happened in music in between, that I really wasn't all that aware of, everything from the psychedelic stuff to the '70's glam rock groups, those groups didn't even register in my mind at all. The first people in rock and roll music like the Everly Brothers, Elvis and Chuck Berry and then Jerry Lee Lewis, and then in my mind the next step was the Allman Brothers band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Charlie Daniels Band, all that stuff. I love Tommy Crain. He was a great guitar player. Marshall Tucker band, all that stuff. In my mind that was the progressive next step to the music. It was like, after I get out of elementary school (musically) than this is the middle school. And then when I discovered the psychedelic stuff, the '60's type of psychedelic music, it wasn't necessarily the next step of where the music should have progressed to but it was a side step. It was like stepping aside and putting an extra flavor to this music. Hendrix went to places that most people wouldn't even think to go for one thing. Whatever is in your heart that you could create musically is fine. If people are getting into it then you know you are on to something. That is why I have not been second-guessing what I have been doing hardly at all. I just let it flow through me and if people like it then that’s great. If they don't then I don't know that I would change it because it's my music, so I am really playing what is natural. And hopefully people will like it. They seem to, they seem to catch on to it pretty good, so. It just feels right and natural. Right after I discovered Muddy Waters, well I guess if it wasn't for Muddy Waters and Billy Gibbons I probably wouldn't even be playing music. When I heard Muddy Waters and Billy Gibbons, that is something right there that I had always heard in my mind and my heart, just to hear what they were doing, you know. Then, all of a sudden I discovered people like John Lee Hooker and all those old blues greats and that put an extra fire in my gut."
Micol, did you listen to very much southern rock or blues before you met Ricky?
"My Dad was a real blues fan. He, however, was very strict about the music that I listened to. And so I wasn't aloud, much at all, to listen to the radio. But I grew up hearing him sing blues songs. One favorite memory of mine is, I have two brothers and a sister and I'm the oldest, is he would sit out in the hall outside of our bedrooms and would sing us to sleep sometimes. And it would be Jimmy Reeve's stuff. He is a very soulful singer. He loves to sing and I was around that. Besides that, somehow it's in my bloodstream. I have family and roots in Mississippi and it's just there."
How did you guys meet? Micol, you first.
"Ricky and I first met when I went out to hear one of his bands called Soul Chaser. And we had mutual friends and I would go out and hear that band from time to time. Eventually I sat in to sing a song here and there, every once in a while. And then, basically, circumstances happened where we got together. It just clicked. He was just the right one for me."
Ricky, when did you first notice Micol?
"The first time I ever noticed Micol was about three years before I actually formally met her. I'd seen her at a John Lee Hooker concert with her Dad. I remember telling my friend that was with me at that concert about how at the time I was concentrating on playing music, of course I was going to college then, and I was kind of complaining out loud to my friend that I couldn't even get a date at this point in my life. And I look over and this beautiful young woman is over here with this old man who had a big suit on, you know. I said he was like an old sugar daddy or something (laughs)."
Micol:" I remember that show because it was on a Sunday night and my Dad and I went after church. I think that he knew I wanted to go. At that time I was probably 20. His doctoring and his preaching started to change up a little bit around that time. He really started opening up a whole lot. It was a big change. Anyway, we went. He took me to it. It was at a small club in downtown Knoxville."
I was lucky enough to see Muddy Waters before he passed. Did you guys ever see him play live?
Ricky:"I didn’t get to see Muddy Waters, but they had a lot of big name blues artists play back then, which really has not been all that long ago. It was a world of difference compared to what blues is now. You could have John lee Hooker there and be lucky to fill the room, and the room wasn't that big. Maybe a 150 people, maybe 200 people if the room was packed. But Micol and I were standing a few feet apart and that’s the first time I remember seeing her. And then about three years later I was playing this club down in Knoxville in the old city and she was sitting in a booth by herself and I had to go talk to her because I knew something was wrong with that. It just worked out. Normally I would be nervous, but I haven't ever been nervous around Micol. It's just like meeting the other piece of the puzzle that wasn’t there, you know."
My kin are out of Appalachia also. I was born in West Virginia. My Grandpa was a coal miner until he lost his arm down in the mines. What was it like growing up in East Tennessee?
Ricky:" My great Grandpa was a coal miner for several years and I think his wife died and he took up farming. My Grandma raised up the kids. She was the oldest and raised up her siblings so he could farm and stuff. It's rough living. It's just living off of the land. When I was a little kid my Grandparents, well there is a picture of my Grandma walking back to the house that she grew up in and when I was little her and my Grandpa were pig farmers. They didn't have running water until I was about ten. They still used a potbelly stove. I remember on cold mornings they would want me to go out there and get that coal. Get up and walk across a cold floor and everything else. And this is 1979 or '80. I kind of saw how it was being that poor. They weren't a racist people. They didn't have any racial problems with other black folks, that sort of thing. So I came along early learning to be humble about what I do have. I have never had a whole lot, but compared to how they lived, man, I live like a king. Just to eat supper at night they had to get wood together, and if we ain't got time we can pull something out of the freezer and throw it in the microwave and have supper in two minutes. So on "Como Dust" I wanted to compare what I seen as a kid compared to the things I saw in Mississippi when I went through there a few years back. There really is no difference. One place has got mountains and a bunch of white folks and the other place has got flatlands and black folks."
Ricky, I have to ask you about your slide guitar playing. It is as good as there is out there right now. Where did that side of your playing come from?
"Well, I don't know exactly what happened. My uncle has a national Dobro and he plays a little bit of Dobro. He hardly ever played it and I kept bugging him and finally he said that if I took care of it, I'd let you have it. He let me have it when I was about 16 and I cleaned it up and took care of it and treated it like a Corvette. I practiced with it a whole lot and kind of started to practice with a slide on the guitar and that sort of thing. After I fixed up the Dobro, a couple of years later he wanted it back. But that is how I started on slide. My dad never did play much slide. He played a little slide but he says today that he could not quite get the hang of it. My Dad would play a bunch of different styles of music in his band and they had a steel guitar player and I was always intrigued by that slide sound, that steel sound. But just hearing that Muddy Waters stuff. I guess Muddy Waters is the first guy that I really kind of started learning a bunch of slide stuff off of. His records. And then some Hounddog Taylor stuff, Duane Allman, Elmore James. I first heard a lot of those blues songs I learned from the British psychedelic bands like Cream, Led Zeppelin. And then when I finally started to find out about Willy Dixon doing 'You Shook Me All Night Long' and things like that it really didn't occur to me at that time that a person recorded all those songs years before. I think the British guys like Ten Years After, Cream, of course the Allman Brothers band, those guys took blues to a whole different level. To me it's really almost as good as the original stuff. It brought a different kind of life to it, which ain't necessarily better, but it's just as good. It was like 'lets take this song and put a different twist on it', and to me it was a real creative thing to do."
What did you think of Duane Allman's playing?
Ricky: "He is one of my guitar heroes. Duane, as far as his playing is concerned, he had so much power in his playing. So soulful. Just full of it, full of power and energy. Then after I spent, God only knows, hundreds of hours not only playing along with the music but also listening to it, I didn't really approach it as being a student of his but as being a fan first. But when I read about some of the things he had said about what he thinks about music it was obvious that music was a deep thing to him. It wasn't just sex, drugs, and rock and roll. You know he was a partyer, but that wasn't what he was playing music for. Music was a deeper, more spiritual thing with him. Those are the people that I have been geared toward musically. People that seemed to me like it was not something they were doing just for fame and fortune. It was something they were doing because it was in their blood, in their soul. With me, if I ever quit playing music I think I'll just quit living, 'cause it's my life. Music is my life. And that is the kind of thing I got out of Duane Allman's playing."
Lee Roy Parnell said that when he set out to really learn the slide guitar that he had to put all of his Allman Brothers records under the bed because that is the only way that he was going to develop his own style. Does that make sense?
Ricky: "Yeah, that makes sense. I guess I had to do that more with Stevie Ray Vaughan. Because I was really into Stevie Ray Vaughan when he was alive and not yet popular with the masses. I'd seen him live when there was maybe a thousand people in the audience, maybe. His music had that kind of a realness to it, real honest, kind of like he was playing because this was his life blood. He's got to play music or this is not going to happen. That inspired me too. As his career progressed and he started getting more of his own voice instead of just playing more of the stuff that his heroes played, I started noticing that if there was anything that I would learn from Stevie Ray it was to keep that intensity but get my own voice. Right about the time he died, was killed, I had a hard time listening to his music because it was painful to listen to in a way. But in other ways something from somewhere else was telling me that I have to get away from listening to that and get my own voice. I have to dig deep inside to find my own voice on guitar."
Micol, I heard a woman singer the other night trying to sing some Janis Joplin and it didn't sound all that good. With your voice you could pull that off wonderfully but you have not gone that route. It seems that you would rather sound like Blue Mother Tupelo than be a Janis imitator, which I think is the right move.
"Well, thank you for saying that I could do that. You know, the thing that I draw from Janis more than wanting to sound like her or anything like that, is the times when your whole self is into the music and what you are doing. That is mostly what I love about her. I have people all the time saying that I should sing some Janis and I have avoided doing that because, for one thing, I don't feel like I can do...you know, everybody is looking for Janis. They want Janis. I can't do that. I can only do my thing. I could put my spin on a Janis song but it is not going to satisfy those people that want me to sing a 'Janis Joplin song'. It's really fun to hear people request our songs instead."
Micol, I see on your website, www.bluemothertupelo.com, that there are posts on there from fans from all over the world. From Poland to Austria to Boston to San Diego. What do you think about that?
"I think it's real neat. I don't know who these people are (laughs), but if they leave their email address I always try to write them back. Say hey, thank you for checking our website, thanks for listening to our music. That’s what I have been reading and hearing about (how big roots music is overseas). We have had it said to us that 'you ought to go overseas. They would really dig your music'. That would be great. Yeah, I want to share it with people and hope that they connect with it."