"For the longest time, Davidson laughs, I didn't know the difference between my family's music and the radio. My dad, a guitarist and probably my biggest influence, would always be sitting around doing some very tasty Chet Atkins or Duane Eddy number. He was one of twelve children, and all of them played or sang. My first performance was singing an Elvis song at my grandmother's house for about forty relatives. There I am, standing in the middle of the floor, shaking my leg, wailing out "Hound Dog."
It seems natural that a gifted guy from such a fertile background might make a country album. And with Unconditional, the 29-year-old singer-writer guitarist's debut for Virgin Records Nashville, produced by the fresh studio combo of Virgin President & CEO Scott Hendricks and L.A.-based artist-writer-producer Jude Cole, that recording has arrived. Yanking the great tradition of the superbly well crafted country song to the instrumental freedom of soul, rock, blues, and gospel, Unconditional offers some of the most alive and on-target Nashville music in many seasons. Songs range from "I Can't Lie to Me," with its intensely fresh twist on blues friction, to "One More Day," which has a light yet stomping traveling vibe, to "Unconditional," an orchestrated ballad that grapples with the rare species of emotion that is permanent, unmovable.
From there, Davidson's songs deal with unusual everyday relationships, as on My Best Friend and Me, done in a soulful mountain singer-songwriter style. They deal with heartbreak, as on "Plain Old Pain," which ends up rocking right through its trouble. Occasionally, they're about hanging out, as on We're All Here, a blue-ribbon Waylon-like drinking tune. Then there is Doghouse Rights, about the slightly comic yet all too grave domestic result of, as Davidson sings in his no-fuss soulful tenor, "breaking the rules of love." This is a country groove, touched by blues intimacy and gospel fire, like none other.
The eleven songs, seven of which Davidson himself wrote, comprise a stellar collection of Soulful Rocking Country. It's country music influenced by, but hardly limited to, Davidson's life-long love of artists like Merle Haggard, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Don Williams, and Elvis Presley. I like to think that my songs remove the guess-work, Davidson says. "Most things today are so full of guess-work. So much stuff actually aims to confuse you, to shoot over your head. I like the simpler stuff, the kind of thing where you don't have to wonder what someone is talking about. That doesn't mean that some of the songs can't be heard or contemplated in different ways; they have their share of little complexities. But I try to concentrate on whatever it is I want to communicate. I like that blinding focus of trying to be as simple as dirt."
Davidson didn't come to Nashville immediately. When he was 18, he joined his older brother in Las Vegas for a while. All his life, Davidson had thrived on music, playing in bands with high school buddies ("four hour shows, he recalls), opening locally for touring artists like Tom T. Hall and Restless Heart. But Davidson knew he had something to say to people outside Virginia.
"I went to Las Vegas on a Greyhound, he says in his straightforward way. When we passed through Nashville, I remember looking out the window. It was probably nine or ten at night, and the place was all lit up. I looked out the window and vowed, that is where I want to be.
So, after returning home from Nevada, he made monthly trips to Nashville. Eventually, he auditioned for and won TNN's Charlie Daniels' Talent Round-up artist competition. With his award money, he and his wife Frances moved to central Tennessee, establishing themselves out-side Nashville, in nearby and more laid-back Mt. Juliet. Davidson was soon tapped as one of Nashville's most in-demand demo singers. Publishing deals and record company discussions followed. But his big break occurred when, through the wise intervention of his good friend Tammy Brown, a Music Row A&R rep, he substituted for Michael McDonald at an outdoor party for Jude Cole hosted by Scott Hendricks.
"It was a nervous high, Davidson says, remembering the night he sang My Best Friend and Me" for guests around a blazing fire. "But Scott walked up after I was finished and told me he was going to be heading up a new label, and that when the doors actually opened, to come see him. That was my invitation in."
Unconditional is the result. "From the beginning," Davidson says, "this has been completely different to how it usually goes down with a new artist in Nashville. I was not told to bend any. I was just told to be honest and truthful, just try to make something that we could all be proud of." In this case, magically enough, that's just what happened.