Hear It First: Guy Davis, ‘Be Ready When I Call You’
Guy Davis, the Ambassador of the Blues, considers himself “a musical storyteller. I tend to create music but even if I didn’t, I would use somebody else’s music — and if I didn’t have that, I would speak poems or prose. I think that all these things increase me as a performer….The songs, the plays, the descriptions, everything I do with words. They’re all part of each other.”
Be Ready When I Call You is the perfect title for the Grammy-nominated artist’s new album, for it’s clear the songwriter is listening carefully to the musical spirits whispering in his ear as he composes this soulful, deeply emotional collection of 12 new songs and one cover. Davis has a way with a story, pulling us into entertaining tales that require us at once to consider deeply the sadness, the corruption, the anger that surround us and at the same time to revel in the joys of love and hope.
The sonically spare “Badonkadonk Train,” fueled by rolling banjo strums, darting harmonica runs, and Davis’ warm vocals, opens the album with a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the unstoppable power of lust. Once the train of desire starts rolling down the track, it runs over every man in its path, including the preacher and the devil. Banjo plucking and guitar picking swirl around each other in the tender ballad “Got Your Letter in My Pocket,” a hauntingly Dylanesque song about a lover who discovers through a letter that he’s the father of his ex-lover’s child. The letter burns a hole in his pocket as it conjures up his lover’s face—“Your face stayed on my mind”—and the specter of the child he’s never seen. As Davis says of the song, “It’s not personal in the sense of specific to me, but it comes from stories I heard floating around — stories of people in my family that I never got to meet.”
The spacious folk blues “God’s Gonna Make Things Over” couldn’t be timelier, for it retells the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre, which occurred 100 years ago on May 31-June 1, 1921. The Tulsa Race Massacre is too largely forgotten, but Davis’ evocative song brings it back into our sights. “The Black folks just got took,” David says. “They had a beautiful area called Greenwood, the ‘Black Wall Street,’ and the White folks burned it to the ground. I wanted it to be a song that calls out for humanity — not for whiteness or anti-whiteness, but humanity. But I was telling it like it was. I saw one photo of a Black doctor who in the midst of the riot, raised his hands up — That shook me so bad, just at the thought of it, and I put that detail into the song.” The refrain “It ain’t right!…It ain’t right/What the white folks did in Tulsa that night” could just as easily, with a few word changes, describe events in our own society.
The slow blues rocker “Be Ready When I Call You,” riding along the strains of a B3 and Clapton-esque lead guitar lines and bright slide guitar, counsels alertness and readiness to give up everything to follow the Muse whenever and wherever it calls you. For Davis, the song refers to Robert Johnson’s mythical meeting with the Devil at the crossroads. He says, though, that song’s meaning runs deeper: “When you start going for something, you better be sure what you’re doing,” he explains. “If you went to the Crossroads, you signed that deal and you’ve got to be ready when you’re called. If it’s something good like a Grammy nomination, you’ve still got to be ready. On the cover of the album there are lightning bolts in the distance, so it’s a warning — Maybe the same warning Pete Seeger sang about in ‘If I Had a Hammer’.”
The scampering “Flint River Blues”—an indictment of the government of Flint, Michigan, and its allowing its residents to drink poisoned water—rides along spry banjo strums that float below a talking blues that shouts the warning “don’t drink the water/’til they make that river clean.” The haunting madrigal “Palestine, Oh Palestine” contrasts the beauty of the land with the violence that continues to take its toll on the Israelis and Palestinians who live in the territories. The swirling lament sends shivers up our spines with its evocative chorus: “Every time I turn around/They’ve taken something more/It leaves my heart trembling…/Yes it leaves my heart trembling.”
The scorching “I Got a Job in the City” romps along with its blues moans about the ups and downs of working in the city, while the Gypsy blues “I’ve Looked Around,” with its Dylan-like recitative verses about immigrants seeking asylum and welcome, swells into chorus that mimics the hypocrisy of a society that inhumanely rebuffs these crossing its borders.
On the only cover on the album, Davis turns in a growling, funky version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful.” “It just can’t be improved upon,” says Davis. “Howlin’ Wolf did the definitive version. Anybody could cover it, but it’s his — I just happen to love the song. But there is a little bit I sneaked in, that part where I sing ‘It’s alright’ that comes out of ‘She’s Alright,’ so that takes the song a little bit from Howlin’ Wolf to Muddy. So I guess I was putting my finger in the pot there, making a slightly new take on a classic.”
Davis turns tender on the heart-rending country soul “200 Days,” the tales of a man who’s been working away from his family for 200 days but who’s now coming home. The gruff and growling “I Thought I Heard the Devil Call My Name” rumbles along a New Orleans’ jazz vibe, while the vaudevillian humor of “Every Now and Then” floats along a St. Louis carnival blues vibe.
The album closes with the ferocious rap rocker “Welcome to My World,” directed to the most recent resident of the White House. Davis reflects on the song: “I don’t fancy myself to be any kind of a rapper, but I found that it worked with my facility for rhyme. Years ago my son called me up on the rhythm that rappers use when they speak — It was in me and it had to come out. This was the kind of song where the words need to bump into each other in a way that’s pleasing to the ear. In terms of addressing Donald Trump specifically…Well, for four years he was the most powerful person in the world, and that was something that had to be taken in and spoken about. I found everything in him except humanitarian values. It’s in the past tense now, but in a way, it’s not. There are still people in there who are about nothing but positioning themselves for power.”
We want to be ready when Guy Davis calls us; more than ever we need to hear his words of lament, his words that speak truth to power, and his words that call out and make us laugh at our own shortcomings. Be Ready When I Call You makes us laugh, it makes us cry, and it makes us angry, and Davis ingeniously wraps these emotions in music that mimics these feelings, often haunting us even after the last note fades.
Be Ready When I Call You is available for pre-order now – HERE.
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