Hope you’ve been filling out your end-of-year lists in pencil and not ink, ’cause if you got too married to your upper brackets, Ward Davis may have just wrecked them with this late November release.
Perhaps to some, Ward Davis is difficult to discern from the rest of the burly and bearded old school singers who are storming the beach of country music like a Viking berserker clan looking to pillage and plunder. Cody Jinks, Whitey Morgan, Alex Williams, Jamey Johnson, J.P Harris, and a whole slew of others may have you feeling beard fatigue.
But Ward Davis is unique in the space as a songwriter first, and a piano player just as much as a guitar player. Having landed cuts with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Sammy Kershaw, Cody Jinks, and Trace Adkins among others, Ward’s followup to 2015’s 15 Years in a 10 Year Town has been long-rumored and a longer time coming. But he got a little sidelined with a bitter divorce. All the better though, at least for us. Because Ward Davis puts all those fresh and raw emotions into this record, along with a lot of underlying heart and soul, fielding a collection of quality songs that for some performers would constitute an entire career’s worth.
Song after song, Black Cats and Crows sucks you in, satisfies your musical desires, and exceeds your expectations. Produced by the legendary Jim “Moose” Brown, it starts off hard and heavy with “Ain’t Gonna Be Today.” Like Cody Jinks and some of the others in the beard brigade, Ward Davis will get a little rock on you. When he pairs up with Scott Ian of Anthrax on the thunderous murder ballad “Sounds of Chains,” he’s hitting on outright heavy metal. Though the songs are always country, the sound may have some concerned early on it’s a little too crunchy for their country sensibilities.
But Black Cats and Crows covers a ton of ground in its 14 tracks. “Threads” is a well-composed and thoughtful ballad, with Ward’s piano able to bring a somber and intimate mood that an acoustic guitar can’t always attain. “Where I Learned To Live” feels like a country standard in the making. And interwoven throughout the record, Ward continues to come back to his unfortunate separation, devastating you with insight on songs like “Book of Matches” and “Nobody” all about boxes of belongings and painful memories as one life becomes two.
With 14-song albums, you commonly anticipate a couple of weak tracks. Not so much for Black Cats and Crows. All that comes close is maybe his rendition of the song “Colorado” first cut by Cody Jinks, but only because you might already be familiar with it. This Ward Davis version that takes advantage of a little fiddle might even be better though. The album ends on another song fans have heard before in “Good and Drunk,” which Ward released on a 2018 EP called Asunder, which makes a great addendum to this record, since it’s also about Ward’s divorce.
And if one murder ballad wasn’t enough for you, Ward Davis offers a second in “Papa and Mama” originally by Ray Scott who Ward used to play piano for. But don’t worry, Black Cats and Crows isn’t all blood and guts and broken hearts. “Get To Work Whiskey” makes for a great barroom rouser, while “Heaven Had a Hand” offers a few sweet moments to balance out the pain.
But still, it’s the times Ward Davis gets personal about his split that make this record, whether it’s ruminating over what a “Nobody” he is despite his measure of fame and recognition as a musician as he stands in an empty house that once use to be a home, or maybe most poignantly when he sings from his ex-wife’s perspective on “Lay Down On Love” in a brilliant stroke of “other shoe” perspective many performers couldn’t muster, especially saddled with the emotion of a breakup. These are the songs that take Black Cats and Crows from a quality recording to something worth spotlighting at the front of the class.
From growling tracks to get your blood pumping, to some of the easiest country songs to ease into, to songs written with such searing insight you’ll be squeezing back tears, Black Cats and Crows may have been inspired by bad luck and worse decisions, but it results in immense measures of good fortune for listeners.
Two Guns Up (9/10)
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1. Ain’t Gonna Be Today – Kendell Marvel, Ward Davis
2. Black Cats and Crows – Cody Jinks, Tennessee Jet, Ward Davis
3. Threads – Pearl Aday, Ward Davis
4. Sounds of Chains – Greg Jones, Ward Davis
5. Get to Work Whiskey – Bob Regan, Ward Davis
6. Colorado – Cody Jinks, Ward Davis
7. Books of Matches – Bob Regan, Ward Davis
8. Heaven Had a Hand – RHEAN BOYER, Ward Davis
9. Where I Learned to Live – Jim “Moose Brown, Ward Davis
10. Papa and Mama – Ray Scott
11. Lady Down on Love – Randy Owen
12. Nobody – Shawn Camp, Ward Davis
13. Good to Say Goodbye – Kerry Kurt Phillips, RHEAN BOYER, Ward Davis
14. Good and Drunk – Ward Davis