With so many albums being released every week—especially now that anyone with a laptop can make a record and get it on the internet—tribute albums, compilations, live albums, acoustic albums, live acoustic albums, and records that feature mostly cover songs all have an uphill battle to fight to get heard compared to studio records of original music. And that’s the way it should be. But every once in a while you have a record that comes by that breaks this mold, and that’s the case with Make Americana Great Again by Julian Davis and his Hay-Burners.
There are now so many versions of standards from the American country, bluegrass, and old time songbook, it is an art and discipline in itself to find ways to squeeze new life out of old songs, and one so few have mastered. It’s fun for artists to play cover songs, but it’s rare that it results in anything exceptional or original for the audience these days.
But this Julian Davis record draws you in almost immediately and never lets you go. It’s the incredible enthusiasm for the material that drips off of these recordings, it’s the astounding instrumentation that enhances these timeless compositions, it’s presenting a new standard in the adeptness with which these songs are interpreted, and it’s Julian’s uncanny, almost ghost-like singing that breeds something that is as original as it is warmly familiar.
It’s hard to know if the topmost praise for Julian should lie with his flatpicking guitar skills, which rise to the peak of that discipline where it’s truly impossible to physically move fingers any quicker than he can, while also knowing how to instill taste and melody into the runs—or whether it’s his other-worldly ability to channel the by-gone legends of American roots music and make a collage of their greatest attributes accumulated into one voice every time he opens his mouth to sing. So let’s just call it a draw, and sit back and be stunned.
And after having no choice but to listen to this record multiple times in a row from the infectiousness and energy it renders, possibly the most astounding development is when you start poking around behind-the-scenes to discover that Julian Davis is only 16-years-old. It almost seems impossible, like a Dominican Republic baseball phenom who clearly must be lying on his birth certificate, especially when you hear the maturity in Julian’s singing style.
Make Americana Great Again is a mix of old time country standards, bluegrass numbers like “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Freeborn Man,” Western Swing songs such as “Window Faces the South” and “Miss Molly,” and more contemporary covers like Blondie’s “Call Me” and a jumping take on “Midnight Rider.” There is some slow and mid-tempo material here, but speed is definitely an attribute to the Julian Davis and Hay-Burners experience.
And it’s a great band behind him, consisting of Seth Campbell on upright bass, and Shannon O’Shea on a smoking fiddle. And there’s more music where this came from. Another album, though harder to find called Who Walks In When I Walk Out is lurking out there as well, and includes more original material. Stay tuned for a more in-depth analysis of that.
And on top of all of this, apparently Julian Davis is wrapped up somehow in the current season of America’s Got Talent, and will be featured on the show. So who knows where this thing could end up, but Make Americana Great Again is most certainly a very promising start.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
– – – – – – – – – – – –