How to stay fiercely and authentically in touch with the roots of country music, yet do something that still feels fresh here some 60-plus years after the country genre was formed is the challenge that faces every band or artist that doesn’t simply want to be like a museum piece, or a live juke box rehashing country classics, and that would never have the wherewithal or disposition to run with the young bucks trying to capture mainstream popularity by running away from what country music once was. So many artists think that being country is only about extending your drawl or overdubbing steel guitar and miss that the spirit of the music is about original self-expression.
This is what The Ben Davenport Band understand, and approached their debut album Slow Start with, distributed trough Lone Star Records in 2013. It’s been a while since I’ve heard such great texture and diversity in a record that still clings tightly to its country roots. But one question that I had when I was cueing this album up and thumbing through the liner notes was, “Who is Ben Davenport?” Looking at the credits and listening to the music, the heart of the band seems to revolve around singer and songwriter named Jim. No Ben Davenport is to be found.
“I spent 13 years working on the railroad as a trackman and living the life that went along with it out on the road,” Jim explains. “I would introduce myself to the ladies with names out of songs—Willie Lee, John Lee Pettimore—kind of as a joke but also to prevent my death from the hands of my now ex-wife. (I can laugh about it now, she’s still pretty sore about it. hah)
“One night in February ’05 I was staying at my friend’s place in Northern Ohio drinking Jack Daniels and eating a week old bowl of chili. We were watching Season 1 of The Dukes Of Hazzard and there was a scene where Cooter Davenport (Ben Jones) rode his motorcycle through the front door of The Boar’s Nest. My friend paused it and said ‘Ben Davenport, that’s your new name!’ So I stumbled to the bathroom, rehearsed it a couple times in the mirror and agreed. Chad was a great drummer and we said that when we’d start a band [we would] call it ‘The Ben Davenport Band.’
“That day never came. Chad was killed in an accident the day after Memorial Day that year. My son and I were the last ones from home to see him and give him a hug and tell him we loved him and we’d see him soon. I’ve had people tell me to change the name because it’s confusing. I told those people to kiss my ass.”
Ben Davenport’s album Slow Start feels like a victory. Reflecting back on a lifetime of memories, accomplishments, failures, and the fortunes and lessons that come with both, it is a self-critique and cathartic, fiercely personal, and an album you can tell Jim made for himself, be damned if anyone else likes it; a bookend on his life exposing vulnerability, toughness, honesty, and frailty—an album he had to make so the next chapter in his life could begin.
The opening track “Hell of a Day” refers heavily to a Southern rock influence, and features deft guitar work by Ben Davenport’s Josh Serrato who helps to set the tone of the band’s sound and also helped produce the album. The first song also features a soaring chorus with two part harmonies tastefully arranged, and a theme throughout Slow Start is going the extra mile to give each song the little bit of extra love and attention that it calls for.
Straight up country is what you get with the second song, “Ain’t Lovin’ Me;” a classic cheating song that in that authentic country spirit can speak to the heart of the cheater and and cheated in the same breath. What Slow Start does that so many other albums fail at is keeping you completely engaged in the music by being bold; keeping you on your toes for what is coming next.
One gem of Slow Start is “Don’t Know,” a total gear shift from the first few songs, tugging at the heart strings with piano, and haunting, multi-layered female vocals, and exquisite mandolin by Wesley Holtsford. This is followed by a stripped-down “Ball Drop” featuring just Jim and his guitar, exposing the songwriter’s skillful evocation of soul divested from any need of accompaniment.
As soon as you try to pigeonhole The Ben Davenport Band as hard-edged country rockers, they shake it up, and deliver something completely unexpected. This album has a poem on it, “My Ode to Billy Joe” (Shaver). Jim is no Shel Silverstein, but the plain-spoken approach and honest sentiment captured on the track make it one of the album’s standouts. “Ol’ Ghost of You” despite the dower story is a surprisingly bright-sounding arrangement with a free-spirited mandolin weaving and darting between verses. The album concludes with a song written and performed by a man named Russell Patterson; an oldtimer that once taught Ryan Bingham slide guitar, and played with Bingham for a few years.
Slow Start scores the highest of marks on production, arrangement, and originality. Some may find Jim vocals a little too rich and wish his inflections could be a little more understated, but it is the strength of composition and the overall production value of this album that suck you end and delineate it from the herd, while the diversity of content delivers something for everyone across a wide swath of country sensibilities.
This is a good one.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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