BY STEVEN ROSEN
Ron Davies, who died in 2003 at age 57, was a country-pop singer-songwriter who used simple, everyday language in a fresh and direct – yet artful – way, without the gimmicky catch phrases and belabored “lessons learned” story arcs of too much commercial country. He turned to this oeuvre with an outstanding credential – writing songs for Washington garage-rock legends the Wailers.
His songs are about feelings, especially love, but never maudlin or sentimental; he had enough confidence in the honesty of his observations to avoid overwriting. His gift was similar to Roger Miller’s and Tom T. Hall’s, and it’s a shame he didn’t have more success. His best-known compositions are “It Ain’t Easy” (David Bowie, Three Dog Night, Mitch Ryder, Long John Baldry) and “Long Hard Climb” (Maria Muldaur, Helen Reddy).
But while maybe the public-at-large doesn’t know Davies that well – a lot of rock fans think Ray Davies wrote “It Ain’t Easy” – Nashville’s finest singer-songwriter-interpreters of Davies’ generation (and younger) have high regard.
So when Davies’ younger sister Gail (herself a fine country-pop singer) organized this tribute, the response was impressive. (All proceeds benefit W.O. Smith Music School.) Participating are John Prine, Dolly Parton, Crystal Gayle, Jim Lauderdale, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Jimmy Hall, Shelby Lynne and more.
In fact, Unsung Hero is an embarrassment of riches. There are 22 tracks on one disc (including a duet by the Davies siblings on “Steal Across the Border”), and it’s too much for an introduction to a “new talent” for many listeners. It overwhelms. All are impeccably produced with fine arrangements. (On several of the cuts, Davies collaborated with a songwriting partner, but most have words and music by him.)
Yet, individually, these songs are highly enjoyable and varied. Davies’ hard-edged but melodic rock side (think classic Little Feat) comes through on Hall’s tough and exuberant “Let It Slide,” Delbert McClinton’s funky “Say It With Money,” and Lynne’s soulful, punchy “It Ain’t Easy.”
But the country romantic – a man able to express himself with tenderness and homespun wisdom – is there, too, in Gail Davies’ “One More Night With You,” John Anderson’s “What Good Is a Secret,” Parton’s wonderful interpretation of “It’s Too Late,” Bonnie Bramlett’s moving, gospel-influenced invocation to “Lay My Body Down,” and Crystal Gayle’s “True Lovers and Friends,” which features a tenor sax solo by Benny Golson.
One hopes the Americana audience, which is now sizeable, belatedly discovers Davies through this record. And maybe Gail Davies can take a cue from Joe Boyd and next organize a series of tribute concerts around the country.