When Ron Davies was growing up in Kitsap County, he would sometimes cut school, take a ferry to the Pike Place Market and write poetry all day, sitting at a window seat at Lowell’s.
Davies’ feel for language and talent for music eventually led him to a career as a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles and Nashville, where he recorded two albums for A&M and wrote songs recorded by David Bowie (“It Ain’t Easy”), Jerry Jeff Walker (“The Man I Used to Be”) and Maria Muldaur (“Long Hard Climb”), among others.
Even before leaving the Northwest, as a teenager Davies had sold songs to the legendary Tacoma band The Fabulous Wailers, including the regional hit, “It’s You Alone.” But for all his success, Davies, who died of a heart attack in 2003 at 57, never quite made it.
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On Monday, Davies’ sister, Gail Davies, released “Unsung Hero,” a star-studded compilation of her brother’s work performed by Nashville luminaries like Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, John Prine, Rodney Crowell, Alison Krauss and Crystal Gayle.
Though a touching Davies tribute came out locally two years ago, it had nowhere near the polish and star power of “Unsung Hero,” which cuts to the heart of Davies’ bittersweet, Tim Hardin-like style, but also dips into other genres.
Getting the likes of Parton and Gill to sing on a specialty project like this was no mean feat. But for Gail Davies, honoring her brother’s legacy is an obsession.
“I made my brother a solemn promise,” says Gail. “We were at Brown’s Diner. I had just done a tribute to Webb Pierce, with Emmylou [Harris] and Dwight Yoakam, and Ronnie was bragging about it: ‘Maybe someday my sis will do a tribute to her big brother.’ Ronnie died three months later.”
Having recorded six Top 10 country singles herself, including “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me),” “Grandma’s Song” and “It’s a Lovely, Lovely World,” Gail Davies is well-connected in Nashville. She is often noted as that city’s first female record producer.
Though grief-stricken by her brother’s death, in 2004, she gathered some of the artists who had worked on the Pierce album and asked them to record basic tracks of Ron’s songs. But when her stepfather died that year — he had raised the kids and Gail was close to him — and a squabble erupted over the rights to Ron’s songs, Gail collapsed, suffering a nervous breakdown.
It would be nine years before she summoned the will to return to the project.
“It became very difficult for me to listen to the songs without going to pieces,” says Gail, who is particularly bitter that Ron’s widow has willed her interest in Ron’s work to a daughter by a previous marriage. “But a year ago, I put it on and listened to it and I realized, ‘I’m OK.’ I’m all right.’ ”
Davies went back into the studio with her husband, also a musician, recorded new tracks and orchestrated and produced the raw ones that had been put down years earlier.
Davies says she spent $29,743 producing “Unsung Hero,” a small sum in light of the album’s big names but considerable cash for someone who no longer has an active performing career. All proceeds from the album go to Nashville’s W.O. Smith Music School, which offers music lessons and instruments to low-income students, so her money and time are strictly voluntary.
Davies found Nashville musicians sympathetic to the project. Parton was already like a family friend, having paid all Ron’s medical bills when he fell two stories from a ladder and broke his hip while power-washing Parton’s house in 2002.
“Dolly has always been really supportive,” says Gail. “She was wonderful to work with.”
Others, like the clarinetist on “You Stayed Away Too Long,” agreed to work for less than their normal fee.
Like the title of one of his songs, Davies’ journey was, indeed, “A Long Hard Climb.” Born in Shreveport, La., Davies lived in Texas until 1951, when his father — Tex Dickerson, a country singer who once sang on the Louisiana Hayride — took a job at the Bremerton shipyard. Davies’ mother divorced and remarried soon thereafter, and the family seems to have been constantly on the move. At various times, Ron called Tacoma, Silverdale, Port Orchard, Bremerton, Gorst, Kitsap County and Port Townsend home.
At 12, he taught himself guitar, soaking up everything from Andrés Segovia to Robert Johnson, and started playing in bands, first in the hard, blues-inflected style of The Fabulous Wailers, then in the folk-rock style of Bob Dylan.
Davies dropped out of South Kitsap High School to join the Army. After he got out, he followed his sister to Hollywood, in 1969, and recorded his first solo album, “Silent Song Through The Land,” which featured studio aces Jim Keltner and Leon Russell and included “It Ain’t Easy,” covered soon after by Three Dog Night, then Bowie. A second album, “U.F.O.” prompted rock writer Jon Bream to call Davies the Best New Songwriter of the Year.
The albums got critical praise, but sales were slow, so Davies moved to Nashville in 1985 to concentrate on songwriting, scoring a publishing deal that led to recordings by Helen Reddy, Joan Baez, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Anne Murray and many others.
For all these covers, however, Gail says her brother earned only $7,000 to $10,000 annually from song royalties. When he died, he had $400 in the bank. Most of his life, he took odd jobs to get by and fought addictions to alcohol and pills.
Ron’s ashes were buried in a Port Orchard cemetery with his younger brother Jimmy, who was killed by a drunken driver in 1972.
Before Ron died, he managed to write more than 600 songs.
Why didn’t they catch fire? Gail, who two years ago self-published an angry, 485-page autobiographical rant, “The Last of the Outlaws,” about her own trials and tribulations, blames a shallow and venal music business. At one point, she says, she presented Ron’s songs to a Nashville record executive, whose response was, “‘Gail, these are great songs, but I don’t have any artists on my roster who can sing these melodies … or any melodies, for that matter.’ ”
There’s no question that record companies often pass over quality talent the first time around, as recent rediscoveries like Bettye LaVette and Rodriguez make clear.
But Ron Davies’ personality probably also affected his career.
“Ron was very outgoing and funny and he had great charisma,” says Seattle singer-songwriter Lisa Dilk, who co-wrote “Walk and Don’t Walk,” on the album. “But he was also very shy and was not really into self-promotion. To be in the music business, you have to be really comfortable promoting yourself.”
Lucky for Ron, his sister is doing that for him.
Now, the public can decide if Ron Davies was, indeed, an “unsung hero.”
Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or firstname.lastname@example.org