One night last fall Rhonda Vincent looked across the dark chairs at the Station Inn in Nashville and invited a couple friends to the stage. A moment later, she and Valerie Smith were joined around the microphone by Gail Davies.
The trio sang a small handful of songs together, including Davies’ hits “Blue Heartache” and “Someone Is Looking For Someone Like You”. The meld of voices was magical, sure enough, but the real surprise was how moved Vincent seemed to be to share her stage with Davies, whose career has been all but forgotten. And how good Davies’ voice sounded, how much fun she was having.
She has a bad reputation, Gail Davies does. Difficult, and worse, the whispers say.
Well, they would. The established order rarely embraces change, and Gail Davies became the first female producer in Nashville, producing all but the first three of the 18 hits she charted from 1978–85. Then she had the temerity to bear a child out of wedlock, and to go to court in public dispute with his father, Gary Scruggs, the eldest son of Earl.
She would prefer to be remembered as a first-rate singer and songwriter, precursor to several generations of literate voices such as Mary Chapin Carpenter and Kathy Mattea. At least some of the women who have since walked through doors she opened remember her work, and honor the prices she paid to do it. And that’s why it mattered to Rhonda Vincent that Gail Davies would join her onstage.
Eighteen years ago Gail Davies was a star, and then, asked to choose between child and career, she did the most unexpected thing and all but withdrew from the career she had so vigorously pursued.
Maybe not so unexpected. Patricia Gail Dickerson Davies was born in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, but came to call a series of small towns in western Washington home when her mother sought to put distance between her family and an abusive husband. It was a musical family. Her father, Tex Dickerson, had performed on the Louisiana Hayride, and her brother, Ron Davies, is an active and successful songwriter.
The Northwest in which the Davies children were raised was also home to Bonnie Guitar, probably the first female producer in pop music history. Bonnie Guitar (nee Buckingham) began as a session guitarist in Los Angeles, had a Top-10 pop hit with “Dark Moon” in 1957, placed many more songs on the country charts in the ’60s and ’70s, and, as co-owner of Seattle-based Dolphin Records (later renamed Dolton), produced pop smashes for the Fleetwoods and the Ventures.
We have only spoken for a few moments before Davies begins to sing “Dark Moon”. She, too, has not forgotten.
Spurred by her third husband, Rob Price, and son Christopher (who at 18 plays bass with Hank Williams III and Rosie Flores), Davies resumed her career a few years back with the Little Chickadee label. Her latest, Gail Davies & Friends, Live & Unplugged At The Station Inn, was released March 28. Her duet with Ralph Stanley on “Rank Strangers” is on Stanley’s new Clinch Mountain Sweethearts.
1. “WHY DON’T YOU JUST SHUT UP AND LEAVE THE STUDIO?”
NO DEPRESSION: You didn’t set out to be a country singer, did you?
GAIL DAVIES: When I graduated from high school I moved to Los Angeles, and I was playing for a while in a jazz trio in Vegas, opening for a 20-piece topless group. No, actually, they opened for me, then I would have to go out and follow them, in a long, black gown. Nineteen years old trying to sing jazz. That was fun. That was a real education. And then I sang in rock bands.
When I moved to L.A. it was to sing rock ‘n’ roll. And I was pretty good at it. I started writing songs because I lost my voice singing in a rock band. So I figured, my older brother writes songs, everybody in my family seems to be able to write, maybe I could write. I bought a guitar in a pawn shop for $350, and started learning how to play it. Within a couple of months I had written some of the songs that, for me, have become radio standards: “Someone Is Looking For Someone Like You”, “Grandma’s Song”.
I had really good examples to follow. I was singing background for Roger Miller, so I had wonderful teachers, besides my brother. I worked as a background singer at A&M studios, so I got to spend time with Joni Mitchell, she’d invite me to come in and sit around and watch her recording Court & Spark. I got to do that, sat at the board with John Lennon and Phil Spector, that was pretty cool, the Carpenters. A&M Studios was just a great place back then.