When one finds themselves standing at the crossroads of their long-held dreams, you’re left with two choices — either turn in one direction of complacency or go the other way and plunge headfirst into the endless possibilities of your aspirations.
For Western North Carolina singer-songwriter/guitarist Barrett Davis, he chose the life of a ragged troubadour. It’s a whirlwind existence of stages and microphones, of anonymous faces in the crowd eager to see what you have to offer, an arduous trek along that lost highway — constantly in search of your inner truths and honest self.
“I just came to this serious point in my life where I realized that if I want to make music and perform, then it’s now or never — I’ve got to make something of it,” the 29-year-old Davis says.
That something is Davis’ latest album, “The Ballad of Aesop Finn,” a vibrant tapestry, meandering from modern Americana to classic country, indie-folk to the “high, lonesome sound” of bluegrass.
The record itself is a kitchen sink of tones — as heard on “Quiver,” “Lazarus” and “Carolina Still” — one which ideally showcases the wide-range and unknown depths of Davis, his musical pursuits and exploits.
“Aesop Finn is a mythical character, raised in the woods. His dad is a moonshine runner, his mother nowhere to be found,” Davis says. “Aesop finds a lover and ends up getting killed in a gambling incident, then she ends up tumbling into a waterfall — it’s symbolic of the vicious cycle of tragedies in these mountains of Appalachia.”
Growing up in Lake Toxaway, a rural outpost community in the mountainous ridges of Transylvania County, Davis was surrounded by music from an early age — exposed to the blues licks of his guitar-playing father, the swirling classical sounds of his mother’s piano playing or the inner echoes of his sister, now a professional opera singer.
“But, for me, I stuck with bluegrass and carpentry,” Davis chuckles. “There was just something about bluegrass, folk and mountain music that has always called to me, conjuring something from real deep inside me that I haven’t been able to shake since I first heard it.”
As a teenager, Davis would find himself wandering into the nearby city of Brevard, often seeing the pickin’-n-singin’ styles of Grammy-winning hometown act The Steep Canyon Rangers or witnessing firsthand the intricate melodic prowess of legendary drummer Jeff Sipe at local open mic nights.
And it wasn’t long before Davis had a band of his own, Foxfire (2011-2014), an indie-folk ensemble that bounced around Southern Appalachia before disbanding, with its members each finding their own musical path — including Aaron Aiken, who produced “The Ballad of Aesop Finn” and now frontman of psychedelic-rock outfit Pink Beds.
Davis himself went on hiatus for several years, getting married and raising a young family, all while starting his own construction business to put food on the table for his wife and two kids. And though he was building homes and taking on remodeling projects around Southern Appalachia, his internal antenna never stopped picking up on words and phrases for song ideas.
“Eight years of carpentry was draining, where it was a lot like working in a kitchen. On the jobsite, there’s a lot of old man emotions getting thrown around that none of us would ever talk about,” Davis says. “Hearing all those stories? It just fed me all kinds of song material. It was like therapy for me to filter out someone’s traumatic experience they told me, and to learn something about myself within that process.”
Eventually, Davis wandered back into the realm of recording and live performance, finding himself as guest musician and contributing songwriter for rising North Carolina indie-folk group Pretty Little Goat, which resulted in his tune “Toe the Line” landing on the band’s renowned album, “Big Storm.”
“And I enjoyed that kind of family experience of being in a band,” Davis says. “I also became extremely aware of what it actually takes to run a business, to what it takes to survive and find footing in the music industry.”
“The Balled of Aesop Fin” is also a full circle thing for Davis, where a collaboration with Rangers lead singer Woody Platt on “Quiver” is just the tip of the iceberg of Davis’ past blending into his vision for tomorrow. The record also tapped the shoulders of regional heavyweights Jackson Dulaney and Ryan Stigmon.
The small, glowing ember of inspiration and creativity, which has always remained at the core of Davis, is now a burning, eternal fire — bringing forth an honest sense of self through the prism of his perceptive lyrics and heartfelt melodies.
“Every gig is the most important day of my life — it’s got to be the most important performance I’ve ever played. If it’s not, then why am I out here?” Davis says with conviction. “My focus has always been about getting to know the people in the audience, and learning how to communicate with a listening crowd — making that connection between performance and listener.”
— Garret K. Woodward
Rolling Stone Contributing Writer