by Jordan Green
Doug Davis considers himself a musical jack-of-all-trades.
“I’m not a great guitar player, I’m not a great singer,” he said as he sat in the coach-house studio behind his home in Winston-Salem’s West Highlands neighborhood. “If anything, I focus on my songwriting. That’s probably why I diversified. I’m a great fan of music. Being diversified allows me to do everything.”
He’s selling himself way short, although as an industry pro, he typically brings what the gig requires rather than imposing his vision on the project at hand. As the guitar player with Mediocre Bad Guys, a band comprised of friends in Winston-Salem and Mount Airy, Davis plays shredding guitar — melismatic, grandiose and full of emotional charge. His singing voice possesses a dusky soulfulness, not unlike the British rock guys in the early ’70s who were trying to emulate Otis Redding, particularly his work with cover bands and the occasional song with the Bad Guys.
His modesty and ability to pull back from his own ego is part of what makes him an in-demand producer —he’s worked with everyone from local indie-folkers Vel Indica to “American Idol” contestant Chris Daughtry. Producing music, along with recording for television shows like “The View” and “Saturday Night Live” and performing in cover bands, has provided a living.
Yet the truest document of Davis’ creativity as a musician is his output with his band the Solid Citizens, which includes Susan and Lee Terry, respectively on viola and electric guitar, bassist Ken Mohan and drummer Dan DesNoyers. On the band’s 2008 debut album Penny Brown Penny and even more so on the thematically linked series of three EPs released from 2013 through 2015, Davis’ singing is more restrained, showing traces of the ’70s folk-pop of artists like Jackson Brown or Tom Petty, with a melancholy ache betrayed by the catch in his vocals. The broken-in sound of the band is Americana tinged with soul and classic-rock influences. Davis’ songwriting is literary without being pretentious.
Davis is a prolific songwriter by habit. He and a handful of musician friends have something they call the “Monday Morning 3 a.m. Club,” a kind of loose agreement to write a song every week.
His work as a producer has informed the curation of songs on the three EPs, although the experience has imparted new insights and he might do things differently if he were to do it again.
“As a producer, one of the first things I work on is I want to see a lot of material,” Davis said. “Every artist should go through a culling process. I like to write a lot more material than I’ll use. The EPs allow me to hedge on that.”
The EPs are built around seasonal themes, beginning with the autumnal A Pageant of Gold released in January 2013 and continuing through winter-based The River Running Slow and the spring-themed When the Lilies Bloom, which came out in November 2015. Each of the EP titles is taken from the lyrics of “June Parade,” the lead track from A Pageant of Gold. A forthcoming summer-themed EP will complete the cycle.
The format is a partial cheat on one of Davis’ most dearly held principles.
“I have bands come into the studio, and say, ‘I’ve got 10 songs. Let’s make an album,’” he said. “I always tell them: ‘I want you to answer the question yourself: How many of these songs are really good?’ For the listener, we’re all inundated with so much music. It’s so hard to find gatekeepers. When I was growing up the album was sacred. You waited for it because it was a real statement. With the EPs, I’d like to think this is a good way to let people in on the process.”
When the final EP is released, Doug Davis & the Solid Citizens will have two hours of recorded music. Initially, he had planned to distill the complete output into a single album, but he said at this point he’s not sure he’ll follow through.
One unanticipated downside of incrementally releasing the music is that the format doesn’t really lend itself to a concerted touring effort and marketing push. The band celebrated the release of When the Lilies Bloom at the Garage in Winston-Salem in November and has performed in Chapel Hill, but otherwise the band members’ various schedules have prevented them from playing out much. Davis said booking concerts is the aspect of the music business that he enjoys the least.
“It’s very important to me that we live in the songs,” he said. “I’m a producer — that’s my day job — and I’m a firm believer that songs need to breathe so that when you turn on the mic it acts as a document of what the live band is doing. I would love to be playing this stuff out more.”
The care and effort that Davis puts into his work with the Solid Citizens is almost inversely proportionate to his expectations of commercial success from it. On New Year’s Eve, he played with a cover band for a about a thousand people at Ziggy’s, but he would feel fortunate to draw 45 people to a Solid Citizens show. The cover band shows are handled by a booking agent, but Davis dismissed the notion that the agent would be interested in booking the Solid Citizens because the popular appeal of the two acts are so widely divergent.
He betrays no sense of bitterness about the comparative challenges of playing original music, but rather seems to accept that each pursuit yields different rewards.
“With the cover stuff it’s a guarantee that there’s gonna be hundreds of people,” he said. “There’s a craft to it, no doubt. I don’t look down on it. But the songs have already been written. The work is basically done. I live for getting into the trenches and playing original music.”
When Davis and his bandmates put out the first EP, they talked a lot about the sanctity of the album.
“The album is an aesthetic package that makes sense, like a movie,” he said. “It’s still important to tell a story over an album length, and a lot of people have lost that over streaming and shuffling. What we’ve been doing with the Solid Citizens takes a wide-screen sensibility. You’re not gonna confuse it with the hot, new single. We want people to listen to it and experience it, and realize there’s a story that needs a little bit longer to tell.”