Davis' new album isn't so much a departure from the Superdrag sound as it is a completion of it. It's easy to see his music then and now as part of one large story arc. Sometimes, what appears to be life's headlining act may, in fact, simply be the warm-up. Take the case of John Davis. The singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist spent a decade as the primary creative force for Superdrag, a melodic, power-pop band from Knoxville, Tennessee. With their combination of punk energy, bittersweet melodies and classic British influences, the group built a fan base that was both sizable and loyal. "Sucked Out," a single from their 1996 debut album Regretfully Yours, became a Top 20 Modern Rock hit. Over 10 years, Superdrag released four albums and numerous EPs and singles, all of them featuring Davis' keenly inventive tunes. The group's videos were played on MTV and the band performed twice on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Musician magazine also likened listening to the band to hearing the Beach Boys' Carl Wilson front the Replacements, while Details declared, "If you don't like Superdrag, you don't like rock 'n' roll."
But the success and acclaim masked Davis' troubled reality. As the band's career developed, so did a life-threatening level of alcohol abuse. Davis had grown up in near-rural Tennessee, just next to a small Baptist church that sat on a plot of land donated by his grandfather. But as his drinking grew worse and worse, his life spun further and further from his control. It began to look like the only way Davis would ever return to that churchyard was in a hearse. "I had a charter membership in the 'Bon Scott Club,' " Davis says, referring to the AC/DC singer who died from an alcohol overdose in 1980. "I can make light of it now, but it really did almost become a life-or-death situation."
Then came an event Davis describes as his "road to Damascus" experience. Driving to his parents' house one night, Davis felt an overwhelming sensation he compares to being struck by lightning, getting hit by a cannonball and having a piano dropped on your head-all at once.
"Before I had a chance to think about what I was doing, I started praying. I cried out to God," David says. "Instantly, I knew that the void inside me would never be filled with the liquor. I just got tired of running. I remember thinking that I needed peace, and it just came over me like a cool breeze-God's peace. At that moment, it was like a huge burden had been lifted. I got to my folks' house looking like I'd been run over by a truck."
That dramatic conversion experience caused Davis to re-embrace the faith of his youth and give up the behaviors that were destroying his life. Davis still honored his commitments to Superdrag, including the completion of the band's presciently titled 2002 album Last Call for Vitriol and a tour. But, he acknowledges, "My heart just wasn't in it anymore."
Making a clean break with his past, Davis moved to Nashville, where he hooked up with R.S. Field, a respected producer who had cut albums with the likes of Billy Joe Shaver, John Mayall, Buddy Guy and Webb Wilder. Davis and Field first met at a Nashville Superdrag show and bonded over a shared fondness for British Invasion bands. Later, Davis played on an album Field produced for fellow Knoxvillian Scott Miller. Impressed with Davis' sublime melodic sense and his ability to master just about any instrument set before him, Field asked Davis to play on country-rock chanteuse Allison Moorer's acclaimed album, The Duel. This teaming further resulted in an invite to tour with Moorer. The producer also began working with Davis on his own music. In those sessions, Davis played all the instruments except for Field's occasional contributions on percussion.
Furthermore, Davis discovered that the changes in his life had changed the kinds of songs he wrote. "I was writing songs that wouldn't really have fit on a Superdrag record," he says. Those new songs still show Davis' considerable gift for crafting gorgeous melodies, but they also employ the lyrical language of traditional gospel and gospel-blues.
"When I first started writing songs," Davis says, "my tendency was to always try to be clever and come up with some unusual way of saying whatever it was I wanted to say. As time went by, I started trying to narrow it down to the plainest English I could possibly think of. I wanted this record to have an overt Gospel influence, and not in some thinly-veiled kind of way. I wanted it to be straight out of the church that I went to four times a week as a kid! They sang the old songs."
Davis singles out "Jesus Gonna Build Me A Home." "That's just straight-out Gospel music," he says. "As R.S. says, 'it's a little bit tie-dyed.' It has sort of a music-from-Big Pink-meets-'Hey Jude' kind of feel. But to me, it's straight-out Gospel music."
Davis' recordings on the new project often use the musical language of some of pop's giants, many of whom embarked on their own spiritual quests. For example, "Jesus Gonna Build Me A Home" recalls the music of Bob Dylan and The Band. "Have Mercy" and "Lay Your Burden Down" possess the raw, primal emotion of John Lennon's early-'70s work. "I Hear Your Voice" sounds like it could be an outtake from Brian Wilson's sessions for the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.
As he moves into this new phase of his life, Davis says he's made his peace with the music he made with Superdrag, a repertoire that represents a 10-year period of his life.
"On the one hand, I'm really proud of those records," he says. "They're good. At the same time, it almost feels like that work was done by a completely different guy. There's a real emotional distance between life then and life now."
Davis' new album isn't so much a departure from the Superdrag sound as a completion of it. It's easy to see his music then and now as part of one large story arc. Superdrag set the stage. Now, unlocked from the chains of his past, Davis finds himself free to enter a completely new phase of his career, one that offers limitless promise.
"That's one of the nice things about doing a solo record," he says. "If it's pleasing to me and glorifying [to] God, then I'm doing something that I can take satisfaction in."