The old man on stage at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton -- the guy with the face like a weathered catcher's mitt, sitting in a wheelchair, fretting his baby-blue Gretsch with a butter knife clutched in his polio-stricken right hand -- is probably the only person in the room who doesn't know who his bass player is. Actually, strike that: He's definitely the only one here who's not aware that the scruffy man to his left, in rock-star leather pants and jacket, usually plays guitar for R.E.M. In fact, not only does CeDell Davis not have any idea that Peter Buck is in his band on this brisk night in late January, he couldn't tell you who anyone on stage is. Well, except for Joe Cripps, who's been trying to coax a new album out of him for years, and Thomas Jones, the young guitarist who's been dropping by Davis's house in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, for the last few years, just so he can play with him.
Everyone else -- keys player Alex Veley, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin and guitarist Scott McCaughey of The Minus 5 and the Young Fresh Fellows -- Davis knows only by reputation and what he's seen and heard over the past few days, as they backed him up on the new album he's recording in Denton at the vacant Dan's Bar. "These guys are some blues players," Davis says from the Rubber Gloves stage. It's late January, and the ad hoc band is playing a gig to work out the kinks. "They can do it all. I don't even know their names." Everyone laughs. "I'll let them tell you their names. I won't even try to pronounce their names. I'll tell you once I find out who they are."
Thanks to their presence on his pending album, set for release on August 20 on Cripps and Martin's Fast Horse Recordings, people outside Pine Bluff may finally find out who Davis is. The blues guitarist -- who has told Cripps for his last three birthdays that he's turning 72, but is more likely 74 -- hasn't been performing in complete obscurity, at least not for the past decade or so. Capricorn Records released a self-titled album by Davis in 1994, the same year Fat Possum issued Feel Like Doin' Something Wrong. Fat Possum, the Mississippi-based label that has resurrected many a lost blues musician's career, also put out The Best of CeDell Davis in 1995 and The Horror of It All in 1998.
But the Fast Horse album is the one that might finally expose Davis to a wider audience, thanks to the listeners who'll check out anything that Buck and the other members of the all-star band are involved in. That's the hope, anyway, and it's happened before; R.L. Burnside did the same thing when he recorded 1996's A Ass Pocket of Whiskey with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
Originally, Cripps didn't plan for the big backing names to appear on the record. In November, he, Davis and Jones spent a few days recording in Denton. He also didn't intend for the album to wind up on the label he was starting with Martin; he says now that he always assumed that Fat Possum would release Davis's disc. "But for whatever reason, he didn't want to do another record, the next album, on Fat Possum," Cripps says. "I think he just kind of felt like nothing was happening for him, time was short, and he wanted to try something else."
Eventually, trying something else brought Buck, Martin and McCaughey to Denton. They'd done this kind of work before, backing up Mark Eitzel on his 1997 album, West, and Buck and McCaughey played sidemen on Bed of Roses, the recent album by McCaughey's wife, Christy McWilson. But there was a limit to just how far Davis would let them take him.
"I wanted to try some real African kind of drumming instead of a drum set on a tune, and we did it," Cripps remembers. "And you could just see the look of disgust in CeDell's face as we did it. You could tell he's just like, he's letting us do this but he's just, like, looking out the window. As Peter said later, 'If you were teaching an acting class and were showing videos of different emotions, that would be disgust. That would be the perfect disgusted look.' We get done and I said, 'You didn't care for that too much, did you?' And he goes, 'That wasn't even half right.' I said, 'Well, I just wanted to see, CeDell, I just wanted to see. We don't have to keep it, I just wanted to see.' And he said, 'Well, do you see?' I said, 'Yeah.' And he goes, 'Do you see?' "
Some of Davis's ideas failed as well. A couple of days after the Rubber Gloves show, Cripps and the band decided to try to re-create the energy and excitement of that gig by bringing in an audience to listen to them record at Dan's Bar. But the crowd at Dan's sat on their hands, not wanting to intrude on the recording process, and much of the time, Davis seemed confused as well, wondering if he should be entertaining the people or concentrating on recording. Still, he gamely attempted to pull off a standard feature of blues gigs, where each member of the group is given a chance to solo. Nice idea, but the band wasn't comfortable enough with Davis to know where he was heading, and his mumbled explanations didn't help much.
"And the main guy I want to come to is the drummer," Davis said, wrapping up his instructions to the band. "I want him to do a little solo on the drums. You understand what I'm saying? When I nod my head, I want everybody else to stop. I want you to kick them drums. And you have to kick the bottom outta 'em. Kick 'em. And look, I'm gonna cut it short. Ain't going through pointing out stuff. This is fast time, 6/8 time. Yessir."
By the time Davis came to Martin and Cripps's solo, the song had fallen apart to the point where it could no longer be recognized by anything other than dental records.
"Oh, God," Buck groans when reminded of the give-the-drummer-some train wreck. Since he's been standing by Davis for much of the sessions, he's become the de facto bandleader. "That's how it works -- if you're next to him, you're the bandleader," Buck says. "Everything we did on the record is a first take. He plays in G, but basically you have to listen to him to figure out what riff goes where, because every G that he plays is different than the next one. And you don't really know what's going to be on the record, and what he's fooling with, and what's important But, you know, hey, I'm in for it. I like to think on my feet. This is a musical experience. Once he and R.L. Burnside are gone, that's it. It's all going to be people just like me, whether they're black or white, that grew up hearing it secondhand."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.