By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch


October 8, 2004

It's surprising -- like the shocked cowboys on TV discovering that their salsa was brewed in "NOO YOARK CITY!!" -- to hear Moot Davis' throwback honky-tonk music and learn that he's a young man from Trenton, N.J.

But Davis, 29, isn't some retro-minded city boy doing an alt-country thing with a wink and a yee-haw. He's a believer who soaked up the traditional-country music of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash during summers spent with his grandparents in West Virginia.

"As a kid, I don't know that it hit me," Davis says from a tour stop in North Carolina. He plays Frederick's Music Lounge here Tuesday night.

"But when I got older and rediscovered it, I just identified with it," he says. "I just didn't identify with the music people my age in New Jersey were listening to."

The songs Davis wrote for his debut CD, "Moot Davis," are traditional in style and substance, as well as sound. They're short, about 2 1/2 to 3 minutes each; they deal with classic country issues of love (or lack of it), sex, alcohol, sin and redemption; and they're lean, telling their stories with muscle and then moving on.

Standouts include "Whiskey Town" ("I smuggled your heart across state lines"); "Thanks for Breakin' My Heart" ("and thanks for ruinin' my life and then leavin' town"); and the edgy "Last Train Home" ("that old whistle sounds like Gabriel blowing his horn").

"We were very careful not to be a retro act," Davis says. "We don't want to do anything kind of carnival-like or circuslike or tongue in cheek. It's definitely for real, it's definitely new music, and it's definitely moving forward."

Turn the clock back about 20 years, and another young singer was attempting the same feat. Dwight Yoakam was playing hard-core, Buck Owens-style honky-tonk to bikers and punk rockers in Los Angeles when he invited Pete Anderson, a young guitarist from Detroit, into his band. With Anderson producing and playing guitar, the two struck gold.

Today, when Davis turns around onstage, the guy he sees playing guitar is Pete Anderson.

"It's unreal," Davis says. "Growing up, all I would listen to was Dwight Yoakam records, and I was sort of mesmerized by the guitar playing of Pete. They (Yoakam and Anderson) just seemed to have a different thing going than anybody else. To be working with Pete, it's still bizarre and slightly unbelievable to me."

Anderson, who stayed with Yoakam until recently, formed Little Dog Records in 1993. Country singer Rosie Flores, who had worked with Anderson, persuaded Davis to move to Nashville, Tenn., from New York three years ago this month. She also urged Davis to send his 11-song demo CD to Anderson.

"A year to the day after I moved to Nashville, I was on a plane to LA to make a record with Pete Anderson," Davis recalls. "I was scared to death. I was afraid he'd send me home, that he'd realize he made a mistake. But he took me under his wing."

Before music became his calling, Davis put in time as a construction worker and pool builder while pursuing an acting career for 4 1/2 years in New York. He landed roles in such American classics as "Our Town" and "The Glass Menagerie," performing across the United States and in Europe. It was during his last year in acting that the songwriting bug got him.

"I had a string of bad cars that never had any radios in them, so I'd constantly make up songs so I wouldn't go insane," Davis says. "And they began to get better. They made some sort of quantum leap from lazy little walking poems."

Something was still missing: He had nobody to set his poems to music. So he persuaded an old construction boss to teach him some rudimentary guitar and began practicing offstage during rehearsal breaks, figuring out chords on his own.

That was just five years ago. "Moot Davis" was released last spring to positive reviews and airplay on Americana and alt-country radio. Davis says that for his next CD with Anderson, the goal will be to make a video and get play on commercial country radio.

Davis says he knows that won't be easy, but give him credit for setting the bar high.

"My expectation," he says, "is sort of like total world domination for honky-tonk music."