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Caught in the Web(b) of Pierce

By Joel Bernstein, January 2002

Oh no, not another tribute album!

If that's your reaction (and it probably should be by now) to hearing about a tribute to honky-tonk legend Webb Pierce, you can let out a sigh of relief. "Caught In The Webb" is a real and worthy tribute. It's definitely not one of those projects where a bunch of artists - usually chosen for their star power rather than their connection to the tributee - mail in a track recorded on their own and then someone slaps them all together into an incoherent hodgepodge of an album.

This is a record with one producer (Gail Davies) that was recorded almost entirely at a single marathon two-day Nashville session last June. That was due to a small budget (no budget actually) and also a desire to make the music sound authentic.

"I wanted to have control over the sound," Davies says from her Nashville home, "and as much as I could to make it in the same vein. I wanted to have continuity."

But she emphasizes, "I didn't want anyone to imitate Webb Pierce. People who want that can buy a Webb Pierce album. We wanted to show the influence he had on the artists."

Before each artist laid down his or her vocal track, Davies would play them the original version of the song "to put people in a Webb Pierce state of mind."

This project also has an unusually interesting cast of characters. "I get tired of seeing tribute albums with all the same people on them." Davies says. "I started thinking about people who could sing the songs whether they were big stars or not."

Participant Robbie Fulks, writing about the session on his website, described it as "a strange combination of young and old, hip to unhip to replaced hips." Hall-Of-Famers like George Jones and Charley Pride mingled with young turks like Fulks, Dale Watson and Mandy Barnett. Throw in almost forgotten former stars of more recent vintage like Crystal Gayle and Lionel Cartwright, and you have quite a diverse group.

Everyone should know about Webb Pierce. The classic honky-tonker, was country's biggest star of the '50's. His success continued well into the '60's Yet only this past year did he make it into the Hall of Fame. He did some things that annoyed a lot of people in Nashville, and a lot of people are good at holding a grudge.

You might not know about Gail Davies. She has one thing in common with Pierce - she has also irritated a lot of people in Nashville. Davies was once a successful artist, with her first 15 singles in the Top 30 from 1978-84, including 5 in the Top 10. Her first hit was a Webb Pierce classic, "No Love Have I."

"Nashville doesn't care if you're vicious and manipulative as long as you pretend to be nice," says Davies, who, like Pierce, isn't big on pretense.

However, Davies real claim-to-fame is that she was mainstream country's first (and still only) successful female producer. Except for her first album, Davies has helmed all of her records herself. Although Alison Krauss has had success as a producer in recent years, she can't really be considered mainstream country. "I thought I was breaking ground for other women to follow, but it hasn't worked out that way. Nashville is such a good ole boy town."

Davies learned her way around a studio while working as a background singer at A&M studios in the late '60's and early '70's. "I watched Joni Mitchell record 'Court and Spark' there." She credits engineer Henry Lewy with showing her all the ropes. 'He spent a lot of time teaching me."

When Davies blew out her voice in a rock band, she turned to writing ' songs. "I only knew two chords. The songs I wrote went back to my roots."

It turned out to be a good career move for Davies, who says, "If I weren't a songwriter, I wouldn't have been able to afford to live here all these years" after her hit records dried up.

After an unpleasant experience with Tommy West, the producer of her first album who was also the head of her label (Lifesong Records), Davies refused to go back into the studio with him. West wouldn't let her record without him.

Meanwhile, Emmylou Harris had brought Davies' album to Warner Brothers, who became interested in signing her. After agreeing to let Davies produce herself, Warners bought her contract.

Davies has been literally a lifelong fan of Pierce's. "I grew up on Webb's music. My father used to sing on the Louisiana Hayride (where Pierce got his start), so we were around those people. When my mom and dad broke up, mom moved to Seattle and remarried. My stepfather had a jukebox filled with country records, a lot of Webb Pierce records. I wanted to be Webb when I grew up."

Fulks, who has steeped himself in classic country music in recent years, says from his Chicago home that "I would rate (Pierce) just below Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, you know, alongside Faron Young and Hank Thompson and Carl Smith, the big 1950's stars who were really top-notch singers and had a hand in writing a lot of their material. To me, what distinguishes Webb is that his vocal style is a bit anachronistic, conjuring an era before ultrasensitive mikes and emotionally intimate singers. He's probably the last of the great 78 RPM vocalists."

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