Caught in the Web(b) of Pierce

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."

In February 2001, WSM (Nashville) deejay Eddie Stubbs did a special program about Pierce, and Davies was one of those invited to talk about Pierce's importance. She mentioned on the air that she would love to do a tribute album to Pierce, and the next day had an email from his daughter expressing enthusiasm for the project.

Davies then tried to find a label that would put it out.

'Major labels weren't interested. They didn't think there was any money to be made on it. When I told them all the money was going to charity, they really weren't interested."

By this point, Davies was determined. "I called all my friends. I said you have to do it for free. Everyone said yes. I told everyone they'd have to do their vocals in one or two takes. Only a couple of people dropped out." (Davies recounts that one manager called her up and asked incredulously, "You mean he'll actually have to be able to sing?").

Davies rounded up veteran backup including bass player Bob Moore. "He played on some of Webb's original tracks." The Jordanaires, Hall of Famers in their own right, sing on four tracks. "On Matt King's song ('Even Tho') Pat Bergeson played a Chet Atkins tribute on his solo. All the solos were live."

"We didn't know if anyone would put out the album. I had artists come in every hour. We cut the whole album for free. The only thing we had to pay for was the studio time, and Mike Curb Studios gave us a very good rate. My husband and I put up $6,000 of our own money."

Davies ran into Audium Records head Nick Hunter at a grocery store. "I told him about the album. He said, 'Bring it to me.' I said that all the proceeds were going to charity, and he took it for a distribution fee."

The toughest part about a project like this is getting it organized. Not only do you have to figure out who's going to be on it, but you also have to determine who gets which song. Davies had reasons for choosing her artists.

"George (Jones) and Willie (Nelson) were friends of Webb's. I first met Webb on Willie's bus. I wouldn't do the album without Willie. I wanted to get Robbie Fulks because my son (musician Chris Scruggs) and his girlfriend said he was cool and did "Tupelo County Jail" in his live sets. Allison Moorer - what a voice! She was opening for Dwight Yoakam when I went to ask him. I wanted a woman to do "Back Street Affair," and she had to sound tough. Allison said 'You were my mother's favorite singer. (Sister) Shelby (Lynne) and I grew up on your music. Billy Walker (another Pierce contemporary) is a great singer."

There were also some unconventional choices. "Crystal Gayle is a very underrated singer. People think of her as just a pop singer. She grew up in the same house as Loretta Lynn. I toured with Lionel Cartwright in Europe in the early '90's as part of 'Nashville Unplugged.' I met my husband on that tour."

Matching artists with songs could also be tough. Davies talked about how she lost Mark Knopfler. After having to take one song away from Guy Clark, Davies assigned him "Honky Tonk Song." When Knopfler called asking for that one, Davies didn't want to take another one away form Clark.

Davies the producer almost lost Davies the singer, as well. "I was willing to approach it more as a producer than an artist. Everyone assumed I would do Webb's signature song 'Slowly' myself. I produced Mandy Barnett at Capitol when she was a teenager. I knew she should do it. Then I had 'No Love At All,' but Pam Tillis wanted to do one of her father's songs (Mel Tillis wrote or co-wrote many of Pierce's hits), so she got that one. I was left with 'Love, Love, Love.' I originally cut that song that when I was at Warners, but it never came out."

Almost everyone recorded their vocals during the two-day session. Davies traveled a bit to get Nelson's vocals on his bus with a portable 16-track recorder, and Yoakam did his own vocal and sent it in. "I've known Willie since I sang with Roger Miller. His daughter used to date my ex-husband. Willie did his vocal. I asked him to do it again. He looked at me funny, but he did it, and that's the one we used. When I told that to Dwight Yoakam, Dwight said 'You're kidding. Willie never does two vocals.'"

As for the other singers, "I told everyone 'I don't want to talk to your manager or your record company.' I'm not going to hassle with some person who thinks they're a big deal. Everybody checked their ego at the door. They did everything to cooperate. George Jones was an absolute doll, the easiest to work with hands down."

It was quite a challenge in terms of being a producer. "I had to deal with a different personality every hour."

Davies, whose own music has been leaning heavily towards bluegrass recently, is hoping to revive her recording career as well. Her recent "Unplugged" album is marooned in a sea of legal problems, but she hopes it will be officially released at some point.

Davies is also championing the Hall of Fame credentials of Carl Smith "He was the biggest singer in Nashville when Webb came to town. He was Elvis' favorite singer. He wouldn't kiss ass. He got out of the business and rides horses. It's a crime that someone of his stature is not in the Hall of Fame".

Davies has been such an outspoken champion of him that some people assumed she would do a Carl Smith tribute album next, but she squelches that idea. "I don't want to become known as the producer of tribute albums. This was a love-of-my-life project."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •