NASHVILLE — Patrick Davis is expeditious. He walks and talks fast. But he honors the speed limit even though were late for a set at the Grand Ole Opry, the august country music stage. His wife, Virginia Hunt Davis, is going to kill him, he says, if we miss Thomas Rhetts performance.
Davis picks me up in a big Ford F-150 Platinum Edition truck, one with an automatic step extension, from some highway hotel in some industrial part of the city a bit removed from the downtown honky tonk bars and Music Row songwriters. A Camden native, Davis moved to Nashville with Virginia a decade ago and theyve woven themselves into the fabric of Music City USA. Davis as a songwriter; Virginia as an artist manager.
Davis, who has written songs recorded by Jewel, Pat Green, Jason Michael Carroll, Lady Antebellum and Darius Rucker, is one of dozens of South Carolinians writing and recording music in Nashville. In recent years, the pace of musicians relocating here has accelerated, and Davis, who will perform at Tin Roof in the Vista on Friday, is someone many seek advice from when they arrive.
The concert, the night before USC plays Georgia at Williams-Brice Stadium, will mirror the scene at his show here last month after the Gamecocks beat Vanderbilt University to open the season: a big ole Gamecock love fest headlined by Davis, whose song Im Just a Big Ole (Game) Cock, is popular with the schools optimistic fan base.
As we drive to the Opry, Davis is wearing a blue Roger Rules bracelet, a reminder of his brother who died in a car accident in 2008 on his way home to their parents house. Davis shakes hands with just about everyone he sees backstage at the Opry, including the guy who hands out the passes that allow us to walk to the front of the house to hear Rhett perform his new single Beer With Jesus.
Rhett, who is a client of B.A.D. Management, a company Virginia co-founded, is in a celebratory mood. His self-titled EP, featuring his top 15 debut single Something to Do With My Hands, reaches No. 1 on the iTunes country album chart. Rhett, the son of respected Nashville songwriter Rhett Akins, toured with Toby Keith this year and, though it has yet to be announced, he will open for one of country musics biggest stars next year.
Those guys have their pick of who opens for them, Davis says, in reference to Rhetts talent and star potential. Hes a sweet kid. I dont know if he has any idea of whats going to happen to him.
Those guys sell out arenas like that, Pete Fisher, the Oprys vice president and general manager, says about the singers that want Rhett to open their concerts. And (Rhett) is in front of them. Hes hot right now.
Tall and thin, Davis weaves his way over to talk to Virginia, shaking hands as he goes along. She is standing near the stage wearing skinny jeans and runway-ready heels. She is with Scott Borchetta, the head of Big Machine Records, the label home of Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts. Borchetta is a B.A.D. partner.
You just met the David Geffen of Nashville, Davis says, referring to another record executive, as I follow him backstage. He stops to speak to Mike Severs, a fellow Camden native, who plays guitar in the Oprys house band.
Hows your dad doing? Severs asks Davis. Rusty Davis, who owns Davis & Sons Guitar Shop on Broad Street in Camden, suffered a stroke in 2010. Rusty has recovered and frequently plays guitar for his sons live sets, including the show last month here.
At a meet-and-greet, girls are giddy over Rhett, one of the guys who is making baseball caps instead of cowboy hats trend in country music. He still wears cowboy boots, but his jeans are designer as the squiggly lines on the back pockets reveal. Chris Young, who is part of the nights lineup, emerges from his dressing room and a handful of girls rush him for pictures.
Only in country can the fans get this close, Davis says as an Opry tour group walks past.
Hannah native Josh Turner is the headliner, but I dont see him.
A business plan
Davis calls her Ginger, the name her family used in her native West Virginia. Shes always worked hard, an attribute she learned from her grandmother, Virginia Brown, the first woman to be appointed to the Interstate Commerce Commission. Before the 1964 appointment by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the commission established to regulate railroads, trucking and other common carriers, including phone companies, Brown was the first female insurance commissioner in the country.
I saw that it could be possible for a girl to do whatever she wanted to do coming from a place I came from, says Virginia, who was raised on a farm in Kenna, W.Va. She was a great example for me to follow.
Virginia, who ran a wood chopping business as a teenager, says she began saving for a car when she was 11. When she got her drivers license, Virginia drove her Jeep Wrangler to Myrtle Beach where her parents owned a beach house. It was the summer before her senior year of high school and she wanted to finish school there. She was 16.
I looked at everything as time and opportunity, and I didnt want to waste any, said Virginia, who skipped 11th grade. My parents said, Look, if you do this, youve got to do it on your own. Well be supportive. I think they knew I could do it.
Her mother decided to move the family to South Carolina two weeks later, Virginia says. She enrolled at USC when she was 17 and graduated in December 2000 at 20. She and Davis met in a philosophy class.
He would never remember that, because he probably wasnt paying attention, says Virginia.
Her business career began at NCR, where she was a business plan analyst. It wasnt until 2003, after attending South By Southwest, the annual music conference and showcase in Austin, Texas, that she found her way into country music.
That was really kind of a changing point for me, she says of the trip. I realized it was the same as any other business.
She started a company, The Media Room PR. She went on to be the national marketing and sponsorship director for Nashville Songwriters Association International.
I learned so much about publishing, copyright protection, songwriters, says Virginia, who also organized Tin Pan South, NSAIs annual festival. And that really was a great break for me. The education I got was amazing.
Her work drew the attention of Big & Rich, country stars who hired Virginia to write the business plan for RAYBAW Records, the now-defunct label that launched country rapper Cowboy Troy. Virginia was RAYBAWs general manager for two years. In 2007, Jewel, who was having her album produced by John Rich, asked Virginia to be her manager.
At the time, Irving Azoff, the head of Front Line Management, was Jewels manager. Azoff, who Virginia refers to as the Sam Walton of the music industry, has represented a spectrum of performers, including the Eagles, New Kids on the Block, Christina Aguilera, Seal and Neil Diamond. He agreed that Virginia should work with Jewel.
This year Azoff, the executive chairman of Live Nation Entertainment, which also controls Ticketmaster, was No. 1 on Billboard Magazines Power 100, essentially naming him the most powerful person in music. Two years ago, he joined Virginia and Borchetta in forming B.A.D., which operates under Front Lines umbrella.
Its a lot of fun, but its also a lot of hard work, Virginia, 32, says. Theres not much our job excludes.
Her job is to guide the careers of potential stars such as Rhett, who calls her V.
With a new artist, certainly the challenge is getting that artist on radio and getting that artist in front of fans and seeing the reaction, Virginia says. And we direct based on what our artist wants. We certainly make our opinions known. At the end of the day, its that artists decision.
Moving to Nashville
The Davises didnt start dating until the fall of 2001, after they both had graduated from USC.
We only officially dated for six weeks before we got married, Davis tells me as he drives.
Yeah, we dated for three weeks and got engaged and then got married three weeks later, he says.
On Jan. 3, 2002. Instead of going on their honeymoon, they moved to Nashville.
Its kind of crazy and Id advise that to absolutely no one, but it worked for us, Davis, in his mid-30s, says.
Davis reasoning is this: If the couple had stayed in Columbia, where Davis wouldve been playing shows in familiar bars and hanging out with familiar people, trouble couldve arisen.
If I wouldve been doing that and been around my friends back home all the time, inevitably, the two of us, we wouldve gotten mad, and we wouldve gone out with our friends and something bad wouldve happened, he continues. We wouldve had people to fall on, to turn to. What ended up happening was we were in Nashville and so we knew no one.
We were the only two people we could depend on.
I wouldnt recommend that to anybody, because its really reckless thinking, Virginia adds. But when you know you know.
They frequently drove back to South Carolina so Davis could play gigs, anything to make money. Virginia would pick up shifts at Grouchos Deli in Five Points, she says. It was her idea to move when they did.
She told Davis: Look, Im no genius, but if you want to be a songwriter, weve got to move to Nashville.
And not make a plan to move. Just move.
If you dont leave right away, I dont think you ever do, she continues. We didnt have family to run to when things got rough. It wasnt easy. We were pretty broke for a long time.
Nashville can be a city that rewards.
Come up here, find yourself a cheap place to live, Davis advises the South Carolina natives who send him e-mails inquiring about the city. Get ready to work some crappy job and work your way into the scene because its not going to happen overnight. Everyone has gone through the exact same thing.
The first question people ask in Nashville when they meet, he says, is, How long have you been here? Your answer will proclaim your standing in the pecking order. A decade broadcasts a good spot.
I feel like were really lucky, Virginia says about their career successes. Theyre different, but we got to grow them kind of at the same pace.
Rock and roll
On the Friday morning in August after the Gamecocks escaped Nashville with a 17-13 win over Vanderbilt, Davis goes to a songwriting session at Cal IV, a publishing company on Music Row, the area of downtown Nashville where most of the country music industry action happens.
You always try to finish a song that day, Davis says. You throw ideas back and forth until one sticks. Sometimes you chase the wrong story, so to speak. You dont always hit a homerun. Its a lot like baseball in terms of you strike out a lot.
Hes writing with Slim Gambill, a touring guitarist for Lady Antebellum, and Eric Paslay, Nashvilles current Babe Ruth. Three Paslay songs Barefoot Blue Jean Night by Jake Owen, Angel Eyes by Love and Theft and Even if it Breaks Your Heart by Eli Young Band have reached No. 1 this year. Paslay earned a CMA song of the year nomination for Even if it Breaks Your Heart, a song written with Will Hoge. (Eli Young Band and Owen will perform at the South Carolina State Fair Oct. 21.)
They start at 10:30 a.m. and break for lunch at 12:30 p.m. After each they begin recording a demo using GarageBand, a software program. If they get a clean recording, then they save time and money by not having to go into a studio to record a version to shop to producers and labels. The song is titled Other Side of the Fog.
Most of the time is spent trying to record, Paslay says.
This is how it works, Davis interjects. This is the freshest it is to everyone, so you want to capture it now. Otherwise, if we came back to it tonight, it would be totally different and wed be like...
Howd it go, Paslay adds.
Paslay, who is tall with reddish blond hair that pokes out the back of his ball cap, looks for a beat loop on his iPhone to sing over. Hes the only one wearing cowboy boots. They sit in office chairs in a room bereft of wall decorations, each in front of an Apple laptop. Gambill, who has two pigtail braids, uses an iPhone app to tune his guitar.
The dudes back in the early 80s wouldve died for the technology on cell phones, Davis says.
Paslay sings lead and Davis and Gambill harmonize on the song that rhymes baby with crazy in a way that manages to not sound tired and limp. They play the song back and then debate lyric changes. One problem: the way Paslay sings fog makes the word sound like fall. The g is hard to enunciate.
Can you tell what we were saying, guy in the corner thats not there, Gambill says, turning toward me.
It sounded like fall, I say.
After another run through the song, Davis, who wanted to stick with fog, acquiesces.
I will say, other side of the fall makes just as much sense, he says.
Lyrically, when youre reading it, its great, Paslay says, reading out the lyrics, including the couplet, But maybe the sun will open up the sky and the hurt will be gone / On the other side of the fog. But singing it, its not going to interpret.
If it ever goes No. 1, half the people in the world will think its fall. And 20 percent will be fog because they actually bought it. (In the weeks after the session, they decided to change the lyric back to fog.)
Gambill shakes out a hand cramp. Theyve been playing the song for an hour.
That was it, Paslay says following the next take. Rock and roll.
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.