Patrick Davis is expeditious. He walks and talks fast. But he honors the speed limit even though we’re 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 Rhett’s 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 they’ve 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 “I’m Just a Big Ole (Game) Cock, is popular with the school’s 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 music’s biggest stars next year.
“Those guys have their pick of who opens for them,” Davis says, in reference to Rhett’s talent and star potential. “He’s a sweet kid. I don’t know if he has any idea of what’s going to happen to him.”
“Those guys sell out arenas like that,” Pete Fisher, the Opry’s vice president and general manager, says about the singers that want Rhett to open their concerts. “And (Rhett) is in front of them. He’s 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 Opry’s house band.
“How’s 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 son’s 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 night’s 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 don’t see him.
A business plan
Davis calls her Ginger, the name her family used in her native West Virginia. She’s 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 driver’s 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 didn’t want to waste any,” said Virginia, who skipped 11th grade. “My parents said, ‘Look, if you do this, you’ve got to do it on your own. We’ll 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 wasn’t paying attention,” says Virginia.
Her business career began at NCR, where she was a business plan analyst. It wasn’t 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, NSAI’s 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 RAYBAW’s 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 Jewel’s 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 Magazine’s 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 Line’s umbrella.
“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of hard work,” Virginia, 32, says. “There’s 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, it’s that artist’s decision.”
Moving to Nashville
The Davises didn’t 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.
“It’s kind of crazy and I’d 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 would’ve been playing shows in familiar bars and hanging out with familiar people, trouble could’ve arisen.
“If I would’ve been doing that and been around my friends back home all the time, inevitably, the two of us, we would’ve gotten mad, and we would’ve gone out with our friends and something bad would’ve happened,” he continues. “We would’ve 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 wouldn’t recommend that to anybody, because it’s 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 Groucho’s Deli in Five Points, she says. It was her idea to move when they did.
She told Davis: “’Look, I’m no genius, but if you want to be a songwriter, we’ve got to move to Nashville.’”
And not make a plan to move. Just move.
“If you don’t leave right away, I don’t think you ever do,” she continues. “We didn’t have family to run to when things got rough. It wasn’t 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 it’s 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 we’re really lucky,” Virginia says about their career successes. “They’re 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 don’t always hit a homerun. It’s a lot like baseball in terms of you strike out a lot.”
He’s writing with Slim Gambill, a touring guitarist for Lady Antebellum, and Eric Paslay, Nashville’s 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 we’d be like...”
“How’d 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. He’s 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 would’ve 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 we’re saying, guy in the corner that’s 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 you’re reading it, it’s 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, it’s not going to interpret.
“If it ever goes No. 1, half the people in the world will think it’s ‘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. They’ve been playing the song for an hour.
“That was it,” Paslay says following the next take. “Rock and roll.”