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CMP Feature: David Nail
Eight years after his first single briefly cracked the charts, an older and wiser David Nail has finally released his first album. This time he means business, finds, Douglas McPherson.
He’s from Missouri, and lives in Nashville, but David Nail describes his sound as California Country. “Musically, it’s smoother, kinda easy listening. But lyrically it’s maybe a tad darker than some of the music that’s out now.”
The smoothness and the darkness are epitomized by the opening and closing tracks on Nail’s debut album, I’m About To Come Alive.
The opener, Mississippi, rolls along on a prominent and striking piano line by Chuck Leavell. Right up to the chorus, in fact, it’s just Nail and the piano. The song is about a Southern man, in a snowbound New York, feeling the pull of the Delta, and until the band kicks in for the chorus, the track sounds more like a Billy Joel record than your typical Nashville tune.
The movie, Ray, about Ray Charles, had just come out when we started making the record,” Nail explains. I sat down with the producer, Frank Liddell. He asked me what kind of instrumentation I was feeling, and I just said, “Man, I hear a lot of piano. I feel like I want the piano to play a really important role, and be kind the backbone.”
“Frank knew the perfect guy in Chuck Leavell, who is arguably one of the best known piano players in the world. He was one of the original members of the Allman Brothers Band, he toured with the Stones. Once we got in the studio and he began to play, it really set the tone for what we were hoping to accomplish.”
If Mississippi exemplifies the pop edge of Nail’s ‘California Country,’ the darkness at the heart of his lyrics is now here better represented than in the closing song, Missouri.
The latter is the only song Nail wrote entirely on his own, and its deeply personal nature is self-evident.
“November’s almost over
The chill of winter’s on the way
Still I sit here on this balcony
And smoke my brain away…”
“I was between record deals and I had been going through a fairly deep depression,” says Nail. “My personal life was not too successful, and neither was my professional life. They were both, I guess, affecting each other and I had really run out of inspiration. I was back home in Missouri, at my folks’ house visiting, and I was just lying awake one night. I was in a pretty bad relationship and it was one of those things where I had realized it had reached it’s peak. It was more or less my plea that she would see that the end was a lot closer than it appeared, and maybe she would leave me instead of me having to play the bad guy and do it.”
The unflinching lyric makes it clear that Nail was to blame for the relationship’s breakdown.
“You’re waiting for the phone to ring,
Wondering which David it will be…”
I think at that point in my life everybody wondered which David are we gonna see tonight? Is it gonna be the fun, energetic, excited David who’s always laughing and joking? Or is it gonna be the depressed David who has no interest in having fun or looking at the good side of life? And moer times than not, it was the latter.”
Nail admits, “The song shows a very unflattering side of me, and a lot of people questioned why I was so adamant about putting it on this record. But it just serves as a reminder of the personal struggles that I’ve overcome, and how far I’ve come from that period of my life where my personal relationships couldn’t get any worse, to now where I’m having a little bit of professional success and I’m newly married in a really great relationship. I find it very rewarding to look back on that song and see how far I’ve come.”
Born in Kennett, Missouri, Nail got his talent and passion from music from his father, who was a high school band teacher. “My father was a huge Beatles fan. A huge British invasion guy: Hermans Hermits, The Dave Clark Five. I grew up listening to all that stuff, and a lot of Motown records and classic rock. Very early on, I fell in love with Elton John, Stevie Wonder and the Commodores. It was music a lot of 10 year olds weren’t listening to. But I guess I was old enough, even then, to realize why I was interested in music from 20 and 30 years before I was born, and maybe that was what was gonna set me apart later in life.”
The Beatles, Ellton, Stevie…The pop influence certainly shows in Nail’s music. But surely he listened to some country music too? That came with the country boom, led by Garth Brooks, in the early 90’s.
I often say I became a country fan along with everybody else in the world. The only difference was, it was 1992..and I began to wonder what was popular in 1982 or 72 and 62. I guess I researched it a little more than a lot of people. I went back and listened to a lot of those old records, and that’s where I found a guy called Glen Campbell who, to this day, is my favorite artist of all time.
“If you listen to those records from that time period, Glen is completely uniqure from everything else. He was such an admired musician as well as a singer and a performer. As far as being a well rounded artist, he was about as good as it got.
Although som e of the material on Nail’s album has the feel of a confessional singer-songwriter, it’s also a mainstream country project with a typically heavy reliance on outside songs. Some if its consistency perhaps comes from the fact that five of the 11 tracks were co-written by the same man: Scooter Carusoe, either with Nail or other writers.
“Scooter is one of my publishers as well as a very close friend of mine, and he’s probably become my mentor as a writer,” Nail explains. “Scooter is a guy who came to town and worked in various parts of the business, and I think there were a lot of people who were unware that he was creative himself. But he began writing in his downtime, I guess. Then, as the years went by, he began looking into the possibility of coming out of the closet as a writer, and letting people know that was the reason he came to town.
“I think he’s just brilliant. He has such a picturesque way of writing. When we get together, you’ll often hear me say ‘Find the Scooterism’ because he has lots of unique ways of describing something very normal and familiar. It makes for a very inspiring writing session.”
Even when he wasn’t a co-writer on a song, Nail says, “I found myself gravitating towards a lot of Scooter’s songs because they were things that I wanted to say. Rather than go, ‘I’ve got to write that song,’ and try to paraphrase it to make it pertain to my life, I just chose to record his version.
A perfect example of Scooter’s original outlook is Strangers On A Train. Co-written with Aimee Mayo, the lyric finds the narrator making eye contact with a girl on the train. He’s already spoken for, so nothing happens—they don’t even speak. But he comes away wondering ‘what if…’ I think the coolest thing aboutthat is, if we’re being honest with each other, we’ve all been in that situation. When I first heard the demo, I immediately began to think of what the video would look like, how cool that would be. Here in America, you don’t normally travel too far by train, except for the subway, and we don’t have a subway system here in Nashville. So it took me back to a lot of old movies, seeing people on trains. Also, I fly quite a bit and I’m a people watcher. It took me back a few years to when I was travelling, looking across at another car and seeing somebody that piqued my interest, just wondering what they did and where they were from and where they were going.”
Surprisingly one of Nail’s favorite songs on the album, Turning Home, was written by Scooter and one Mr. Kenny Chesney. Obviously, the song was written for Chesney to record. But when—“much to my surprise and happiness,” he didn’t, Nail jumped at the chance of recording it himself.
“That is a song that I feel really serves as a backdrop to, or a theme for, this record. You know: the small town kid who goes to the city in search of this impossible dream, up against so many odds, and so far from the type if place he was used to. Just his struggle, of finding himself and overcoming some demons…it was very much the theme of what I wanted to do on this record.”
Of Turning Home is the story of Nail’s life, thenm This Time Around, which he wrote with Lee Miller, is even more so.
“I know what you think, here we go again
The same waste of potential that I’ve always been
But this time around
I’m a little more ready
…a little bit older, a little more figured out.”
I’m About To Come Alive is the second bite of the Nashville cheery for Nail. He signed his first deal, with Mercury, in 2002. His debut single, Memphis, reached #52 on the charts. But a self titled album, produced by Kieth Stegall, remained unissued and he was subsequently dropped from the label.
What went wrong?
“You hear people say,” ‘Oh, it was just a bad time’ or politics got involved…but I don’t know that even today I know the reasons why. At the time, I was so young and green that it was probably a year and a half after I lost my deal that the light went on and I realized the significance of what had happened.”
Giving the question a little more thought, Nail decides in retrospect: “I know I was entirely too young to grasp the significance of the opportunity that was given to me. Coming from a very rural place, and never having travelled very much, I know my priorities probably weren’t in the best place. I think with age and some struggles I began to realize that if I ever got another chance, this is what’s gonna be my priority and this is what’s gonna be important. I think that experience has given me a different perspective this time around.”
Between deals, Nail concentrated more on writing than performance. He was writing songs for himself to sing, rather than pitching them to other artists, and there were times when he came close to giving up his dream of anyone hearing them.
“I always kinda had one foot in the water and one foot out. I wanted to do it, but I was scared, because my last opportunity didn’t go the way I had hoped. I’d never played around town much. But a bar owner in town had seen that I’d lost my motivation and more or less insisted that I get back out. I credit him with getting me back on stage and reminding me how enjoyable it was to just sing and have people come to see you and enjoy what you do. It re-energized me to think I could do this again.”
Asked if having a history was a help or a hindrance when he went shopping for his current deal with MCA, the artist says “I think my history was so small…people may have heard my name, but they didn’t know exactly what I did. I found that a lot of people, when they heard the record we were working on, that’s when they would go back and listen to the old project…and be amazed at how different it was. And I would say, jeez, there’s eight years there. Eight years of hard living and life and experiences and pain. It’s only natural that would come out in the lyrics and the sound of my voice.”
As we’ve heard, Nashville doesn’t have a subway system. But it’s down in a grubby looking urban subway that we find Nail on the cover of I’m About To Come Alive. His t shirt and jeans are also more city than country—a look that goes with a sound that is already one step away from the Nashville norm.
“I’ve always said that when it comes to image, you can dress however you want to dress, but the public’s gonna be able to tell if that’s you or that’s not you. It would have been easy for me to come to town and throw on cowboy boots and cowboy hate and say, here I am, I’m country music. But I think those people who wear a cowboy hat would be able to see right through that. So I always said I’m gonna be me. If you see me on the street at 2 o clock in the afternoon I’m not gonna look terribly different to how I’ll look at 10 o clock on stage. I just try to be comfortable and I think that, at the end of the day, if nothing seems too forced or out of the ordinary then the music and the look will coincide.”