Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Unique Life and Times of Craig Davis —Old-School Rocker and Southern Gentleman (1950-2021)

To look at a recent photograph, Craig Davis might seem to be a traditional rocker, complete with tattoos, angst, and a dream to finally be appreciated in his own time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fact is, the real Craig Davis might be slightly camouflaged beneath the ink of his choice covering up his skin, but inside was the beating heart of an old soul, a true Southern Gentleman in the grandest sense of the word. He followed his own path to provide maximum soothing of his soul that could only heal when writing and playing his music.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing many musicians away from their usual home base onstage. I was happily into my new career as a writer and editor when I first met Craig’s Mom, Mary Louise Davis, through dear friends. She was a brilliant senior, fun, witty, and she knew everything about old Bryan and Texas politics. Her stories were fascinating, and I loved each visit.

One day she treated me to lunch at the Headliners Club in Austin, founded by the former Executive Editor of the Austin American-Statesman “for those who make the Headlines and those who write the Headlines.” She wanted to inspire me to keep writing and asking questions about Texas politics. It worked.

A month or so later, she told me her son was a musician, and she spoke of his work as “tremendous” and “amazing,” even if she didn’t quite understand the relevance of his original compositions. She felt the groove and lauded it proudly as something truly grand he had achieved. God bless mothers, who believe in us even when we might falter a bit along the way. Typically, fathers are more about “Get a job, pay the bills, support yourself, and then play when there’s time left over.”

Craig (third from the left, front row above) was a few years older than I, she said, but instantly I could name eight local musicians, each of whom are legends, whom I was certain he had played with in garage bands growing up. She knew everyone I named. I always said Bryan, Texas was the start of music careers for so many professionals whose first stages were here. It would be a year or more before I met Craig, in 2002. He had just released a new CD called “Revolution Road.”

The 6’2” lanky man who came by his Mom’s home seemed a little shy and yet, with his mere appearance, her eyes lit up to see him, renewed by his presence. He’d finished up at the gym, his daily routine for about a year at that point. Mary Louise also frequented the gym. Often, she was on the golf course, beating anyone younger than her by a clear margin.

She kept her mind sharp by continuing to teach a weekly Bible study at Lakeway Church in Austin, and she was one of three women who I consider true Bible scholars that were easier for me to ask for a verse than Google.

Craig handed me a copy of “Revolution Road” his 2002 release and said, “Just got these back; I signed and numbered them all and then had them sealed. Hope you like it.” I promised to give it a listen. Mine was number 631 of 1000 and the cover featured him with trademark sunglasses on, hiding his blue eyes that were as piercing as his mother’s.

When I stood up to exit the room for a moment, he stood as well; there are some hallmarks of being brought up properly to know to stand when a woman stands…it’s old-school cool and I appreciated it.

“Revolution Road” featured 17 of Craig’s originals and Austin’s Spencer Starnes coproduced the disc with him. It was the first album I’d enjoy of his; when Christmas came around, I got his holiday single, “Christmas Time is Here Again; What Was Santa Thinkin’?"

It was clever and recorded in Austin in Spencer Starnes’ studio, with Spencer on bass and Dexter Walker on drums. The collective opinion was that his lyrics were brilliant, and he was a superb guitarist, and with all his songs, it seemed to me that he was holding back slightly his larger-than-life creativity that propelled him to want to make music.

Craig was, to me, a latter-day Michael Des Barres, if you will, with music on his own terms and his life lived loud in Panavision. I wasn’t too far off. In recent years, they have both followed each other on Instagram and complimented various songs being performed. He also greatly respected the music of Van Wilks.

In 2003, Mary Louise and I dropped by his house so I could get my copy of his newest release, “Amplifier.” As expected of a multimedia artist, the walls facing his second-floor stairway were covered with thousands of images, lacquered on.

I was dumbfounded with the litany of decoupaged photographs of musicians of so many great generations. Hundreds of vinyl 45s were thumbtacked to a corkboard surface for display and easy removal to play on a whim. His majestic collection wasn’t hermetically sealed somewhere in a safe vault. No sir, not Craig. It was just a fingertip away and in pristine, if not unconventional, condition. Not long after listening to “Amplifier,” having been impressed with “Bungalow 9,” “…and a little dog shall lead us…” and “Her Universe,” I e-mailed Craig and suggested that Kay Conlee and Old Bryan Marketplace had funded, at my request, funds sufficient for four shows for the Palace Theatre in Downtown Bryan. My goal was to draw crowds there for free, fun live music. I asked whether he’d consider playing music from his new albums in one of those slots.

This new hat I was wearing—do-good music booker—I was doing for free because I wanted to share the fun of live music and showcase our local powerhouses simply for the joy of music. He called me and we debated for 10 minutes how important it was to get his music out there, and how cool it would be to bring him back home. “He didn’t have a band,” he said. Undaunted, I said, “I know just the guys” and a quick call to The Rockafellas turned a “maybe” into a “yes.” Objections overcome, he agreed.

The night came and Craig was a bit shy as it had been at least 20 years, he said, since he was on stage. The number could have been 10 or 20 years, but still I was surprised to hear his shyness about the excitement coming his way. He'd entered some of his songs in songwriter competitions before and seemed truly shocked when they won acclaim there. Didn't phase him.

That night Craig experienced a level of happiness that alternate substances could never match—coming home one last time and showing your latest in art to the people who knew you when, many of whom were many cousins he had in his family tree who’d made Bryan their homes.

In terms of art, not only was Craig’s home wall a “work of art,” but he was a prolific artist with oils on canvas. Mostly abstract work occupied the majority of his interests, but he seemed to have at least two or three focal points per painting. You could study them for hours and see something unique in each one.

Naturally, he designed his own album covers for his CD releases, and he numbered each of the pressings along with his autographs. I cherish those albums today, even more with the knowledge of his passing.

Craig’s life as a kid growing up in Bryan was like any other whose father was a local legend and his mother a revered civic leader. You can either follow in their footsteps or take a new path of your own. Most of my musician friends among his contemporaries, I’d met as the sons of my professors in science and engineering. Equations and slide rules were not for them. Music theory and music facts were their PhDs and they were good at them.

The Beatles invaded the U.S. when Craig was 14, so his early local bands would find him playing the same high school sock hops, Battle of the Band contests and other competitions with the privilege of “ruling the town” until the next competition. He eventually kept choosing music over adulthood as time went by. Ultimately, he had tried marriage a couple of times and had two beautiful sons and a daughter as three of the best decisions he’d ever made. They are all brilliant and beautiful people of whom he can be most proud.

At a career crossroads and a new father, during mid-adulthood, he of the free will his parents had afforded him decided to join in on those being looked after by Mary Louise and Bill, for as long as he lived. Their home was home base for Craig, Jeff, and Amanda, after he divorced his first wife, Jennifer. His second wife, Pam, raised his youngest son, Dean.

Craig painted, pursued music, and worked on his art, and was in his children’s lives, more like a big brother but he was there. He didn’t have a Peter Pan complex. Far from it, Craig had a need to stay focused and true to his artistic muse, just as a sports athlete spends 24/7 focused on their careers. No one pointed fingers or grumbled. Mary Louise facilitated family with love. Craig’s children understood and loved him unconditionally.

When the final few years of Mary Louise’s life were underway, it was harder on Craig than usual. He basically gave up, midway in, knowing her life would soon end. Amanda and Jeff were her rocks of support. Craig stopped really taking good care of himself and a few old ways seemed easier to adapt than the alternative.

When his cancer was discovered in the last 10 days, his girlfriend found a comforting Hospice site for him, and he was surrounded by beautiful gardens, peaceful Austin breezes, and family who loved him. It wasn’t as long as he’d liked to have been here, but he would have pronounced his 70 years, “A good ride, all things considered.”

Epilogue…5 years ago…David Ernstmeyer, one of Craig’s friends posed a question on his Facebook page: “How did the best generation get old? I thought we were going to live forever." Craig’s poignant response: “it ain’t over til it’s over, lad.”

Well, Craig, life as it once was, is now over. Where you are now, the air is clear, as are your lungs, and beauty surrounds you wherever you go. You left us with a grand compendium of your music. You left your children with many memories of times growing up together. Wherever you were, love surrounded you. You did things on your own terms to be sure, but you remain forever an eternal creative, skilled in sharing messages nested in other messages. To discover them, one must go far beneath the surface to see the gifts and talents you freely shared. They’re there for those who seek them. And the band played on…