In 2015, thousands of residents of Chapel Hill and the rest of Orange County watched “The Voice,” NBC’s Emmy-winning reality show singing contest. I was among them, and by my lights “The Voice’s” brightest star was Madi Davis.
Davis is only 16 years old. Yet her coach on the show, Pharrell Williams, says she’s deeply artistic, soulful, a songbird. She’s got an old soul. She’s ready to cut a record right now. How is it that someone so young has tapped into the old, deep rivers of American popular music?
2015 was also the 40th anniversary of the publication of the book “Mystery Train,” by rock music critic and scholar Greil Marcus. That book, whose sixth edition has just been released, is widely considered the best ever written on American music (rock or otherwise), and is in its essence a book about folklore.
Marcus posits, among other things, that “Moby Dick,” “The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn” and “The Great Gatsby” can be viewed as intellectually and emotionally linked to Elvis Presley, all part of a unified narrative in the American imagination. That narrative speaks of desire, of questing, of becoming something more than what you were born to. The metaphorical link between these earlier masterpieces and Elvis is the song “Mystery Train,” the last one The King cut at Sun Records in Memphis.
In the pages of “Mystery Train,” Marcus also was the first to declare that Robert Johnson, the black Mississippi Delta bluesman of the 1930s, is perhaps the ur-father of rock ‘n’ roll: the farthest back-in-time true creator.
So, what does all this have to do with Madi Davis; and, why is she a star? Because somehow, at the slender age of 16, she has found and channeled our deep musical rivers, beginning with her astonishing performance of Joni Mitchell’s classic “A Case of You.”
When Davis was even younger, in the summer of 2014, she recorded a song for YouTube, “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” the pop classic by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. But Davis’ version sounds very different from the original: it’s a stripped-down performance, with her guitar so softly strumming that the whole thing feels almost a cappella.
It showcases what she’s known for: a gorgeous but quirky tone, which I wonder may have arisen from the severe hearing loss she suffered for a time as a young child. Overall it’s a remarkable rendition, all the more so because as she says in the YouTube caption, she was just fooling around with the song, enjoying a lot of time on her hands in the summer after having just seen the musical “Jersey Boys.”
And now, has come her rendition of “A Case of You”.
Over the years I had listened to this song with at best mild interest. And while I know it’s a great song by a great artist, Mitchell’s way of singing it never grabbed me, never drew me in. So, as Davis stepped to the mic on TV, I wondered what could a teen from McKinney, Texas, possibly teach a 53-year-old father of four about this song – one of love and love-sickness and grieving?
Yet hearing her version, it was like I’d never heard the song before. I was transfixed – completely absorbed by Mitchell’s story as told by Davis.
The album from which it comes, “Blue,” of course brims with the blues. So in keeping with the blues tradition, one could imagine that Madi Davis was channeling Robert Johnson by way of Joni Mitchell. Davis’ choice of notes and tempo while singing, and her feeling for and emotional connection to the lyrics for someone so young, was extraordinary.
For me the story of “The Voice” was the tale of this one tune, and the brilliant one-off interpretation of it by, as coach Pharrell says, a soulful songbird. Madi Davis rocks! She’s begun her quest to contribute to the great American songbook.
Duncan Shaw lives in Hillsborough.