With the first listen to Who Walks In, When I Walk Out? any roots fan is going to ask, “How old is this guy again?” The question’s inevitable.
It’s also unfair. (He’s sixteen.) Julian Davis would be a wonderful discovery even if he were as old as Grandma Moses.
Who Walks In reveals a young man from Pittsburg, Kansas who not only picks the blazes out of a guitar, but also writes music (and writes about music) from an astoundingly wise place. He chooses surprising covers, but he’s no archivist. Davis is a musical miner, panning gold from the records that taught him how to play.
The album opens with “Chocolate Jesus,” from Tom Waits’ The Mule Variations. Waits sings it like he’s a hundred years old, and with his careful parallel between Christ and an Almond Joy, it feels as if he’s losing touch with how religion works. But Davis belts it out as if he’s enthralled with the idea that a true savior might have the same powers as a candy bar.
That sort of confidence is also a subtle part of his two self-penned origin stories.
“Maybelline” is the story of a 14-year-old who crawls up in an attic filled with “dust and mold” and discovers a 100-year-old banjo. It’s the banjo his grandpa used to play with his own daddy, locked up in the attic after the great-grandfather’s passing. Most impressive is the way Davis captures the grandfather’s emotions in the song just as fully as he depicts the 14-year-old’s solemn respect when grandpa gives him the banjo. It takes four full lines for the grandfather to open the case and cry, a lyrical risk and a wrenching wait. It’s some wonderful storytelling.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum is “Special Delivery,” the story of a real-life mailman arriving at the singer’s door with a Pokey LaFarge record. His pure happiness from hearing the album (and Davis’s joy at learning LaFarge’s style) come through in a way that only a young man can pull off — even if answering the door for a special delivery feels antique.
Davis’s guitar work is impressive on every cut, but this is far from a hot licks record. On his own “Mr. Rain (Lock Your Door Song),” Davis opens with a flood of flatpicking that shows exactly what he can do when he wants to. The anthemic “Freeborn Man,” written by Jimmy Martin (Bill Monroe’s guitarist in the early ‘50s) gives him a chance to show off some dazzling runs between vocal lines (much as Martin did). “Dustbowl Children,” from Peter Rowan (guitarist for Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in the early ‘60s) is spare compared to Rowan’s original lush arrangement, and Davis’s guitar takes a backseat to the tale of Depression misery.
And Davis and his guitar aren’t strictly bluegrass. Several songs, including the vaguely sinister title track and his own “Secret Garden,” a comical tale about a grandma with “a peace sign ‘round her neck” who may or may not have a little herb garden tucked away, hint toward a move further into the musical past — even if it comes with a ‘60s flavor.
Whatever style, decade or genre he lands on, Davis has the talent to make it work — at any age.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.
The audio review posted above was produced by KCUR's Hannah Copeland.