Morgan Davis is in love. Over the phone from his home north of Deep Cove, the veteran blues guitarist is rhapsodizing, his soft, whiskey-rough voice taking on the reverent tone of a man who is living in a dream from which he hopes he will never awaken.
But what could be the object of his adoration? Could it be one of those typical down-and-out blues subjects? A woman? Money? A guitar?
No, no and no—the man is absolutely, deliriously head-over-heels for Nova Scotia.
The Detroit-born Davis may have spent 30-plus years in Toronto honing his craft, but after listening to him extol the virtues of abandoned boats and ocean breezes, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a Maritimer born and bred.
"I have never, ever felt a place was home until I moved here," he says. "I never ached for Toronto when I wasn't there. Now, I'm in the prairies, New England, and I'm thinking, I can't hardly wait to get back to the ocean."
Nova Scotia hasn't just been a way for Davis to escape Toronto's decrepit public transit system and oppressively muggy summers. It's also been his muse, and his guide, for his latest album, At Home in Nova Scotia —and is he ever. Everything about the album is Bluenose to the core—from the songs that proudly trumpet that ship's presence on the Nova Scotian licence plate, to the photos of abandoned boats along the South Shore in the liner notes. And of course, there are the side players, a virtual who's-who of the local blues cabal—everyone from John Campbelljohn and Matt Minglewood to longtime collaborator Geoff Arsenault and Davis' 18-year-old daughter, Rosie.
To this end, Davis insists the album is a cooperative effort, intended as a love letter to his adopted home.
"All those people came aboard for just a smile," he says. "The musical community here is so open and accessible. In fact, everyone here welcomed us with open arms when we came seven years ago. There is an incredible sense of belonging and acceptance, and this album is a thank you for that."
Davis says this kind of openness was the norm amongst many of the veteran blues musicians who he watched play—and played with—as a young man in Toronto. He recalls seeing Muddy Waters a number of times, and remembers Waters always finished Toronto shows by sitting down at a table near the stage. "There was no rock-star dressing room or anything like that. Anybody in the world could talk to him," Davis says.
One afternoon, Davis was playing a Robert Johnson song for Waters' bass player, Calvin Jones, at the band's hotel. Impressed, Jones insisted on taking him to Waters' room to play the lick for the man himself.
"I said "aw, no,' but he dragged me there anyway," Davis remembers. "So I went and played it for him, and then Muddy showed me a song that I couldn't quite figure out."
This humility seems to be common among the many blues legends Davis has met during his lengthy career. "They were just very open, and generous with their knowledge," he says. "I was very fortunate. When I think of music, this is what it should be like."
Of course, not all musicians are that down-to-earth—and it's a subject that provokes just a little bit of Davis's ire.
"We are in a culture that worships celebrity," he says. "And you know what? Everyone who makes it in the music business today, they look like a fuckin' model. There ain't no crippled, overweight, one-eyed singers on the sideshow. And I know these people. And they can sing. Blues players—cuteness is not a factor. They just play till they drop."
Davis still lives and breathes that work ethic after more than 30 years. He's still on the road half a year in his truck, acting as his own manager, promoter and tech. He admits that it can be trying.
"It's very difficult to represent yourself," he says. Still, the open road continues to beckon, and as Davis shifts back into his warm recollections of solitary drives across Canada, filled with music and his own thoughts, it's easy to see that he's the real deal—an honest-to-god bluesman who plays with verve, honesty and humour.
"No retirement for me," he says. "The real thing is loving the music, not making a business out of it. The rest of it is all fluff."
Morgan Davis, At Home in Nova Scotia CD Release, July 5 at Bearly’s, 1269 Barrington, 9:30pm.
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