Talking with Ricky & Micol Davis (Blue Mother Tupelo), a soulful songwriting team like the good old times

"My wish for the BLUES is that the blues "purists" would allow cynicism to leave their hearts."

Blue Mother Tupelo: Southerners Knights

Ricky & Micol Davis are a soulful husband-and-wife songwriting team who perform and record as Blue Mother Tupelo. The music they create is full of paint-peeled, timeworn truth that shines with driving melodies and sweet, southern tones. Between their tight harmonies and authentically spun lyrics, the Davises take listeners down dirt roads to swamp land...to places draped in lace, covered in burlap, bathed in sunlight or shadowed by night. It’s Americana roots music that’s as ready for radio as it is for next Friday’s barn dance.

Both Ricky and Micol came by their musical inclinations honestly. Micol, a preacher’s daughter, polished her natural talents as vocalist, pianist and writer in church choirs and the like. Eventually she earned her degree in music education from the University of Tennessee and set out to make a living making music. Ricky’s musical family roots set him on the path at a young age. Inspired by rootsy family jam sessions, he was drumming and strumming by age 7 and playing in just about every kind of band imaginable (marching, concert, jazz, cover) by his teen years. He began a degree in Recording Industry Management from Middle Tennessee State University and earned his stripes by forming and playing in a handful of working bands. Ricky and Micol met in the vibrant music scene in Knoxville, Tennessee. A shared love of music proved to run much deeper; the pair married in 1994 and formed Blue Mother Tupelo a year later. They’ve been making beautiful music together ever since.      (Photo by Kristian Dambrino)

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you? 

MICOL: That I am human & there's beauty in humanity; That I am a sinner & there's redemptive qualities in the honesty of blues. 

RICKY: The Blues reflects our humanity. These are songs of truth, about life experiences. Real folks live or have loved these songs. I can't imagine that anyone has never had the blues - maybe so but I think it's very few folk. Blues music brings sweet soul relief!

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD SONGWRITER?

MICOL: Well, that's a different way of looking at it. I would hope that the simplicity (that it's been said) I bring to the forefront in my songwriting is a reflection of the importance I put on what is really going on inside of me as a result of what's going on outside of me … & vice versa. Too, my hope is that it is Real and Open and that there's an empathy that occurs naturally between me & any listener that I am bestowed to share with.

RICKY: Songwriting is a gift. Just like all gifts, talents, trades, crafts, etc. - everyone can't do it. I wholly believe that everyone is blessed with a unique gift. Only the folks who have been blessed with the talent of songwriting can write good songs. With that said, every life experience has song potential. Life is a song.

"...every life experience has song potential. Life is a song." Photo by K. Dambrino

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?

MICOL: Inspiration for my songs comes from my own experiences, whether personally or from my perception & perspective of what is going on around me. I have never been one to write fiction. Usually I am in the middle of some daily, mundane task (maybe driving, cooking, cleaning, whatever) & the motive & emotion hits me with something that describes a feeling or experience & I break out into some melody. I have always LOVED the simplicity of some of my favorite writers/artists like The Staple Singers, Jimmy Reed, Bruce Springsteen, & the underlying depth of life which pervade those lyrics & music. The spirituality of Van Morrison; the celebration of Delaney & Bonnie; the art of Johnny Mercer; the hypnotism of Junior Kimbrough; the energy of Muddy Waters. And then there are those who offer other things … my list could & should go on & on, but I'll stop for time's sake. I hate to leave any influence out. 

RICKY: Inspirations for the songs I write come from everyday living. Any life experience can turn into a song. And sometimes, a song can be about something someone else is going through. I've been asleep and awakened by songs in my dreams. My song, "Runnin' 'Round" was one of them that came to me in a dream. In my dream, I was at a concert of the STAX Memphis Soul duo Sam & Dave and they were singing that song to the audience I was in. The crowd was going wild! I looked around and it occurred to me that I wasn't even in my life's era. I wasn't alive when they were performing. How did I get here!? The song rocked so hard that it woke me up from my sleep! I grabbed the tape recorder next to my bed and sang it into that. I recalled singin' the song into my recorder the next afternoon. I went back, listened to it, checked out all the Sam & Dave STAX recordings I could find and they never recorded or performed that song … so, low & behold, that song was delivered to me by Sam & Dave!

"We are only beholden to do the work of our hearts which, we hope, comes from the DIVINE CREATOR."

How do you describe Blue Mother Tupelo sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

MICOL: My music philosophy has always been to NOT try to be anyone else. There are feelings I'd love to capture that I hear in the music of artists I love but, in the end, I must only be myself. We have evolved & progressed into that to a greater & greater degree, I think. But the funny thing is - we are STILL being "caught on to" & "discovered" by other artists & there is the influence of us on others, even at this juncture. 

Our sound is an immense conglomeration of a variety of influences which are certainly southern … Our sound entitles the listener to think, feel, sway, stomp, cry, rejoice, worship - many human things. We are not beholden to any specific STYLE of music & do not EVER wish to be. We are only beholden to do the work of our hearts which, we hope, comes from the DIVINE CREATOR.

RICKY: We don't concern ourselves too much with trying to define who we are musically. We try to stay out of the way of the music and just let it all flow freely. I reckon, if I were going to describe our musical style, I'd have to say that it's Southern music. When I say "Southern", I mean the American South. Both Micol & I grew up in the South and the experiences & music we grew up with manifests itself in our creativity. It's who we are, Southerners.

Tell me about the beginning of Blue Mother Tupelo. How did you choose the name and where did it start?

MICOL: The beginning of Blue Mother Tupelo was a sweet time for me. It was my first band … we were in the throes of the blues, but discovering our own sounds with the goal of self-expression & growth. I wasn't a young girl when I started into it, which is interesting to me now looking back. And, I kind of like realizing that. However, I had a lot to learn. Those first shows, though, were like magic. Seems like there were some very special moments between us & our audience during those early days.

RICKY: Micol & I started makin' music together in Knoxville, Tennessee, my hometown. We both knew that music was in our souls all our lives. We married, and were singin' at home, writing songs & such. There was an open mic songwriters night at this joint called Sassy Ann's. I told Micol that we should go sing a few of our songs there. We set out to do that on three separate occasions. Micol backed out twice. The third time we were heading to Sassy Ann's, I told Micol that if we didn't go over there and sing that night, we'd never do it. Well, we did and it all went very well. The club owner asked us that night if we'd like to do a weekly show there. We thought about it and agreed to do that. Pretty soon we had brand-new BMT music-lovers showin' up. Then we hooked up with a bassist and drummer, started touring the South & ain't stopped since. Thankfully, we've been building up a following of music-lovers all around the world and we are extremely grateful!

As for the name, Blue Mother Tupelo, we decided early on that perhaps Ricky & Micol Davis aren't names that would make someone want to see us if they didn't know about our music. We figured that we needed a name that meant something deeply soulful to us, that represented us musically; so we came up with Blue Mother Tupelo. The name came from our love of the down-home Mississippi Blues, which is at the heart of all our music. Micol grew up for a while in Indianola, Mississippi as a little girl. That's the same place where the Kings grew up - Albert King and B.B. King. Some of Micol's family comes from North Mississippi; they live around Tupelo. And Tupelo was the birthplace and childhood hometown of The King of Rock & Roll, Elvis Presley.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music?

MICOL: God.

RICKY: I learn more about music and life every day. I learned the most musical tips/secrets from my Dad.

"The name (Blue Mother Tupelo) came from our love of the down-home Mississippi Blues, which is at the heart of all our music." Photo by Amanda Carmichael

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

MICOL: There are have been times when the crowd has been moved to stand up for us & give a "Standing Ovation", which at times is completely overwhelming. Sometimes I am overcome by a lyric and the emotion in the room & break into tears. Honestly, I don't remember when those times were/are specifically. I do not celebrate those occasions as well as many might nor do I revel in them as my intention is that I should move on to the next occasion & not think on it too long … 

Worst times? Well, any time the sound is messed up (whether due to an awful sound system, set-up, engineer, etcetera) & we cannot hear, & the equipment is plugged in for the sake of helping us all to hear & for the sounds to be shared … that usually makes for an awfully UN-FUN time.

RICKY: I hope & pray that the best is yet to come in our music career. Thankfully, we've had many personal highlights! A couple of the best moments for me personally so far were playing my guitar while Otha Turner danced in front of me yelling in approval for me to, "Turn it up!". That was awesome! It was awesome knowing him & so many other phenomenal musicians that I know. Another highlight was going to the Hollywood premiere of the movie, "Daltry Calhoun", which we have a song in the movie. There are so many highlights, I'd like to write a book about them someday.

The worst moment, well, I can't narrow it down to a single thing. When you're on the road performing everywhere from beautiful downtown historic theaters & cool festivals to smoky beer joint roadhouse jukes, you better believe there's gonna be some rough & rocky travelin'. I believe the good Lord's leadin' us in the direction He wants us to go. Yes, sometimes things can get pretty tough but what don't kill me makes me stronger. The good always outweighs the bad, by far. It's all a blessing.

Are there any memories from Delbert McClinton, Leon Russell, T-Model Ford, Willie Nelson, Robert Lockwood Jr., and Tony Joe White, which you’d like to share with us? 

MICOL: My most personal memories have to do with time spent with T-Model. He's quite the character & "Ladies Man" … jealous of any man within shot of a woman who might pay him some attention. 

RICKY: Well, with most shows, each performer don't get to visit much with the other performers on the bill. Usually, they are getting ready for one thing while we are getting ready for another thing.

I do have many wonderful memories of good times jammin' together with T-Model Ford. He's a good friend that Micol & I cross paths with from time to time.

Talking with Robert Lockwood, Jr. backstage was a treat. He was a kind gentleman and still sounded wonderful! And he said nice things about our music. It was awesome hangin' out with him that night! Ya know Robert grew up with Robert Johnson, literally in the same house; recorded on Chess Records; collaborated with the great Sonny Boy Williamson II and worked with Little Walter!

Another wonderful friend of Robert Johnson's, who I got to know quite well as we shared gigs together was David "Honeyboy" Edwards. Honeyboy and I shared a gig with some other musicians down in Baptist Town in Greenwood, Mississippi. It was an amazing experience playin' the Blues one block from where Robert Johnson was born! Honeyboy & I had us a chicken & collard green supper after we all finished playin'. He put his WC Handy Award on the table while we ate. It was awesome!

Another great musician I met was "Pinetop" Perkins. We did Pinetop's homecoming at the Hopson Plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi for several years. Pinetop was a cool cat! It was awesome for me personally to know that I was in the presence of him and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, both who played with my musical hero, Muddy Waters!

Tony Joe White is still the rockin' swampy guy he's always been and that's a danged GOOD thing in my book!

Otha Turner was a mentor, a music hero of mine and a friend. It was an honor getting to know him and makin' music down on his farm. We jammed together down there and here in Nashville. He was in his mid-90s with a flare for livin' more than some average 30 year-old. He'd sip some moonshine and dance, sing and play that fife. Man, I sure miss Otha! It makes me want to cry to think that he's no longer with us on this earth.

Getting to meet Billy Cox (Jimi Hendrix's Band Of Gypsys bassist) after a gig we shared was awesome! God knows that Jimi's one of my all-time favorites. As well, getting to meet Mitch Mitchell (after his Nashville gig) was a highlight. Mitch was such a kind English gentleman. He struck me as a no-nonsense kind of guy and I appreciate that.

I am extremely grateful anytime I get to share moments with my musical heroes.

Ricky and Micol with Billy Cox (Jimi Hendrix's Band Of Gypsys)

Which memory from recording time makes you smile?

MICOL: Recording the piano "live" on a song that very well may end up on our next release where-in the phone rings & it is my mother. You can hear the conversation as the microphones picked up our voices very well … that ended up being very appropriate for the song and a very serendipitous moment.

RICKY: I'll tell ya what makes me smile; it's when I know that we are hittin' the note! I mean, when we've really found a cool groove in the studio. Recording a song is like childbirth. I mean, it's a deep-soul process. When I'm producing a song, I know when that song's ready when it feels so good that I begin to cry. I figure if this song can make this grown man cry, I'm onto something.

One of my fondest memories of my time in the studio so far is when one of my all-time favorite saxophonists, Bobby Keys (who's played on countless recordings and toured with The Rolling Stones, Delaney & Bonnie, Joe Cocker and others) played his saxophone on our Blue Mother Tupelo recordings. He's a mighty cool cat! He played the awesome sax solo on my song, "What She's Doin' To Me" on our album "Delta Low Mountain High". I'm humbled & honored that he joined us on that song!

Other than that, every time I get to hear Micol sing is a natural treat! She is the tops! And I'm certainly not just saying' that because she's my wife. I put her vocal quality, soulfulness, songwriting, piano-playing & all around musical talent up yonder with the likes of Etta James, Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, Tammy Wynette and Aretha Franklin. Micol is a gifted, phenomenal talent!

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

RICKY: The best jam I ever play on is the next time I get to play music.

Oh my, that's hard to answer because really, we've done so many gigs and yet every gig has it's unique memories that pop-up in my mind from time to time.

What are you thinking when you are on stage, how would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

MICOL: Mostly, I would rather not think too much. I like it when I am comfortable in my own skin & able to get OUTSIDE of myself … these are the times when my contact with people is the most genuine.

(Photo by Leslie DiPiero)

RICKY: As long as we've had a good soundcheck and the sound is cool onstage and therefore copacetic, I'm not thinkin' anything. I'm floating through the air with the music flowing through my soul providing the updraft.

Why did you think that Music City Sound continues to generate such a devoted following?

RICKY: There are many wonderfully-talented people here in Nashville. Much of the music that comes from Nashville has a realness and a freshness to it that I think folks can relate to. Great song stories being written and recorded is at the heart of it. There are so many awesome songs in this town that most folks have never heard. Yep, it all boils down to the song.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

MICOL: My wish for the BLUES is that the blues "purists" would allow cynicism to leave their hearts. The blues had a baby & they called it Rock & Roll … It is RAW emotion. It does not have to be the same as it ever was. It is to be revered, however, and it is to be felt. 

RICKY: As long as there's a heart beating somewhere, there'll be the blues. I believe just about everyone gets the blues. Sometimes I think just about everything gets the blues. Sometimes I can feel the blues in the air. But also, I think Blues music is uplifting because I think that experiencing the blues that we inevitably go through in life helps us to appreciate the good things in life. I think that Blues music, when it is in it's purest form, is extremely uplifting music. I know I've seen a whole lotta butts movin' to it many a-night and I've seen people havin' good times to the Blues.

Give one wish for the BLUES

RICKY: My wish for Blues music is the same wish I have for all music and all things in life and that is, to get back to what's real. Be REAL! Make it REAL! Keep it REAL!

"Happiness is ... freedom, liberty, peace, love, harmony."

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? What is your MUSIC DREAM? 

MICOL: I love home. Free time for me is messing around at home … trying out new recipes, curling up with my dog & cats, dreaming of gardens & good food & family. 

My MUSIC DREAM is that I will remain real & honest & that I might be able to bring some light into the lives of other human beings. 

RICKY: I love driven' my ol' truck on the backroads. I love visiting' with family & friends. Hangin' out on my back porch drinkin' some iced tea or a cold beer. I love goin' fishin'. I love bike riding. My free time is very limited though. Most of the time I'm doin' what my calling is and what I love and that is makin' music. But yes, I do cherish family time.

My personal music dream is to always have a song to sing and play, to always write new songs that speak to souls, and to always make my living makin' my music.

Happiness is…

MICOL: Happiness, for me, is … recognizing the glory of God in every thing.

RICKY: Happiness is … freedom, liberty, peace, love, harmony.

What would you ask Van Morrison? 

MICOL: I would like to know what his prayers are. 

RICKY: If he shared a moment in time with me, I'd ask Van this: May we sing & play some music together? And if we are moved to, may we write a song?

"My music dream is that I will remain real & honest & that I might be able to bring some light into the lives of other human beings." 

How you would spend a day with Willie Dixon?

MICOL: I'd like for him to cook us lunch or dinner on a Saturday afternoon & us just spend the long evening in revelry, music, laughter and what I imagine would be some amazing soul food.

RICKY: If Willie was still with us, I'd love to make music with him, have him over to my studio and record some funky good stuff! I would've loved to have written with Willie too. I'd definitely offer Willie a glass of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey! I'd do the same for Van Morrison as well.

What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from Delaney & Bonnie era?

MICOL: FREEDOM and Grit & Natural-ness & Down-Home Soul Shine. No pitch correction. Real playing & singing & SHARING. Sweat & Tears.  Blood & Bones. Joy & Kin.

RICKY: I miss the gettin' down to the real nitty gritty like folks used to. There was only one Delaney & Bonnie. They inspired so many. And can you believe that they are not in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame? That's incredibly unjust! Micol & I both grew up in households with D&B records. Our Dad's were big D&B fans. That's music that we 'teethed-on' when we were babies. We always loved their music and always will!

Several years back, I wondered what in the world ever happened with Delaney. Low & behold, we ended up becoming friends with a close friend of Delaney's. Then, Delaney & I became pretty close during his final years on this earth. We kept in touch through emails and phone calls. Micol & I met him in Clarksdale, Mississippi about a year before he passed on over to Heaven. Delaney & us were makin' plans to have him sing on one of our songs on our "Heaven & Earth" album but he quickly became too ill. His wife told Micol & me several times that Delaney would ask to listen to Blue Mother Tupelo's music while in his hospital bed, gravely ill. When she told us that, I was absolutely breathless! It touched me deep down to my very soul! That warms my soul so much that words just cannot describe! Micol & I dearly loved Delaney! He was phenomenal!

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