In recent years, the outlaw country descriptor has become increasingly nebulous. Is it a sound, a fashion style, an overarching aesthetic or lifestyle? What does it mean?
In that sense, it’s like the equivalent of punk rock, where it becomes a catch-all for musicians and artists who don’t fit neatly into either a genre-specific subculture or in its mainstream.
This brings us to Ward Davis and his new LP Black Cats and Crows. A singer-songwriter with credits that include Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Trace Adkins and Cody Jinks, Davis blurs that outlaw classification further with an album that’s equal-parts rough-hewn country and arena country-rock-ready sing-alongs.
The title track is a dark, piano-driven number that calls to mind the Elton John-Leon Russell duet “If it Wasn’t for Bad” (or really any of the ballads either of those two conjured during their early ’70s halcyon days). It’s a fantastic song that highlights Davis’ piano virtuosity and strong voice, and producer Jim “Moose” Brown adds a bombastic arrangement that heightens the dramatic tension. “Sounds of Chains,” a brawny Southern rocker, takes on the murder-and-incarceration theme. While that type of lyrical fare is well-trod ground at this point, Davis and his band offer up an inspired track that avoids falling into any of the obvious tropes.
Black Cats and Crows is ballad-heavy, full of songs steeped in loneliness, regret and hard liquor. And that style works. Davis’ skills as a songwriter were defined long before this record through his work with others, but his soulful vocals and multi-instrumental capabilities allow him to shine as a performer as well.
While Black Cats and Crows draws heavily on the outlaw sound, there’s a pair of tracks that showcase his ability to play to a broader audience should he chose to do so. It’s easy to picture the stomper “Get to Work Whiskey” being performed a handful of songs into an arena show; its power chords and easy-to-sing chorus are ready made to be played in front of thousands. Same goes for the swampy blues-rock of “Papa and Mama.” They’re both songs big in scale and appeal, aligning Davis closer to developing into a Chris Stapleton-type artist.
All of this makes Black Cats and Crows an intriguing, worthwhile listening experience. Is it outlaw country? Kinda. Is it more geared toward mainstream ears? Kinda. Is it a solid piece of songwriting and performance? Absolutely.