On the Long Path with Billy Wayne Davis
I was talking to comedian Billy Wayne Davis last year about where he was in his career after having done comedy for over a decade and he said, “I knew my path was going to take a little longer.” That self-awareness comes from the knowledge that as a Tennessee born-and-raised comic with the accent to prove it, juxtaposed with a big picture progressive outlook on the world’s most vexing issues, he would have an uphill battle to do the kind of comedy he wanted to do, especially in his current home of Los Angeles. In the course of his unconventionally persistent career he’s done Last Comic Standing, WTF, and a freedom-based road trip documentary with Morgan Spurlock for CMT. Recently he added another unique feather to his comedy cap: the full-length album Billy Wayne Davis Live at Third Man Records. Recording a comedy album in one take, directly to vinyl, is a rare experience for a comic in the digital age. I talked to Davis about the process of recording at Nashville’s Third Man Records, avoiding pandering, and his plans for 2017.
How did you get involved with Third Man Records for this album?
I had just come off tour with Sturgill Simpson and was looking for what was going to be my next thing. I had this material that I sharpened up on that tour. I was pretty proud of it. I was trying to think what I could do to get it out, so I approached Brian Dorfman from Zanies in Nashville and Sturgill’s manager and agent to see what they thought. They approached Third Man and right off the bat Third Man said, “Yeah, that sounds great.”
I was looking at the lineup of comedians who have done albums at Third Man. You’re in good company: Rory Scovel, Neil Hamburger, Reggie Watts, Conan O’Brien.
And they released vinyls from Bill Burr and I think Aziz. It’s a nice little group to be a part of. I’m honored.
Third Man Records is such a well-arranged, tightly curated label. They keep it small for a reason. I think it’s cool that they’ve incorporated comedy into their roster.
It’s very flattering because everything they do is well thought out, well produced, and well rounded. For lack of a better term, it’s pretty damn cool. I also like how they take an old technology and put a fresh spin on it.
What was the recording setup like for the live show?
The room seats 100-150, if that. They call it the Blue Room because it’s all blue and the lights are blue. You can’t take pictures without them being blue, which you can see if you get the record and the free video. It was a one-time deal. I had Chris Crofton and Erin Dewey Lennox opening for me, so I wasn’t worried about the crowd being ready. They were ready to go because they’d just seen two great comics. I couldn’t have asked for anything better that night. They were ready to go. It was a good feeling because you only get one shot when you’re doing a live record like that since they’re recording directly to wax, which is really cool, but also a little nerve-wracking.
I have a record player and listen to albums a lot, but I still have a hard time comprehending how recording to vinyl works.
Oh yeah. They took me in the back room right behind the stage and showed me the machine. The two engineers were trying to explain it to me and I was like, “Right, right,” just kind of shaking my head yes, but I had no idea exactly…they had a magnifying glass where you could see your words on the wax, little dots that the needle was reading. I’m not explaining it well at all, but it’s very impressive what they’re doing there.
Did you get to meet Jack White while you were there?
No and if you watch the video they had to cut three minutes in the middle where they flip the vinyl to record. I made a joke about how Jack is a Civil War ghost that didn’t make the album. I’ve never met him, but in getting ready for it I kind of forgot that he’s involved, because I wasn’t talking to him. But in one e-mail they mentioned, “Oh, we’ve got to run that by Jack,” and I was like, “Oh yeah, that guy. Oh my God.”
I think it’s cool that he stays so involved with everything that the label produces.
It’s his baby. The whole thing is his creation. If you get a chance, to go to Third Man Records in Nashville and you’ll see how intricate and detail-oriented the whole operation is. It gave my brain a boner because that’s how my brain operates as well. I have even more respect for what he does after working with them.
In conversations we’ve had in the past you’ve mentioned that you knew that your path was going to take a little bit longer because you were going to stick with what you wanted to do, as opposed to jumping into the box people wanted to put you in.
Definitely. I think I still kind of deal with that every day. They have an idea of what sells or what already sells and they want to put you in those boxes. It’s not art to them. It’s commerce. I’d like to say it’s by design, but I think it’s more just how I operate. I can’t do something that I don’t feel 100% about. What they want more than anything is pandering. I just can’t pander. I expect more out of people than giving them exactly what they want. Any artist — music, TV, film, comedy — that I really love doesn’t pander. They present who they are, whether you like it or not.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is what I think industry people have done with you over the course of your career: they say, “He’s from Tennessee and he’s got a noticeable southern accent. Let’s have him do country shit.”
Yeah. They’re not listening to what I say. They just hear the accent and they don’t get past that. They’re just thinking, “How can I sell this guy and this name? He’s this, this, and this and he’s got a face, so let’s put him in that.” And I’m like, “It’s not going to work. I’m telling you.” I’ve walked away and said no to a lot of stuff.
Your debut self-titled album came out in 2012. How much do you think you’ve grown as a comedian in the last four years?
I think by leaps and bounds. I’m pretty fearless about what I want to talk about and what I can talk about. My ability has gotten better to where I can articulate who I am and what I want to talk about in front of any crowd.
What are your plans now that the album is out?
I’m going to tour since all that material is done. I’ll be at Laughs in Seattle January 6th and 7th and SF Sketchfest January 25th. I’m also working on writing more for TV, just different avenues of creativity. I’ve been doing standup 13 years straight and I’d love to see what else is out there.