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Rachael and Dominic Davis On Love, Music and Michigan

Rachael and Dominic Davis

If you’ve ever wondered in idle minutes what rock star and vinyl prophet Jack White was like when he was in sixth grade, there’s a fellow here in Nashville who can tell you. Dominic John Davis remembers meeting the former John Anthony Gillis back then, because he was at a new school and their moms knew each other from working at the Archdiocese of Detroit.

“He was wearing a Doors shirt or something like that,” Davis says of the future rock star. “And then it wasn't soon after that we were recording. I mean, maybe a year later, we were recording in his attic. You know, he always had this crazy work ethic. So it was even back then it was like we were kind of going to work, you know, making records.”

An even more fateful meeting of Dominic’s story, as told in Episode 203 of The String, led him to his wife, singer and songwriter Rachael Davis. In a variety of ways, together and separately, they’ve been making Nashville music better and more interesting since moving to town in 2012.

Rachael is also a Michigan native, but her story begins a world away in the rural northern town of Cadillac. “We call it Cattle Tracks. Because it's a farm town,” she says in the conversation presented here, held in their Belmont area home. “It's near Lake Michigan. It's rural and pretty out of the way but there was an amazing artist community there. My mom was an elementary school music teacher, and my dad was like the guy that gave everybody in town guitar lessons and banjo lessons.” Indeed they had a family band, an old-time folk outfit called Lake Effect, which she joined at age 8. Rachel grew up around picking parties and festivals, singing everywhere, all the time.

Rachael “left the nest” at age 21 and went to Boston where the vibrant folk scene welcomed her warmly. She was soon granted the Boston Music Award for Best New Singer/Songwriter. She released her solo debut Minor League Deities in 2001, and while that was a fairly straightforward northeastern songwriter album (with touches of banjo and swing), her output since has had a comforting retro feeling that signifies her love of traditional jazz.

“My dad bought me three CDs, and I have no idea to this day what prompted him to get these for me, but he got me an Ella Fitzgerald songbook, Louis Armstrong's Greatest Hits, and Sarah Vaughan. And he said, listen to this, it'll change your life,” she says. “And I couldn't stop listening. I was just ravenous. And I absolutely fell in love with that music, and that, to this day, is I feel where my deepest musical heart is.” You can hear it in Rachael’s final track in The String, a stunning version of the traditional tune “Careless Love” included on the 2019 album Amour by Colin Linden and Luther Dickinson. And her two other solo albums, Antebellum Queens and Bandbox Jubilee draw from that timeless musical toolbox as well. Rachael’s most recent release was with her trio the Sweet Water Warblers, consisting of fellow Michigan natives Lindsay Lou and May Erlewine, which we covered in 2020.

Dominic meanwhile attended Michigan State in Lansing to be a music librarian, but he took a pause from that to pursue music harder and wound up touring and holding down the Lansing music scene for more than a decade with his string band Steppin’ In It, an inspiration, as we learned in String 196, for then local band Greensky Bluegrass. Davis reconnected with Jack White after White moved to Nashville following the wrap-up of the White Stripes, famous for not having a bass player. Dominic has conspired with White on several albums (we hear the title track “Lazaretto” where his bass is particularly prominent) and special projects like tracks for the American Epic series that revived early recording techniques and songs. Dominic also became a key man in the house band for the TV series Nashville overseen by Buddy Miller.

There’s a lot more about projects they’ve pursued together and the ways family and Music City have shaped their visions and their current work. Dominic is doing more record producing, while Rachael is writing a new album with some new inspiration from her upright piano. It’s one of the warmest conversations we’ve had on the show in a while and I believe you’ll find the Davises as charming as I do.