It's been a good, long while since a catchy hook and a simple, straightforward expression of a simple, straightforward feeling has been enough in most tributaries of rock music. If a song didn't have a knowing wrinkle, a hint of irony or a subtext — some evidence of sophistication, at least — the serious audiophile found little reason to take it seriously.
But lately, some acts who once seemed staunchly anti-pop — though not unpopular — have been lightening up. Iron & Wine traded lo-fi murmuring for lively melody on Kiss Each Other Clean; Bright Eyes gave up panoramic novellas in favor of tighter songs on The People's Key; and the Decemberists streamlined their baroque tendencies into roots pop on The King Is Dead. But Nashville's own David Mayfield takes it further than any of them — all the way back to the youthful simplicity of Buddy Holly — on his first album as a full-fledged frontman, The David Mayfield Parade.
Mayfield's just 28, but he's already spent over half his life performing onstage, beginning with a bluegrass-gospel family band that included his parents and sisters, one of whom happens to be melancholic indie country standout Jessica Lea Mayfield. They even traveled — and lived — in a bus that Bill Monroe previously owned; bunk beds were their addition.
Later, David Mayfield played Lower Broadway in rockabilly and country bands, and got hired by semi-successful country hit-maker Andy Griggs. After that, he steered his career in a more artistically satisfying direction, backing Jessica Lea and joining the forward-thinking acoustic band Cadillac Sky, who parted ways earlier this year.
He meant this album to be a side project, and that's exactly how he handled the recording of it, working when Cadillac Sky were on break from touring. "Everyone but me in Cadillac Sky is married with children," he says. "They liked to take months off at a time." And when they weren't taking time off, they were out promoting the album they'd made with Dan Auerbach — Letters in the Deep — an ambitious, unplugged indie-rock song cycle from a band with bluegrass roots.
"I think, in a way, my record was influenced by the Cadillac Sky record," Mayfield says, "because the guys in that band are musical geniuses. ... They're all classically trained or they're incredible jazz musicians, and I'm not that. I come from a background of bluegrass and folk music, and rough and fast and sloppy is how I play. So even simple songs that I had written and brought to the band got these real heady arrangements."
"I love that about that band," he continues. "But I felt like, in a way, that it was almost clouding what the song was trying to say. So when I was working on my record, I was real interested in just letting the song kind of steer the ship and not drowning something in lots of weird reverb or putting some kind of crazy effect on it. ... I just felt like I needed to just go back to a simpler way of telling a story."
Mayfield's '50s and '60s pop and rock 'n' roll sensibilities can be traced back his upbringing, which fell well outside the cultural mainstream for the early '90s.
"I've been a huge fan of music from that time period ever since I was a little kid," he says. "I used to buy records at the thrift store — I had a record player when I was 12 or 13 — you could buy them for a quarter. And I was thinking that I was discovering these people for the first time. I would come home and my dad would get home from work and I'd be like, 'You've got to hear this guy! Check him out. Buddy Holly? Jerry Lee Lewis?' And my dad was like, 'Yeah ... I think they're pretty popular.' "
Adds Mayfield, "Another thing, too, is I was home-schooled. So I was kind of the boy in the bubble. I didn't have a lot of friends who were listening to modern music of the time. ... I wasn't aware of MTV culture at all at the time."
There are plenty of pre-MTV sounds on The David Mayfield Parade, and what he does with them is both instantly appealing and refreshing. "Noreen" is a bopping, boogieing, tuneful number with a Chuck Berry-inspired solo and a girl's name for a hook. "What Do You Call It" is a jaunty pop tune with a clean and simple guitar lick. And "Udine" — another song named for a girl — is sunny analog pop. A lot of the lyrics get right to the point, and that point is the ups and downs of young love.
The difference between Mayfield's songs and what the people on those 25-cent LPs were singing is that with him there's a confessional element to go with the catchiness. He's a modern singer-songwriter, one who occasionally goes into great descriptive detail, as evidenced in the not-at-all-vintage-sounding "Dorm Room Wall."
"They're definitely all true and personal," he says of his songs. "I've tried before to just sit down and write a song out of a fictional place and I'd fail miserably. ... There's some artistic license here and there, but not much. 'Noreen' — like, that's her name."
If Mayfield's going out on a limb musically, he's got lots of support. His backing vocalists on the album amount to a small army of rising talent from the intersection of indie and roots. Besides Jessica Lea — on whose album his warm, reedy singing also appears — there are the Avett Brothers, Paleface, Michael Ford Jr., the Vespers, Caitlin Rose and a couple members of Cadillac Sky. After all, he didn't want to sing all of his duets with his sister.
"People already think we're married," he says good-naturedly. "I do so many phone interviews ... and they say, 'So now your wife's record just came out on Nonesuch. ...' I'm like, 'Can we send you a bio or something? She's my 21- year-old baby sister.' "
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