Ever since The Kinks sailed to “Hawaii, in the U.S.A” on 1966’s “Holiday in Waikiki,” Ray Davies has enjoyed a relationship with America that has been fractious, loving and marked by mutual incomprehension. Like his British Invasion compatriots, the 63-year-old songwriter and singer cut his teeth on American rock ’n’ roll and jazz. As his new solo record Working Man’s Café demonstrates, Davies continues to work out his American obsession in fruitful ways. Recorded in Nashville with producer Ray Kennedy, Working Man’s Café is Davies’ most accomplished music in years. He might have doubts about America, but the South seems congenial to his disposition.
For Kennedy—whose résumé includes work with Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle—Working Man’s Café culminates a lengthy friendship with Davies, who was unavailable to comment for this article. “I’ve known him for eight or nine years,” Kennedy says. “Initially I got a call that said he was interviewing potential co-producers in Nashville. He came by the studio, and we just hung out, traded stories. We kinda hit it off, and Ray and I said we’d stay in touch.”
Another Nashville musician who developed a relationship with Davies is Nashville mainstay Bill Lloyd, a songwriter and singer who had covered Davies’ “This Is Where I Belong” on his 1994 Set to Pop collection. “He came to town, and just hung out at the Slow Bar one night,” Lloyd remembers of Davies’ December 2001 visit to Music City.
“Ray was lookin’ around to see if he might want to record in Nashville,” Lloyd continues. “So Tommy Womack and I got down there and Ray was right there at the bar. We started singing Kinks songs—like right at him—and he was singin’ along and hoisting his beer, doing the horn parts on ‘Shangri-La.’ We were just so ridiculously happy with ourselves.”
Later, Lloyd would fly to New York and audition for a guitarist’s slot in Davies’ touring band. (“They wanted me to go to Belgium or something like that, and it fell through and I never heard back from him,” Lloyd remembers.) When Davies returned to town to begin pre-production with Kennedy, he remembered Lloyd, who contributes guitar to the Café track “The Real World.”
“I had to convince Ray that we had to make the record in Nashville,” Kennedy says. While visiting England, he had recorded a track with Davies at the songwriter’s Konk Studios in the Crouch End area of North London. “I called him, went to the studio and hung out,” he says. “Next thing I know, these musicians show up. He kinda threw me in this spontaneous situation of recording.”
Davies and Kennedy recorded Café in nine days at Kennedy’s Room and Board Studios last February and March. This was a change from Davies’ 2006 Other People’s Lives, which was done piecemeal over several years at Konk. “Last year, in February, Ray came over here, and I put together a little team of musicians. I got John Hurley to help me engineer, and we recorded to two-inch tape,” Kennedy says.
The first day, Davies recorded two songs, one of which—“Vietnam Cowboys”—ended up on Café. “I don’t think he’d ever seen the process happen so fast before,” Kennedy laughs. Davies went home and listened to the mixes, approved of them, and came back in March to complete the record.
“Even though I had a residential studio out in the country, Ray didn’t want to stay in the house out in Hermitage because it was a bit secluded, and he didn’t drive over here,” Kennedy says. “So I put him up at the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza [on West End Avenue], and I picked him up every morning. We’d go have coffee and talk about what we were gonna do, and then we’d drive out to the studio.”
Kennedy says Davies brought a surplus of songs to the project. “I spent three days with Ray going to the hotel and doing pre-production,” he says. “We ended up having about 18 songs on the A-list, and had to whittle it down. There wasn’t much rewriting done, but we moved the pieces of the songs around. Between us, we took the bits and pieces of each song and put them in a fashion and an order where they had the most impact.”
The result is a dense, detailed record that’s half British Invasion daydream and half modified roadhouse stomp. “Vietnam Cowboys” begins with a strangled guitar chord and makes like a Texas two-step. “The rug says, ‘Made in Korea’ / Manufactured in the factory / Using cheap labor,” Davies sings. The title track laments the Americanization of culture, with lines such as “Looking for somewhere to fit in among the retail outlets.”
Kennedy’s ear for detail, and the allusive, assured playing of the band—guitarist Pat Buchanan, bassist Craig Young, drummer Shannon Forrest and keyboardist Timothy Lauer—allow Davies’ unique combination of lyricism and reportage to shine through. Not only are Davies’ themes American, but the music suggests a synthesis of roots-rock and Anglophile filigree that The Kinks’ 1971 Muswell Hillbillies foretold.
“A lot of the songs came out of Ray’s time in New Orleans, where he was shot in the leg,” Kennedy says. (In early 2004, a mugger’s accomplice shot Davies as he attempted to retrieve his girlfriend’s stolen purse.) “I think it’s more of an American record than a U.K. record, with some exceptions.” Certainly, “Morphine Song,” with its woozy narrative of Davies’ stay at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital after his shooting, reflects one aspect of American life.
“He likes Nashville, and he’s been here a lot,” Kennedy says. “He likes the level of talent here—the songwriters and musicians. He also likes the traditional South, and he likes the whole culture here. He’s intrigued by the combination of all the different creative forces that are gathered here from all over the country and the world.”
Still, Davies’ vision of the world remains as idiosyncratic as ever. He reflects upon his New Orleans experiences in Café’s complex, pained songs. “I was mindin’ my business when a bad situation occurred,” Davies sings on “No One Listen.” Meanwhile, “Imaginary Man” finds him walking “down to Preservation Hall looking for the old trad band.” He sees his reflection in the mirror, and wonders if he’s flesh and blood or merely a figment of his own imagination.
Café sounds more fully conceived than did Other People’s Lives. If the satire sometimes seems heavy-handed, and the reference to “Internet cafés” a bit dated, Davies engages with the world. Structurally, a song such as “In a Moment” brilliantly contrasts sections of minor and major, dark and light, and Davies displays a gift for constructing lazy but indelible hooks that ought to send Music City tunesmiths back to their Mel Bay guitar books and thesauri.
“Ray’s very interested in the literary factor of the Southern tradition. He’s very intrigued by characters,” Kennedy says. “When we were recording here, on the way back to the hotel, a lot of times we’d stop at a little gas station on West End for water or coffee. And there was a guy in there we used to run into a lot, who usually had some odd comments to make. Ray looked forward to seeing him—you know, All-Night Guy.”
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