Leaping into the Waterfall
Leaping into the Waterfall
A Q&A with David Mayfield
By Geoff Gehman
David Mayfield’s musical mantra fits on a bumper sticker: Just Jump In. He jumped in as a rookie guitarist, learning chords on the fly during a concert with a family friend of his family bluegrass band. He jumped in as a Nashville newcomer, picking up a job with a popular country singer after he taught himself to play banjo. And he jumped in as a headliner, moving a North Carolina show into a women’s bathroom, where lucky listeners heard a handful of encores and comments about the politics of transgender lavatories.
For Mayfield, every gig involves a leap into the waterfall. The host of the David Mayfield Parade performs his tuneful, tuned-in songs with a keen, catchy voice and a spring-loaded, slashing guitar, sometimes in front of the stage, surrounded by spectators. He polishes his reputation as a masterful master of ceremonies with charmingly lo-fi magic tricks. Even his feral, civilized beard has its own personality.
A sort of Dave Matthews of newgrass. Mayfield will lead his Parade on June 11 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, where last summer he swallowed a microphone. Below, in a conversation while driving from Cleveland to his home in Akron, he discusses his attraction to house concerts, the attraction of wedding couples to his song “Breath of Love” and his non-attraction to the tune “Wagon Wheel.”
Q: Last night I watched the YouTube video of your show last July at Mauch Chunk, which you capped with a trick where you bent your back to swallow a microphone. Does the trick have a special name?
A: I call that “The Sound Man’s Delight” just because the sound men always love to handle that microphone after the show. It’s one of those illusions that has grown over time. It started out maybe not quite as evolved and has become a beast all its own, an out-of-body experience that controls me. It’s probably nothing that most of the other performers at Mauch Chunk haven’t already done. It’s a pretty standard Americana bit; it’s its own genre.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely laid you flat?
A: It’s a strange one: “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash. I grew up in a musical family where my mom and dad were professional musicians. I was eight or nine and we were traveling in my parents’ big old van filled with musical equipment. I was probably sitting on a speaker, holding onto a subwoofer, when I heard “A Boy Named Sue” on the radio; this was the early ‘80s, a time when you didn’t hear it much on the radio. It’s a funny story song and I just laughed and laughed and laughed. That’s the song that got me interested in songwriting, in checking out songs for the lyrics. It led me to discover great songwriters like Randy Newman and Roger Miller and Paul Simon.
Q: What songs did you perform in the family band that still give you nourishment, that serve as wells when you’re feeling dry?
A: My parents play a place in Ravenna, Ohio on Tuesday nights. Last night I played with them for the first time in a long time. It’s really special that we can go months and even years without playing together and then we get all the old inflections in these old songs just right. It’s that family connection; it’s probably the big reason that our family is so close.
My parents were sort of in that hippie bluegrass world. It wasn’t so much the world of the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs; it was more like the world of Peter Rowan, Bela Fleck and Tim O’Brien. I was the one who introduced Southern gospel to the band because I was obsessed with quartet singing. We were a foursome and I was the one who said “Dad, you sing bass and I’ll sing these parts…”
Q: Who are your singing role models, your vocal mentors?
A; My dad obviously would be the first influence; he was singing around the house all the time. Then I started getting into Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs. Then I sort of branched away from bluegrass into Neil Young and Roger Miller and James Taylor. It definitely all comes from building on that foundation of bluegrass and old country.
Q: You’re largely a self-taught guitarist who picked up odds and sods by listening to and watching older musicians. What’s the best piece of verbal and/or visual advice you received about playing the guitar?
A: When I was really young all I knew how to play was a G chord and a D chord. I remember we went to a bluegrass festival with a family friend named Paul Kovac, who I just played with today at Walnut Wednesday [in Cleveland]. I was sitting with my little acoustic guitar when Paul ushered me onto the stage. I told him “I only know G and D chords” and he told me “Just play them when they come around.” I took that advice to mean: Jump in even if you don’t know what you’re doing–and then figure it out. If an A minor chord came around and I didn’t know how to play it, people would show me how to play it.
This “Jump in” attitude helped me 10 years ago when I moved to Nashville. I auditioned to play with a country singer named Andy Griggs. He liked my guitar and mandolin playing and he loved my harmonies. He told me: “If you can play banjo, you’ve got the gig.” I said I did, even though I didn’t. That night I went out and bought my first banjo. I figured it out and got the gig. I played with Andy for two years and the Grand Ole Opry 12 times, all because I jumped in.
Q: You’re well known for bringing the show to the crowd by performing below the stage, surrounded by listeners. Can you remember an unusually off-the-wall off-stage situation?
A: On the last big tour I played a place in Asheville, N.C., called the Gray Eagle. This was right after the beginning of the controversy over transgender bathrooms in North Carolina and I decided to take the encores into the women’s restroom. There were maybe 150 people absolutely jamming the place, sitting on the floor and toilets and sinks. I performed four or five songs, including “Breath of Love” and “Long Black Veil,” which was a request. People all the way in the back were yelling: “You’re trapped and we’re not going to let you out until you do what we want you to do.”
I love breaking the wall, unlocking the door between audience and performer. When it comes down to it, we’re all just people in a room and one of us is making noise.
Q: We all know, you in particular, that the road for a professional musician can be an awfully cruel place. What do you do to stay comfortable and sane while living out of a suitcase?
A: When I’m driving, I listen to podcasts all day. They really engage my brain, even if I’m not part of the discussion. If I’m riding, then I’ll listen to music or I’ll write songs. I’ve written a lot of my songs in the back of the van with a notebook and a pencil. I keep the melody in my head until we stop, then I get a guitar and play it and write it down.
Q: You play an unusually large number of house concerts. Do they help keep you comfortable and sane by giving you a little taste of home?
A: It depends on the place and the people. Sometimes house concerts are really emotionally draining. You’re with a small, intimate crowd pretty much all day and night and sometimes you just need to be alone. And yet I love the spontaneous nature of going into someone’s house and having a little cheese and wine and picking up a guitar and playing songs for strangers who care. I like being close and present and connected as opposed to being looked at through some kind of glass dome.
Before this tour, the most house concerts I had ever done was two. This time the plan is to do 20. I’m calling this my Home Invasion Tour. I love doing new things; I love changing things up. I’ve never made the same record twice, never written the same song twice, never played the same show twice, so why play the same rooms? There are different ways to bond with people outside theaters and clubs, different adventures to be had.
Q: What was your worst time in the music trade, when life was way more difficult than it had any right to be?
A: Probably the darkest musical time I ever had was when I first moved to Nashville. I was playing on Broadway, where you have maybe 20 bars with live music all day for free. It’s a tourist trap and the bands do four-hour slots. There were a couple of weeks when I was playing 12 hours a day. I played mandolin for four hours with a bluegrass band and then electric guitar for four hours with a country band and then standup bass for four hours with a rockabilly band. That went on for seven days a week and I was only making 15 bucks a day.
The country guys were sexist and the rockabilly guys were incredibly racist. I’m 22 and hanging out with these awful people, playing music I don’t enjoy for grueling hours for tourists who don’t care. It really made me think: Why didn’t I ever go to college? What am I doing with my life?
I remember the country band was playing one of Toby Keith’s let’s-put-a-boot-in-their-ass, America! songs and I unplugged my guitar. One of the guys in the band asked me “Aren’t you going to play this song?” and I said “Nah, I’m a Dixie Chick fan.” And I just packed up and left.
Q: On the flip side, what was your best time in the music trade, when your life was way easier than it had any right to be?
A: Oh boy, I’ve had a lot of those experiences. I’ve been really lucky to open for Mumford & Sons for 40 shows in a row, for the Avett Brothers for maybe 50 shows, for Willie Nelson twice. Those big tours are the best. The sound is amazing and everyone is always nice and there’s great food and there’s a huge crowd. You can do your best stuff for 35, 40 minutes and then you’re done by 9. It’s a pretty sweet deal.
Q: How many times have you heard about a wedding starring your song “Breath of Love”?
A: Maybe 10 or 15 people have told me they played “Breath of Love” at their wedding. I’ve heard about, and seen, more people walk down the aisle to that song. Which just dumbfounds me.
Q: Do you have a colorful story about writing “Breath of Love”?
A: I was driving the band van to Merlefest in North Carolina. It was like 4 in the morning and the band members were asleep in the back. There was a girl in Akron I was in love with and we were just friends and I was just frustrated, wondering: Why can’t we just be in love because we’re already such good friends? I sort of remember that I was writing the lyric “I wish kisses would grow out of hugs” in a Randy Newman ironic, this-is-so-stupid-that-it’s-funny kind of way. When I first played it for my band, they said: This song is so cheesy, it’s stupid. I argued: Hey, but love is so cheesy and stupid. I decided: I’m going to do it anyway. I’m glad I did because it’s probably my most popular song. It just goes to show that everyone wants a little cheesy, funny song every now and then.
Q: What tops your Bucket List? How about recording an album of duets with your sister Jessica, your fellow former family band member, occasional co-writer and tour partner?
A: We actually did a duet record and ended up having a falling out. So I guess reconnecting with my sister would be at the top of my Bucket List.
Q: What tops your Fuck It List?
A: I would probably say the song “Wagon Wheel.” I have hated playing the song “Wagon Wheel” since my days performing on Broadway in Nashville. On Broadway that song is requested probably once every hour, usually by tourists. I had to play that song a lot during my 12- hour days and I vowed never to play it again. I changed my mind when I went on tour with Mumford & Sons and agreed to play it with Old Crow Medicine Show because I like those guys—but nobody else.
Q: You have one of the best beards in popular music, a beard that almost has a life of its own. Have you been tempted to enter it in a beard contest, a facial-hair facedown?
A: I get asked a lot, even on the street: “Are you thinking of competing with that thing?” I feel I don’t have enough waxes and oils and creams to participate; I also haven’t been training. Maybe I should just enter a contest and not think about it; maybe I just need to jump in.
David Mayfield: The Scoop
He joined his family’s traveling bluegrass band at age 12 after learning to play the bass in place of the fired non-family bassist.
He’s performed on two records produced by Black Keys co-founder Dan Auerbach, one featuring his old band Cadillac Sky, the other starring his sister Jessica.
Singer-songwriter Amanda Egerer decided she wanted her first record produced by him after she listened to “Late Bloomer,” the new CD he supervised for Matt Haeck, more than 20 times
One of his dream jobs is producing an album for Randy Newman, one of his songwriting heroes.
He filled in for the Avett Brothers’ sick drummer at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
He writes songs in a moleskin journal he received as a gift from Scott Avett, a member of the Avett Brothers. “We were on tour, talking about songwriting. He asked me what I wrote in. I said: “I use my computer or make a note on my phone.” A couple of days later he bought me a journal and a nice pen. He said: ‘When you’re working on lyrics, you’re an artist and an artist needs a canvas.’ It really helps the process. When you’re putting a pen to paper, there’s a little more urgency than when you’re hitting the erase button and copying and pasting on a keyboard.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He especially likes the chorus in David Mayfield’s song “Breath of Love”: “Two hearts beat like four dancin’ feet/When they move to the rhythm of love/When you can’t decide whether you’re dead or alive/You just need to feel that way once/And you’ll know there’s a breath of love in your lungs.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.