It’s a rare case to make a name for yourself in country music. Of the thousands who sojourn to Nashville with visions of CMT awards dancing in their heads, few achieve even name recognition. Then again, most of those hopefuls aren’t like Dallas Davidson.
Friends of the 2011 and 2012 BMI Country Awards Songwriter of the Year—who also received Nashville Songwriters Association and Academy of Country Music Songwriter of the Year accolades in 2012—chalk up his success to decency, authenticity and a savage work ethic. Davidson, on the other hand, credits his old buddy Luke Bryan.
“Luke Bryan, my best friend, moved to Nashville,” Davidson recalls. “I moved him up there, pulled the U-Haul trailer behind my car.”
Davidson and Bryan met as teenagers, when a minor dispute over shared hunting grounds brought them together. “When I was about 17 years old, he and I had a piece of property that we both had permission to hunt on,” Davidson says. “Well, I kept seeing these tire tracks going into this property. It turned out it was Luke’s truck. And I left him this mean, strongly worded note and told him to call me.”
Once they realized neither was at fault, Bryan, who’s from Leesburg, and Davidson, who was raised in Albany, hit it off pretty quickly. From a mutual affinity for hunting and the South Georgia lifestyle emerged a friendship that led them to Georgia Southern, where they shared a house with another pal, Jason Wiggins. After a few years of hunting, fishing and cracking beers together, Bryan moved to Nashville to pursue his dream of making it as a country artist.
“Everybody’s got their hometown hero, and Luke was ours,” Davidson says. “We always thought he was going to make it. And damned if he didn’t. In hindsight, there’s thousands of people out there who are that hometown guy who everyone’s sure is gonna make it. Luke actually went up there and did it.”
Davidson’s dream at the time was a little more modest. Focused on reaching “certain financial goals” by the age of 30 (he says he made a pact with friends to amass riches, though he won’t say how much they had in mind), he became a real-estate agent, selling farms and timberland around his hometown. But his decision to pick up a guitar led to a career path detour. “I bounced little crappy stuff I was doing off of Luke,” Davidson recalls. “He said, ‘Man, you might wanna come up here and give it a shot.’”
“I knew Dallas had it down in him,” Bryan says. “And I knew if he could just get to Nashville and surround himself with the right people and learn from them as he established his own style, he would knock it out of the park.”
Unlike Bryan, whose father once threatened to fire him from the family business to motivate him to chase his dreams, Davidson’s family thought he was foolhardy for wanting to follow Bryan to Nashville and try his hand at country songwriting. This only fed Davidson’s fire to succeed. He moved to Nashville, and six months later co-wrote “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” which Trace Adkins took to #2 on the country charts. That was back in 2005, and the hits haven’t stopped coming since. Davidson has written or co-written 14 #1 hit singles with over 100 more album cuts, many of which made the Top 5 or Top 10. At his wedding a few years later, his father gave a toast—“I told Dallas he was a dumbass for moving to Nashville. Right now, I’m eating crow and enjoying every bite.”
Few could muster the tenacity that took Davidson from rural real-estate agent to the cream of country songwriters. But a relentless drive is part and parcel of who he is, and his success is no surprise to those close to him.
Valdosta native Rhett Akins, who topped the country charts in the early ’90s as a singer, is a longtime writing partner of Davidson’s. Together with Ben Hayslip, a former all state baseball player in Evans, Ga., they form The Peach Pickers, a trio known in the country-music business for writing hits. Asked to describe his friend, Akins doesn’t hesitate.
“He’s a winner, number one. Winner. When I think of a winner, I think of Dallas,” Akins says. “He’s very competitive, in a nice way. He’s not mean-spirited about winning, but he wants to win more than anyone I have ever met.”
Ben Vaughn, a music publisher with whom Davidson worked for many years during Vaughn’s tenure at EMI, agrees. “He’s always driven to get better. I’ve always noticed that. He’s like a professional athlete. He’s always asking, what can I do now? What can we continually do to get better? What more can I do? Who else can I work with? Who else can I know? I think for him, it’s always about drive.”
Just as crucial to Davidson’s success is his graciousness as a friend.
“I think if you don’t know Dallas, you’d get the impression that all he cares about is the awards … but he’s such a good guy,” Akins says. He speaks of friends back home whom Davidson has loaned money to, or helped out of bad situations. He, too, has been touched by Davidson’s generosity as a friend.
“He’s always calling me and going, ‘Hey man, I found this new farm. We have to go turkey hunting on it,’” Akins says. “He doesn’t have to invite me. You know, he found the farm himself. He went out and paid the lease on it and he was letting everybody come out and hunt with him. Or, ‘Hey man, you wanna go to my cabin? Let’s just hang out.’ He’s just a good friend.”
Bryan concurs: “Dallas and I have been friends for … years. There isn’t a day or a time that I can call him [that he doesn’t] pick up the phone. Whether it’s to discuss a song idea or a funny story I may have heard or a hunting trip, he is always the same. This business is crazy at times, so we keep each other in check, which I think is important for everyone to have that person around them.”
Turkey hunting, hanging out in cabins and casual weekend trips with friends don’t sound like the rock-star lifestyle, but Davidson and his buddies in the industry insist that maintaining an average-Joe way of life is essential to their popularity as songwriters. No one in his inner circle seems to be able to talk about Davidson without mentioning his authenticity, which seems vital to the success of the good-time country music he writes for artists like Jake Owen, Blake Shelton and Billy Currington.
The music of Davidson and his Peach Pickers has its roots in the beloved country tradition of artists like Hank Williams, Jr., Waylon Jennings and others who are sometimes referred to as “outlaw country.” Trucks, bars, dancing, girls and booze—these are the themes that permeate songs like “Rain Is a Good Thing” and “All About Tonight.” Davidson, Akins, Hayslip and other songwriters of their ilk have taken outlaw country and toned it down, making what you might call “everyday people country.”
“The songs that we write are for the farmers and for the people who live regular lives,” Akins says. “We might talk about going to a bar, but we’re not talking about going to a club in New York or L.A. and taking home a supermodel. All our songs are true, about what the common man and woman, you know, what people do in everyday life.”
The Peach Pickers don’t have to search real deep to find out what they want to say, because they’ve lived it since they were teenagers, “Drinking beer and hunting and driving trucks and playing sports and doing everything that young kids in South Georgia do,” Akins explains. “I think that you can tell when it’s fake and when it’s real. There’s no doubt that Dallas and I have the realness factor. I think that’s one of the big keys to the success of our songs. I think people somehow subconsciously know that they’re true.”
That realness has translated into a distinctive sound that Akins says friends and fans recognize instantly as The Peach Pickers. “I will get a text from somebody anywhere in the country, and they go, ‘Hey, did you write that new Justin Moore song?’” They can tell right off the bat, he says. And if Akins tells them that the Pickers aren’t the authors of the song, “They say, ‘Well, whoever wrote it is ripping y’all off, because that’s a y’all song.’”
Davidson’s focus on reflecting the real lives of listeners in his tunes not only translates into a different kind of relationship with fans; the popularity of these songs reflects in album sales and downloads, as well. As Vaughn puts it, “In his world, the proof is in the pudding. I mean, look at the songs he’s written and how many downloads his songs have. A download is a direct response from a fan.”
But dominating the country landscape for the better part of a decade isn’t enough to satisfy the ever-hungry Dallas Davidson. Not only has he expanded his empire to adult contemporary with “Just a Kiss” (the tasteful #1 tune he co-wrote with members of Lady Antebellum) and hip-hop (Davidson has recorded with T-Pain and is in cahoots with Atlanta hip-hop mega-producer Dallas Austin), he’s also gearing up to launch his wife Sarah’s career as a country artist.
A talented singer and songwriter in her own right, Sarah Davidson has been in Nashville a good deal longer than her husband, having moved there from Valdosta shortly after high school to study at the prestigious Belmont University. She and Davidson met at the Key West Songwriting Festival several years back. Now, after enjoying her support during his rise to fame, Dallas has helped Sarah record six songs of her own—half of which she co-wrote—and the couple is now shopping for a label.
“I think there’s a void in country music in that there’s no feel-good songs, like Faith Hill or Shania and all those good songs they were doing in the ’90s,” he says. “There’s Luke doing all this fun stuff, and I see his crowds. And there’s just not a girl out there doing fun stuff. It doesn’t have to be about losing your husband and being sad all the time.”
Davidson—on vacation in Mexico with with Sarah, Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley and Kelley’s wife, Cassie—chuckles as he explains how he’d spent half an hour on the phone before the trip ensuring he’d be able to watch the UGA football game from his resort before he booked it. But it’s not just Georgia’s Bulldogs that he’s concerned with. Davidson goes to great strides to find ways to give back to the state that made him the chart-topping songwriter he is. He invests significant time and money into Georgia businesses, properties and non-profit organizations. His latest passion is serving as chair of the Georgia Music Foundation, which supports programs of preservation, education and outreach, including publishing Georgia Music magazine.
“I want there to be a raised awareness of the impact on all genres of music that our state has put out for everybody to enjoy worldwide,” Davidson says. “I want to raise awareness of our Georgia creative people—artists, songwriters, producers, managers. I wanna try and raise a ton of money to give back to our state and all the music that comes out of there, so we can always do this. So we can have a future of Georgia success in the music industry.”
Bryan shares Davidson’s charitable bent. He conceived of and launched his Farm Tour, a college scholarship fundraiser for children from farm families, four years ago. Often joined by pals like Davidson and Akins, Bryan funds scholarships in each of the towns the tour stops in, which locally has benefitted students in Athens, Macon, Statesboro, Valdosta and Carrollton. Like many Georgia musicians before them, from James Brown to Ludacris, Bryan and Davidson are focusing their philanthropic efforts on giving back to their home communities and state.
Bryan is proud that he and Davidson are able to champion worthy causes in Georgia. “I feel very fortunate to be where I am in my life, so I think it is always important to give back when you can. My music is based on the way of life I experienced, so to support the communities that helped mold me is a no-brainer.”
With an ever-growing slew of hits under his belt, it’s obvious that Davidson is on to something. His music and persona are a rebuke of snobbery; wildly successful, he is imminently humble about his work. Clearly, his music serves as an important purpose in his audience’s lives, validating their everyday joys and concerns while elevating them to the national consciousness. The proof, as Vaughn said, is in the pudding. But Davidson doesn’t concern himself much with what his detractors say. He’s busy in the studio, penning another hit song, or maybe somewhere in South Georgia, quietly sharing a deer stand with the Georgia boys who helped him become one of the most decorated songwriters in country music.