Thursday August 17
David Nail’s candor cuts like a laser through star-making propriety, a ritual of predictable answers to predictable questions, recited by artists averse to the controversy that truth can bring. True, he is respected up and down and beyond Music Row. He’s written or co-written multiple hits. Critics laud his singing too: The late, revered Chuck Dauphin, for one, marveled at Nail’s ability to turn an “ordinary lyric and arrangement” into a “tour de force,” adding, “simply put … he is not one of us.” So he’s got rock-solid credentials. And he earned them despite a refusal to present himself in a false light. His songs pull no punches in evoking the demons with which he has wrestled through much of his life. As Nail explains, it’s not so much an act of courage to write about depression and its effects. Rather, it is simply who he is; he says, in conversation and through music, what he must say. In Nail’s own words, “My philosophy has always been, I just hope to have a good enough year that I can have a next year while staying as true to myself as I possibly can.” The practical and the personal: These are the poles that mark the path Nail continues to follow. It began in Kennett, Missouri, Nail’s hometown, and led to Nashville. At the time, he recalls, “I’d written songs about a lot of things I had not lived or experienced. So it was like I’d gotten onto this train and I had to just sit there and hope that the train kept moving. I was so young and naive and ignorant. I started trying to figure things out but I really needed somebody to tell me I wasn’t a moron. First and foremost, I credit Frank Liddell with helping me find where I should live musically. He’s always told me it’s alright to experiment.” The celebrated producer helmed Nail’s album debut, I’m About To Come Alive, and the three that followed: The Sound Of A Million Dreams, I’m A Fire and Fighter. These releases ignited his reputation as an innovator and creative risk-taker yet left Nail feeling restless. His bouts with what he freely describes as “mental illness,” exacerbated by having to chafe against commercial pressures, hastened his departure from MCA Nashville, the only record company home he’d ever known, where he’d formed friendships that endure even now. “It’s human nature to rebel against what people expect you to be, so I ended up doing more organic and left-of-center than anything I’d ever done,” Nail says, referring to his independent 2018 project, David Nail & The Well Ravens, created with longtime colleagues Jason Hall and Andrew Petroff. “It was the most fun I ever had.” By mid January 2019, momentum from that liberating experience had propelled Nail into his next adventure. Over the next few months, he wrote nine or ten songs, each one pushing to be next in line. “Oh, Mother” was among the first, a painful yet tender plea to his mother that she was not to blame for his lifelong emotional struggles. Media tastemakers strove to respond with appropriate eloquence: Rolling Stone noted that “the song creeps in like a sunrise — quiet, restrained cello and keys are the only underpinning for Nail’s powerful vocals at first. But then it slowly builds to something more massive and majestic.” CMT added that “Oh, Mother” “has the kind of honesty that might take your breath away.” Expect more of the unexpected from David Nail in the year(s) ahead. Bypassing the album format, he plans to release four EPs in 2020, a process he suggests conforms better to “my ADD.” Also, with the exception of “Forgiveness,” which he wrote with Donovan Woods, he’s working without collaborators. “The bad thing is that you don’t have that other person to throw ideas around with,” he explains. “That’s the good thing too. If somebody else’s idea is better than mine and makes the song better, it detours away from where my story is going. Some of the songs might have been a little more commercial, a little less personal, with another writer. But that’s not what I need now. I’m not scared to talk about or touch on anything, probably to a fault. Regardless of whose fault it is, David Nail’s train has left the station, leaving behind any self-imposed restrictions. His journey is well underway, with no terminus in sight. Probably he’ll never reach that last stop; it’ll always be just ahead, out of reach. But on the way he will have taken us all on the ride of a lifetime.