Q&A with Dave Ray Cecil: finalist of the Grassy Hill Kerrville New Folk Competition for Emerging Songwriters
by: Terry Rader
Dave Ray Cecil of Greensboro was chosen as a top finalist out of 800 entries in the 47th annual 2018 Grassy Hill Kerrville New Folk Competition for Emerging Songwriters
Dave Ray Cecil will perform two original songs at the 2018 Grassy Hill Kerrville Folk Festival as one of 32 finalists. The competition performance will be held on May 26 and 27 at the Quiet Valley Ranch in the Texas Hill Country, located 9 miles South of Kerrville, Texas. There will be six songwriters named as the 2018 New Folk Award Winners after their performances at the Threadgill Theater. The six winners will also perform at a special Grassy Hill Kerrville New Folk Award Winners concert on June 3.
The Kerrville Folk Festival runs for 18 days and nights from May 24 to June 10 and is known to be the longest running festival in North America. People of all ages enjoy amazing performances and fun activities in the celebration of songwriting with attendance reaching 30,000 or more each year with evening performances attracting anywhere from 800 to 3,000 guests per show.
Terry: Hi, Dave, it is so good to talk with you again! Congratulations on securing one of the top 32 finalist positions out of over 600 entries received! How does it feel to have been chosen with two of your original songs? Were you surprised?
Dave: Very surprised! It feels like what you’ve been doing all along is now something people may actually enjoy, ya know. I mean, when you do something all the time anyway, and suddenly you receive some kind of recognition for it, it’s pretty surprising. It’s just a normal, everyday thing for me, like making tea. Songwriting is something I just seem to do all the time.
Terry: I understand that each songwriter could submit two original songs, what songs did you choose and why and what album are they each on?
Dave: Both songs are off of my latest record. The first song I submitted is “Belong.” I submitted that song because I recall Hester Petty, a DJ for WQFS saying that “Belong” is the best Americana song written this year. The song kind of started out as a half-song I pulled from my song file ideas one day and started working on it. It was a cool little vocal line, it climbs up and then it climbs back down, I didn’t think much of it, but when I shared it with my band, Jack King, guitar and backup vocals, Wiley Sykes, Drums. They told me that they thought it was great. Wiley made an innocent comment, saying, “That song ‘Belong’ makes me stop in my tracks.” So, I decided to enter it.
Dave: The second song I submitted is “Nothing to Waste.” It’s pretty much all about surrender. I guess or where you actually end up after you’ve struggled for years trying to get your own way all the time. I actually wrote the song while I was working as a real estate agent showing people houses. Fortunately for me, the people I was working with that day wanted to follow me instead of ride with me, so I wrote the song in between showing each house to them. I wasn’t really thinking it was good or anything… it was just another song, really, but I got it all finished up by the evening and sent it to my brother up in Asheville with the caption “today’s tune,” and he really loved it. He doesn’t usually have that kind of reaction, so I figured there might be something to it.
Terry: Will you be performing both of these songs in the final competition?
Dave: Yes, both.
Terry: I know this isn’t the first competition you’ve entered and we’ll talk about that more in a minute, but tell me what led you to enter this one?
Dave: Being a finalist in the first NewSong Music Showcase & Competition in New York City led me to enter this second one. I had kind of a wake-up reaction to that first one, and it made me think that maybe I should move into doing more of this. When I got a congratulations email from NY, I almost deleted it, thinking it was some sort of junk email. Being selected as a finalist for that was more puzzling than anything, a surreal kind of thing. I’m a little bit more involved in the upcoming 2018 Kerrville Grassy Hill New Folk Competition for Emerging Songwriters. I’m more interested in doing well this time. After New York City, it woke me up, so to speak. When something like that happens, you obviously think that possibly you may be able to do this as a living.
Terry: Will you be taking your beautiful wife Brittany and lovely daughter, Nani with you? Are they excited?
Dave: Yes! They are absolutely over the moon about it. It is super cool for my daughter, Nani to get to see me play. They both went to New York City and saw me play at The Lincoln Center, and now they’re going to Texas, too. I am really thankful that my daughter can have these kinds of experiences with music so early on ya know… I mean whatever she decides to do is cool, but having these kinds of experiences early like this with music can help her see that it is definitely possible for her to do music if she would like to I think. I feel like it kind of opens a door for her in some way musically. I never had anything like that in my life with music, and maybe that has something to do with my reaction to being a finalist in the first competition. It feels like being kind of puzzled and even confused. I don’t know how it all really works, but I can say I’m very happy to have them coming with me.
Terry: I’ll bet! Your daughter was doing a great job of stealing the show last Tuesday evening on April 17, when you performed with Jack King (guitar and accompanying vocals) at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen. These music events feature a series of live performances curated by Ogi Overman. Peg Parham did a great job of filling in for Ogi that night. We all enjoyed watching Nani dance along to Daddy’s music. How old is she now? Has she been going to see your shows all of her life?
Dave: Nani is four years old now. She’s been watching me play from the very beginning. She plays her little piano and carries her guitar around the house singing songs… It’s a pretty cool thing to see!
Terry: She’s a cutie! I understand you’re working on album number four. What is the name of each of your albums?
Dave: My first two records were self-titled Dave Ray Cecil, the first one was recorded here in 1998 and the second one was recorded in Glasgow, Scotland. The third record was titled Dave Cecil Band. I really had not planned on that one turning into a record. I just wanted to record one song, but I ended up with a record by the time I was finished! LOL. I’m not sure what the title of this fourth one is going to be. Maybe I will name it something different… we’ll see.
Terry: What is the inspiration of your last album? Is there a theme? How is it different from your previous work?
Dave: This record was born out of the feedback I had been getting at solo and duo shows when I wasn’t playing with the band. People would approach me and ask me if I had a CD with just my guitar and me, or with just Jack and I. So this one is more stripped down. My favorite records anyway are the ones with less on them, so it’s kind of fun to do one this way!… AND definitely cheaper to, I might add!!
Terry: Are you more emotionally connected to one of these albums or do you feel more proud of one over the others?
Dave: I’m not sure really, but I can say that for the Dave Cecil Band record that I did last year, I was more present for than the others. I mean with that record I really did so much more arranging of parts in the studio and dropping stuff that really wasn’t doing anything for the song, etc. I’d guess you call that producing in some way and I had a lot of fun doing that.
Terry: You know, I still have your first, self-titled CD that you signed for me in 2001 at an open mic night at the former Grapevine Café. You and your brother, Todd Cecil of Asheville, NC were among a few interviewed for my first HUSH and Listen newsletter (Hope for Universal Sound Healing) along with Renee Henry and a few others, including Rhiannon Giddens who sang a cappella that night with Lalenja Harrington. It’s great to learn that they performed together again at Merlefest this weekend.
You had told me then that John Prine had been your biggest influence in your music. Who have you been influenced by since and who is inspiring you now?
Dave: I still like John Prine and Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Mark Knopfler, that kind of songwriting I feel is just fantastic. But my taste doesn’t stop at that kind of songwriting though. Occasionally I hear something new that gets my attention. Band of Horses I think is an unbelievable band. Ben Bridwell is the songwriter, and lead singer for the band and some of their stuff is just incredible. One of their tunes called “The Funeral” kept coming up on my Pandora station and after a few times hearing it in the background, I had to stop whatever I was doing and pay attention to it. It was really good! I actually shared a show with them at The Garage in Winston-Salem, NC, years ago in the first band I was in. I really wished I had stayed that night, but I had to split right after our set. Some of the guys in the band stayed and listened, and I remember them saying how good it was.
Terry: I know you began writing music by putting notes together on the piano when you were only six years old. I also heard that you wrote your first song while squirreling away and secretly playing your brother’s guitar. How old were you then and do you remember the name of the song or the lyrics and who influenced you then to write it? Was it a folk song?
Dave: It probably was some kind of folk song, but I can’t remember what that song was about, probably something to do with freedom I would guess. I wasn’t writing for anything or for any reason. I do remember writing about 5 or 6 tunes rather quickly and my brother who was kind of the “musician” of the family tripping out a bit when I told him. I didn’t really know that it was unusual or anything to have written a bunch of tunes in a short amount of time. I got hooked though and couldn’t stop.
Terry: Speaking of your brother, Todd Cecil, I wish he’d bring his band, Backsouth, back east to play for us. I’d love to see him perform again, he has such an energetic vibe, but you have an amazing sound of your own. I really enjoy your new song “Angel in the Dark.” The melody is hauntingly beautiful, and the lyrics whisper the softest story: “…never been a stranger to a dream, always in the clouds is your mind… every time, moving like an angel in the dark, nothing seems to ever bring you down… you wear a crown, but maybe this time, maybe this road soon will take you home…” When you first posted it on Facebook and asked us all to take a listen and let you know if we liked it and if it were a keeper. I sat with it misty-eyed and listened to it again, and then I posted a light response to tell you that I loved it and that I thought it was beautiful. I also said yes, in answer to your question, it was a serious keeper.
When you played that song the other night at Lucky 32, I had just finished telling everyone at our table how much I liked it. I didn’t get to experience hearing it live like I had hoped to. I have really enjoyed going to the Stage 11 house concerts lately (hosted by Jim Herrmann and Linda Erday). Everyone comes just to experience original music. We all get quiet and listen together. It’s like manna to me. So, that night, I came home and listened to “Angel in the Dark” on daveraycecil.com by myself, with no distractions. I felt like the song turned a key inside of me that opened a door to a comfortable place where I could ask questions and fully experience the unknown and be 100% okay with not having an answer. I felt like I was home and I haven’t felt that way in a long time. It’s not just the song lyrics or the music; it’s the peaceful place it takes me to, thank you for that. Can you tell us what or who that song is about?
Dave: Well, I probably shouldn’t say anything about that song now, What you just said about the song I’m sure is the best way to describe it. Songs mean different things to different people and that’s what’s so cool about um. What it means to me is irrelevant when someone hears it and has an experience like that. I’d hate to shoot it down with some kind of meaning I have for it!
Terry: Well, I just love it, and I have listened to it again and again.
In 2001, I had written: ‘Dave has a very unique singing style, you’ll want to listen very closely as his lyrics tell great stories that you don’t want to miss.’ That still holds true today. Are most of your songs based on real-life experiences or imaginings or a little bit of both?
Dave: I don’t think it’s really possible to take all of your experience out of the songs you write. I mean I don’t really know that for sure, but for me, I think your filters can play a part in how a song comes out ya know… How you see things from where you are in life and what you feel it means to you and all. Least that’s how it is for me. I mean, I can try to write a song about something else and attempt to make it apart from me, but usually, there is an underlying theme to a song that you have to pull from in order for the words to come out more easily. Like for instance, I wrote this song called Farmer 88, and it’s all about the 1988-89 North American Drought. The content of the tune is about a farmer having to sell off family land and find a new life, which is something I know nothing about, but the theme of the song is Yearning. How he yearns to be back on his land and how farming is in his blood, etc. Yearning is a common theme and something we all are familiar with. I’ve had my share of it as well, so I obviously write coming from a place of yearning, and it breathes life into the song so to speak… makes it seem real, kind of. Anyway, that’s kind of a long answer to your question, but that’s kind of what I mean.
Terry: Seventeen years ago you told me that a relative had said: “Greensboro is always on the verge of change, always about to happen.” You were getting ready to leave for Scotland that summer, and you told me that you felt like folk music was more welcome there. How do you feel about folk music in Greensboro now?
Dave: Not really sure. I seem to still be writing songs though.
Terry: How long were you in Scotland and how did that influence your music and how did those there inspire your musical style and songwriting?
Dave: I was there for three years. It was a musical type journey. It’s funny you should ask me that. It was just the other night that a lady told me she could hear some Celtic style in my songs. This is something I’m not really aware of, but I’m sure it happens… kind of like the last question about not really being able to take your experience out of the music… just kind of happens in some way or another.
Terry: How do you see yourself evolving with your songwriting now that you’ve had this chosen finalist experience with the Kerrville New Folk Competition?
Dave: I’m not really sure, but I imagine it will in some way.
Terry: Do you still refer to your music as “mixed-bag Americana”?
Dave: Not really… I mean you can if you want to… I don’t think it really matters though
Terry: I also want to congratulate you on being one of the top ten finalists for the 2017 NewSong Music Performance and Songwriting Competition. That’s a big competition, and I know your family is proud of you. The Grand prizewinner received a six-song EP, to be recorded and mixed at Asheville, North Carolina’s Echo Mountain Recording Studio and released on the NewSong label and also gets to do a feature performance at the ASCAP Music Café during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
How exciting was it to perform at The Lincoln Center on Nov. 30, 2017, with the other winning finalists and what song did you perform?
Dave: It was a great experience, Terry! And I felt very blessed to have had the opportunity… especially with my wife and daughter there! There was one song that I did up there that will be on the upcoming record called Lucky. People really seem to like it when I play it live, so I’m looking forward to digging into it in the studio.
Terry: I understand that the ten finalists including Crys Mathews (Herndon Virginia.) Dave Ray Cecil (Greensboro, North Carolina), Brie Capone (Asheville, North Carolina), Becca Leigh (Charleston, South Carolina), Andrea Lopez (Miami, Florida), David Robert King (Decatur, Georgia), India Ramey (Nashville, Tennessee), Corey Mori (Fort Collins, Colorado), Jerome Brooks (New York, New York) and Biscay (London, England) have also been invited to participate in future NewSong Music events in various US locations as well as being considered for film and television placement opportunities along with future releases on NewSong Recordings. Do you have any dates or details about that yet?
Dave: No, I haven’t heard any details for any of that yet.
Terry: You always have been so modest when it comes to letting people know of your accomplishments. When can we expect your new album to be available?
Dave: Hopefully by the end of the summer!
Terry: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, today, Dave. It’s been great to reconnect. Do you have anything else you’d like to share with us?
Dave: Thanks so much Terry for writing all this stuff about me and about this music. I just really appreciate you taking the time to do this with me and for the people who will read this. Thank you!!