PLAYING TO HIS STRENGTHSAfter years of music lessons, gigs and college classes, Hoover's Sam Davis lands himself on stage with country music star Brett Young
Written by Emily Sparacino
Ten years ago, Bluff Park native Sam Davis and four of his teenage friends were the young faces of a band called Blue Moon.
“We fancied ourselves being a band that came around ‘once in a blue moon,’” Davis said, laughing. “We all just ran with it.”
Davis was just 15 years old and a student at Hoover High School when he joined the band Aaron Marefka, Ben Reed, Jordan Rickerson and James Thompson had formed.
Davis was so young that, when Blue Moon started playing gigs at Birmingham-area venues like WorkPlay, Iron Horse Café, Zydeco, Night Moves and Rogue Tavern, at least one of Davis’s parents or of-age siblings had to accompany him to each performance.
“The ABC Board in Alabama will allow minors to be the entertainment in a bar, but his parents would not let him be in a bar without us,” Sam’s mother, Kathy Davis, said. “So, I spent a lot of late nights in places like The Nick. We used to laugh and tell him that one day he would have roadies other than his parents. Little did we know what would happen.”
No one knew years after Sam and his friends graduated from high school––and from their days of playing Southern rock, Motown and pop original and cover songs together––Sam, a 25-year-old Nashville transplant with Alabama roots, would land a full-time spot in country music star Brett Young’s band.
Music became a part of Sam’s life when he was in the second grade. He started taking piano from his grandmother, Kaye Davis, a middle school teacher who taught piano at night.
“He learned to read music with Kaye, so when he began taking guitar lessons in about fourth grade, he could already ready the music,” Kathy Davis said.
When Sam was about 12 years old, he stayed at the family’s home by himself during the summer.
“I came home one day, and he was sitting by the pool listening to the radio, and he had one of his guitars,” Kathy said. “I heard the music from the radio, and then I heard the radio stop. Sam started playing what was on the radio, just as it sounded on the radio. I knew then that he had a real talent for music. I just didn’t know how far the music would take him.”
Sam took clarinet when he was in middle school, and took lessons in piano, clarinet and guitar for one year.
He took guitar lessons from Archer Guitar in Hoover, eventually dropping the other instruments to focus on guitar, until he stopped those lessons when Blue Moon started taking off.
The five friends have known each other since they were children.
He and Reed played guitar, Marefka was lead singer and played keyboard, Rickerson played bass and Thompson was the drummer.
They played small gigs at night at various venues, but, according to Sam, highlights of their Blue Moon days were opening for Blind Melon at WorkPlay and performing at Birmingham’s last City Stages in 2009.
The band also was runner-up in a contest to open for Kid Rock in concert.
Sam played with Blue Moon for nearly three years, until he and all but one of the others graduated from HHS.
“When Sam graduated Hoover High, he wanted to be a rock star,” Kathy said. “He had been playing music in bars for years and read all about the many rock stars which seemed glamorous.
“I told him I thought that would be great,” she continued. “He could go be a rock star and I would not give him ‘one dime,’ or he could go to college and I would support him for four years. He chose (the University of) Alabama.”
Sam made his decision two weeks before the fall semester started at UA, and he wanted to go to the university’s music school.
But UA’s music school required auditions in the springtime, and it only taught classical music.
“I told him it was up to him to find a way into the music school since try-outs were months ago,” Kathy said. “Sam called the music school and talked his way into an audition. Never having played anything but rock ‘n’ roll music, Sam went to Alabama’s music school with his Les Paul guitar and played. They admitted him on the spot.”
Sam stayed at UA until an EF-4 tornado ravaged Tuscaloosa in April 2011.
“It was probably the most significant event in my life,” Sam said.
He was visiting several friends in a house on the lake when the weather took a nasty turn.
“We were in a very old house that was all trees all around it,” Sam said. “We just got in a little hallway and hoped for the best.”
The guys first tried to make it into a cinderblock bathroom that had been added to the home, but they ran out of time and resorted to a middle hallway.
As they huddled together and held the bedroom doors to the hallway closed, the power went out and glass and debris started flying as the guys heard the loud, groaning sound of the tornado moving near them like an oncoming train.
The hallway was the only area of the home that was spared.
“Later, we found out that addition had been completely flattened,” Sam said of the cinderblock bathroom. It was a split decision that saved our lives, really. God was looking after us for sure.”
Kathy said when she went to the house the next week, she was devastated.
“Both Keith (Sam’s father) and myself graduated from UA,” she said. “I hated to see the damage to people and property.”
Only a few weeks prior to the tornado, Sam had indicated to his parents he wanted to transfer from UA to a music conservatory.
Sam applied to four schools and was accepted to three.
“San Francisco Music Conservatory offered Sam a scholarship,” Kathy said. “Sam turned down San Francisco so he could go to Berklee College of Music in Boston.”
Berklee has rolling admissions, and Sam was set to start school in January, but Kathy urged him to call and ask if he could start earlier because of the tornado.
They told him if he could get there in a week, they would let him in, he said.
He moved to Boston with two suitcases (“74 pounds of clothes,” in Kathy’s words) and a guitar. He knew nobody and had missed all the orientations at the school.
“It was an intimidating situation,” he admitted. “I just dove in and knew it was the best thing for me. I knew it was God’s plan for that. It turned out to be amazing.”
At Berklee, Sam strengthened his social skills, musical skills and cultivated an “amazing outlook on life.”
But, as with his time in Tuscaloosa, living in Boston came with scary moments.
Sam was there during the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.
“Sam had just sent me a picture from the start of the race and told me he was going to the finish line,” Kathy said. “A few minutes later, the bombing occurred. I couldn’t contact Sam for a few heart-tearing hours, but Sam was fine. He had to stay in his apartment until the bombers were caught – everything was shut down.”
Sam spent the next year studying abroad in Valencia, Spain. When he graduated cum laude two years later, Berklee’s commencement speakers were Willie Nelson, Annie Lennox and Carole King.
After college, Sam weighed his options. He considered moving to Los Angeles or Nashville, or maybe even trying to rekindle the Blue Moon days with his hometown friends.
“They were in different areas of life,” he said. “It didn’t work out the way I hoped it would as far as us reconnecting.”
So, Sam decided to take a chance and move to Nashville, a city known for its contributions to the music industry, particularly the country sector.
“My only words of wisdom to Sam (since I have no musical talent I refrained from giving any advice to someone who talked himself into two musical schools) was that he could sit in his apartment or he could get out and make something happen,” Kathy said. “He got out.”
Sam got a job at The Listening Room Café, a food and music venue, where another person he knew from Hoover was also on staff.
“My mindset was to meet the most people,” Sam said. “I figured that would give me the best interaction. Real connections in Nashville started happening.”
Sam joined a band called Black Diamond Strings, a “bunch of California boys playing Southern rock like I was used to in Alabama,” he said.
“It was a relief to me,” Sam said, and laughed. “At Berklee, music became more serious and mathematical. This was a fun opportunity to get back to my roots and just enjoy music.”
A man named John Gurney joined the café staff. He and Sam became friends, and Gurney introduced him to his friends, including Tyler Filmore, who goes by “Filmore” on the country music scene.
“They embraced me being an outsider and introduced me to as many people as they could as a guitar player,” Sam said, adding they started playing music and doing shows together. “He (Gurney) would call me and say he needed someone to play with a country artist coming into town. I would do it.”
For Sam, the opportunities were less about making money and more about gaining experience.
In August 2014, Gurney called Sam and told him a new country music artist named Brett Young was looking for a guitar player to perform three or four songs with him at Whiskey Jam.
“I said sure,” Sam said. “It went really well, and he (Young) said, ‘If you want to keep playing with me, hopefully we’ll keep having shows for you to play. He had no idea what his career was going to be.”
Sam continued to play shows with Young in Nashville, Atlanta and other places.
“I had never heard of Brett, and very few people had,” Kathy said. “Brett had just been signed by Big Machine Music label. I traveled to see Sam play with Brett at Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta in their early days together.”
The more the band played together, the more their music took off.
“It kept snowballing,” Sam said. “It’d be a couple shows a month to 15 shows a month. Now, it’s five or six shows a week.”
The group toured in a Durango for two years, often driving all night to reach their next destination.
“They paid us well, and they always took care of us,” Sam said. “We did that for two years, and now, we’ve got a tour bus.”
A tour bus only scratches the surface of the perks of touring with an artist whose popularity is exploding.
Brett Young’s first two radio singles, “Sleep Without You” and “In Case You Didn’t Know,” each reached No. 1 on the country music charts.
The band performed on NBC’s Today Show in February. In addition, they have played at The Grand Ole Opry, Madison Square Garden, the Hollywood Bowl and Camp LeJeune, where they entertained American military personnel on July 4th.
“The Hollywood Bowl was probably the most exciting,” Sam said, adding his favorite bands––The Beatles, The Doors, The Beach Boys––also have performed at the Hollywood Bowl.
The Grand Ole Opry was another special venue for Sam.
“I was never a huge country fan growing up, but I knew about the Grand Ole Opry and knew it was special to people in the South,” he said. “My grandmother listened to me play on the radio, and it meant a lot to my mom. It made me happy, but it was great to see what it meant to the rest of my family.”
The cherry on top of the Opry sundae was Brett Young needed just one of his band members to play with him on stage, and he chose Sam.
“That was pretty awesome,” Sam said.
Brett Young and his band started the summer on Luke Bryan’s tour, and played 12 shows with Lee Brice and Justin Moore.
Now, Young, Sam and the rest of the band are touring with Lady Antebellum and Kelsea Ballerini.
They will perform at Oak Mountain Amphitheatre on Sept. 7.
Kathy and her husband, Keith, have seen Sam play with nearly every band in which he’s played.
Recently, they traveled to Toronto to see Sam play with Brett Young.
“We have met Brett and all the band on many occasions since we travel to see Sam often,” Kathy said. Brett is genuinely a nice guy. The son of a preacher who wants anyone of any age to be able to attend his concerts.”
Sam echoed Kathy’s sentiments on Brett, as well as many of the other country music artists he has met over the years.
“I was kind of pleasantly surprised at how friendly a lot of them are,” he said. “They’re more accepting of other people, I think because they all have a common goal of just making good, fun music for people to enjoy. It doesn’t have to be too serious or too literal.”
Sam said he spends much down time on tour with the members of Lady Antebellum, working out, playing ping pong and basketball, and relaxing.
“They embrace us on tour,” Sam said. “They all like to have a good time, which is great. (They’re a) family away from home.
Sam complimented the work ethic of country music artists, too.
“Me not being a huge country music fan going into it, all the bands have really impressed me with their live show and dedication to the craft,” he said. “All the artists work really hard. They write all day. They just have to do stuff all day long – media and radio interviews, phone calls, meet-and-greets, TV ads … They have all these people they have to meet throughout the day. It opened my eyes to how much it really takes to make it. It’s not all fun and games. It’s a lot of hard work, early mornings and long nights.”
Playing at Oak Mountain will be a homecoming of sorts for Sam, who has filled the role of spectator there multiple times in the past.
After the tour ends with a concert at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on Sept. 9, the band will pick up with a club headlining tour through early December.
Sam bought a house in Nashville in October, officially cementing the city as his new home base when he’s not on tour. (Right now, he’s only home about one day a week, though.)
“I kind of like to view it as like collecting food for the winter,” he said of the schedule. “You work hard during summer so you can relax in the winter. It’s been great.”
Sam, Marefka, Reed, Rickerson and Thompson reconnected to play at Marefka’s brother’s wedding at WorkPlay a year-and-a-half ago.
“We all got together and practiced a handful of times,” Sam said. “All the parents were there. It was a fun moment.”
Although they’ve all gotten older and done their own things in music for years, Sam said playing together again felt familiar, natural.
“We all very much enjoyed it,” he said. “It was like riding a bike again. We’re all very familiar with how each other plays.”
Each guy is still involved in music. Marefka is a solo pianist and songwriter. Ben has his own band that goes under the name B.L. Reed, and Thompson plays with him and produces music. Rickerson has a band in Birmingham called The Dizzy.
All of them, except Rickerson, live in Nashville now.
“I hang out with them as much as I can,” Sam said. “We still actively talk, too. They are still some of my best friends in the world, and we haven’t lost touch.”
Touring with Brett Young – a down-to-earth, generous person, even as his career is reaching new heights – is an experience for which Sam is grateful.
“It’s nice that he’s taken care of us and really respects us and wants us to be there,” Sam said. “In turn, it helps us when we get overwhelmed with being gone so much. It’s nice that we have an artist that wants to hang out with us and wants to be with us. He’s a good person.”
In any spare time Sam can find in his schedule, he enjoys reading, writing, going to restaurants and movies, spending time with people and staying active physically and mentally.
His Alabama homecoming and concert at Oak Mountain Amphitheatre in September undoubtedly will be a night to remember, not only for Sam, but for anyone who has followed his journey in music.
“Every time I see Sam play, he seems better and better,” Kathy said. “I knew he was good at 12. Now at 25, he is amazing even if I am his mother saying it. I do not give Sam advice about what he should do in music. I want Sam to do whatever he wants to do in music. I think he has done pretty good for himself so far.”