After a life playing guitar or drums in bands around the south of America, Arkansas native now Austin based resident Dave Pennington a.k.a. Arkansas Dave has stepped into the limelight and released his own album of blues based rock songs and intricate, tender ballads. Summer 2018 sees him embark on an almost two month tour of the UK and Europe too so there are plenty of chances to check out his particular brand of Southern music.
(Interview by James Daykin – @rockjames)
Great to speak to you Dave, your album is a fascinating mix of southern sounds and British influences too, like The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Where do you take your musical inspiration from?
I grew up in the south and lived around Country music and gospel music during that time but classic rock too. Being exposed to all these different kinds of music kinda just melded together for what I want to do. The music I make I just look at it as rock ‘n’ roll – Americana rock ‘n’ roll. Led Zeppelin is my all-time favourite band. When I was about 12 my favourite film was Wayne’s World and, obviously, there is the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ reference in that film, in the guitar shop, and my dad took me to buy a Led Zep CD and as soon as I put it in the player it was over for me, man. I became a drummer because of John Bonham.
One thing I admired about Led Zeppelin was their eclectic style. Their ‘Physical Graffiti’ album would probably be my ‘desert island’ album. It covers so much ground from hard rock to even Country on that album. I tried to do that on my album, which, with the way it’s structured, could almost be two separate albums.
I was going to ask you about that because it seems to have been separated into two distinct sides. With side A being rockier and louder and side B being quieter and more introspective.
I didn’t want to be seen as just a blues-rock artist because I have more in the tank than that. So I wanted people to see just how diverse my songs can be and the best thing to do is to structure the album in a way that people can see that. I basically thought that if I was going to tour the album and play it live it would work as a live show in the order that it is on the album. There are perhaps a couple of ballads in the latter part of the album that might throw a wrench in the spokes of a live show but in the future when my career is stable and I have the opportunity to step out and do something a little more dangerous I will play this album in full, from front to back.
I read in a recent interview with you that you consider ‘Bad Water’ to be the song that represents you the most. Can you expand on that and tell us why?
That song, to me, is a metaphor for the culture and the life that I grew up in. If you’ve ever been through the south you can understand the imagery that I pulled from. There’s a lot of brackish standing water in the south, the swamps and the bayous too – and the song paints a perfect picture of what southern culture is all about. I grew up in a very conservative and Christian environment and poor and rural too. Add in the racial tension down there and you’ve got a real interesting mix of vibes and energies that kinda lurks in the shadows and if you are not careful it can take advantage of you and change you. A lot of the friends I had just stayed at home and didn’t chase their dreams or they joined the army because they didn’t have any other options or they literally died after becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol. All the rivers that run through the south are kinda like the veins if the USA and if you are not careful the wrong water can pull you under and that’s what the song is about.
You mentioned your Christian up-bringing. You can hear that gospel influence on songs like ‘Something for Me’ and ‘Coming Home’.
When I demoed the song ‘Coming Home’ I didn’t know exactly how I wanted it to sound. I was trying to pour everything I had into that song and then when I gave it to my producer, he was like, ‘Oh man, we just need to make this song more chilled out.’ He said, ‘Imagine you are having a conversation with your wife and your baby’s asleep and just try to tell your wife how much you love and miss her’. After he put that picture in my mind we just nailed it in just one or two takes. It’s a special song for me. Those gospel influences are naturally going to be there because I grew up playing in church. I was in a church band from the age of 12 until I graduated high school so I can’t really escape that influence.
You played drums out on the road for blues-legend Guitar Shorty. What did you learn from that experience?
I sure did. That was my first real professional experience as a musician. It taught me everything about how to be a professional musician and how you run a band. He has been hustling out there for 40 years now yet never really broke over into the mainstream. People know him, people recognise him yet he’s always been independent and under the radar. The one thing that I take from that was his professionalism and how well he treated everyone in his circle. He told me directly that no matter how many people are in the audience you have to give them their money’s worth and that stuck with me. So, I leave everything I have out there on the stage and put my heart and soul into every performance.
Is it easier to reach people and make a living now as an independent artist than it would have been five years ago with the availability of streaming and ‘Bands in Town’ style apps?
I would say no if I’m being honest. Honestly, man, it’s harder than ever because there are so many people out there it’s such a crowded market. If you find the right fans they will be so loyal to you and support your whole career but if you market yourself in the wrong way and find yourself infront of the wrong crowd you could be done, you could be eating shit out on the road for ten years! I’m really trying to calculate every step that I make in order to find that ‘right crowd’ that are going to love my music and that’s why I’m coming over to Europe this summer for 54 days!! It’s a big gamble, a huge roll of the dice but I’m looking at it as an investment in my future. I know I’m not going to make a ton of money but I feel like there’s a crowd waiting there for me and then I’ll be back again within six months in slightly bigger venues and really begin to build up a relationship with my fans.
So many southern and Nashville based artists are seeing the UK and Europe as a viable market right now. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because the people in Europe have such a deep appreciation of music and lyrics that they are great crowds to play in-front of and very loyal fans too. The crowds stop and listen to the lyrics and want to know the stories behind the songs. Crowds in America are so ‘here-and-now’ and single based – everything has to be acceptable for ‘my I-phone’ and instantly gratifying and if it’s not in their faces all the time they can tend to drift off in the white noise of everything that goes on here. I really want to focus on markets that will dig who I am from the start and support me through these early years and Europe is a big chance for me to do that and all my friends who play in the UK and Europe tell me that those countries welcome the diversity of styles and appreciate individual artists more. You’re always competing with other artists in the USA because it’s such a crowded market: you never know how many people will actually turn up and it can be hard to bring in a crowd so I am really excited to get over to Europe and play people some of my music.
You can see Arkansas Dave’s UK tour dates at the link below: