• justice article
  • hi-5
  • berkeley
  • o'donnnell's
  • alaska
The Independent Weekly

SEPTEMBER 20, 2006

Nathan Davis, 1976-2006

A picture of a smiling man, arms wrapped around his baby girl, stands on a bar table. A poster-board filled with more pictures leans against a wall. Candlelight flickers across the glossies, a warm glow suddenly radiating from those frozen moments: He strums his guitar, laughs, kisses the baby's forehead.

To the left, a speaker sits in front of a stage. It is topped with his tokens--a guitar string-winder, a German beer stein, a weathered acoustic guitar, a black fedora. They speak of their owner, Nathan Davis, a Southern Pines-born fixture of the Raleigh music scene who died suddenly of unknown causes on Aug. 22. He was 30.

Nathan Davis

Those images--the yellow winder that replaced broken strings, the beer stein passed from father to son, the guitar worn thin from strumming, the black fedora that seldom left Davis' head--greeted his mourners on Aug. 29 at The Green Room in Hi5, a Raleigh restaurant and bar. Typically, Tuesday nights at The Green Room are open-mic nights, a welcome place for the emerging artist to give it a go.

But in August, it was open to mourn--or, rather, celebrate--one of its favorite staples at a fundraiser for his 2-year-old daughter, Cassidy, the girl in the pictures. The service wasn't intended for a graveside. Instead, The Green Room's stage became an altar surrounded by a restaurant-turned-sanctuary, where Davis' friends, fans and family members joined to celebrate his music

Davis didn't have a traditional funeral. Then again, he wouldn't have wanted one: He was a champion of free-style, free-form open mics. He loved playing. When he wasn't ripping through his blues-inflected rock at his own gig, the safe money was on him jamming at Crowley's of Stonehenge, Berkeley Cafe or The Green Room. His friends could count on him to show.

Davis would say he only loved his family more than playing. As such, his friends and fans gathered to celebrate those priorities--his music and his daughter. One by one, members of the audience walked onstage, sharing poems, letters, songs and thoughts. Davis' parents, David and Sally, were there, saying they want to remember their son in a way that celebrated what he loved. "We wanted a gathering of everyone he loves, all the people that meant something to him and playing the music he loved," Sally said. "He would've hated for us to dress up in dark suits and mope around. He would've wanted us to throw a party."

Nathan Davis

Indeed, though the atmosphere at Hi5 was somewhat somber, laughter, claps and cheers spread through the crowd. Many of Davis' collaborators and musical friends stepped to the microphone: Jason Adamo, a Raleigh singer/songwriter and former Davis tourmate, sang Martin Sexton's Wasted, one of Davis' favorite songs. Sleeping Booty's Ivan Owens rang a beautiful gospel melody on his trumpet, and Kevin Thorton of Beggars' Caravan performed Davis' diorama, Carolina Sky. Davis' producer, John Custer, played some of Davis' newest songs. As Custer cut through the slow-burning Nickels and Dimes, the crowd gathered around the stage, again admiring Davis' songcraft.

This wasn't the last stand for his songcraft, either: One week later, on Sept. 6, they gathered at the Berkeley,playing and hearing his songs once again. Throughout the night, a crowd gathered on the checkerboard floor, listening to Davis' music or songs dedicated to him. Again, Sally and David stood together, arm in arm, supporting the memory of their son and his musical legacy. On Sept. 15, a crowd formed for one last memorial in Davis' hometown.

Perhaps the most resonant moment, though, came when 21-year-old Grant Walker--a fellow Southern Pines native Davis had mentored while in high school--took the stage at The Green Room to play Davis' Bittersweet. Walker couldn't find the right tuning, so someone handed him Davis' guitar. Later, he smiled and said: "I felt like he was right there with me."

For Nathan:

I'll speak these words that are no prayer to gods who aren't there.

For this one had no use for nonsense.

Yet, all the while he was a conduit.

And something ran through him and out of him from somewhere else.

And for that, he was always grateful.

We were lucky enough to hear and see these things.

He needed no god because he became a force of nature all on his own.

I will say these words and let them go into the endlessness for a friend made from scraps of bloody broadswords

Who pissed white fire and drank rattlesnake venom and threw his head back laughing at it all.

He held beautiful women in his arms and he cracked ugly men's skulls.

And for every day that he lived, other men would have to live twenty.

His muse was exhausted and disheveled and constantly demanding pay for endless hours of overtime.

He championed people who had no champion and defended his friends with fists trembling.

His voice blasted.

He lived in a constant state of discovery.

He was brave enough to open his arms and stand in the path of the oncoming waves.

No matter how hard they would break upon him, he would come away with a miraculous song.

But I will send him off with the greatest admiration for a smile I once saw upon his face.

It had nothing to do with music. It had nothing to do with women or marauding.

He was simply handing me a picture of his baby girl.

And there was his heart.

John Custer

John Custer reading poem

the berkeley cafe, raleigh, nc

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sterling, alaska, october, 2006

Note: Nathan's ashes were scattered in three places: the Ashe Street Park, Southern Pines, NC; the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington, NC; and the Moose River, Sterling, Alaska (and from thence to the Pacific Ocean).

Nathan Davis