A unique album cover shoot, a different road and an outsider’s view of the Nashville Music Scene

When I first moved from Los Angeles to Nashville, I was lost. I looked at an atlas road map. You remember those? On the inside cover is the entire United States and all the major roads and highways in the country. Well I was considering a move from the state with an illustration of a girl laying on the beach in a bikini to the state with a hillbilly in overalls reclining on a moonshine jug. What kind of a road was I on? A line from my favorite movie, “The Blues Brothers”, popped into my head and I feared it would become a reality. “We have both kinds of music, country AND western.”

I decided to make that move to be a creative director with a local ad agency, and take a “real job” as my mother would advise. Here the music industry is huge, and one that I have had a respect for, but always observed it from a bit of a distance. I have dipped into that market a little bit, a couple of country album covers for Hank Williams Jr. and Hank Williams III, and a lot of contemporary Christian music covers make up my past, but my road in photography seemed to follow products, big products, like cars and motorcycles, my first love.

See the full Tanya Davis photo shoot

But make no mistake, Nashville is Music City USA, the home of the Grand Ole Opry. We are reminded of that everywhere in town. And I have noticed there is a Nashville way to do things, how to get your break in the music industry. As many singers say, “It goes something like this…” Start before you’re old enough to drive, the younger the better. Pick out some songs you like, from a sea of available writers, all of who can put a demo CD in your hand in a minute. Some are quite famous, and the rest sure hope to be. Then pretend you’re at a music buffet line, pick a ballad to start with, and don’t forget a dance one, it will be good for your sales. Get an agent to massage your image, to grease the rails, to transform your look and sound into the target-spending demographic they envision. Then you hire some hip session players, and there is no shortage of players in this town, you don’t have to know them, they are real pros, they will do their job and do it well. This road to success has been in place a long time and turns out amazingly polished media darlings. Dressed just right, at all the right places. Just take a look at the red carpet at the CMA awards. The road to success, often, is to become what they want you to be, to fit a niche – after all it’s what will sell that is the bottom line. That’s why it’s called a bottom line. Their music, their way.

It’s a long road to stardom that a lot of very famous artists have trod. But that road is also littered with “almost”, “what if”, and “if only” wrecks. Artists that bought into their system, and the system spit them out with shattered dreams. For those few that actually get a record deal, it can be the road to (what they think is) heaven. But I think that road’s destination is a bit lower, how many times have you heard an artist say, “This time, this album is my music, what I want to sing and I had to fight for it”? You certainly never hear that at their first album release party! It usually comes a few albums down the line, after some fame and they are comfortable enough to return to being themselves. I guess that road can get weary.

Then there are some that are not from that mega-management-factory at all. Their road takes a decidedly different route. Artists that play their own music, paint their own landscapes. Who write their own songs because they have something to say. And some actually pick out their own clothes.

There is great music everywhere in this town. You might have to search a little but a couple of great bets are the famed BlueBird Café and a place just three blocks from my studio, 3rd and Lindsley. This is where I have heard music that moved my soul, it was there that I fell in love with the power and passion of Jonelle Mosser’s music. And in my book, if talent alone got it done, Jonelle is the biggest star Nashville has ever produced.

It’s a long time between artists like that. Recently that old-school recipe, production, formula-road was so pleasantly interrupted when I met Tanya Davis, a Mississippi born-and-raised girl now living in Nashville. She talked about partnering with me on her, soon to be released, premiere album. And she was doing her album her way. (No creative director showing up at my studio asking “what kind of backgrounds do you have” as they walked in for a photo shoot. Believe me it has happened.) She wrote all her own songs, songs that were born in her heart and soul. Fighting through the “typical Nashville recipes” for success and as she said an “expiration date on talent”. She stands out immediately! I didn’t need an agent to tell me that. She, not her publicist, sent me her demo ahead of time so I could listen to and feel her music. She showed up at our first meeting with her Momma. Just her Momma. She has jaw-dropping talent and a passion and determination I have rarely seen.

And she knows what she wants! And what she wanted for her album was to return to her roots for her photo shoot, after all she reasoned, that is where her music started as well. She honors her past with her soulful, blues-kissed music. She wanted cotton fields, because those were some of her earliest childhood memories and she was raised knowing the smell of fresh-picked cotton. She wanted hot, a literally hot Mississippi vibe. Her memories of growing up could not escape heat and humidity. And there would be no faking it in a studio, no spray bottles, no 81a warming gels, we would shoot in the real heat and real sun and real cotton fields of Mississippi. Her excitement swept us all up in her vision. She took over the itinerary, booking us at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in AUGUST. I found out she was serious about the HOT thing. I gave a quick glance at their website and their first line is “The ritz we ain’t” GULP. She happily informed me I was booked in the “Chicken Coop” another gulp.

We endured three days of scattered rain, then steam coming up off the ground when the rain stopped, where one day we shot in 98° F heat and 92% humidity, hot even in Diablo’s book. The humidity that reminded me of another movie, Volunteers, when Tom Hanks (to escape Ivy League college gambling problems) joined John Candy on a Peace Corp assignment to southeast Asia, as he got off the plane he said “My God we must be three miles from the sun”. I will have to watch that movie again, maybe he stopped over in Mississippi. Through all the heat, and I mean wilting heat, and sun, I have never worked with a more professional subject. One location, a shack porch in full sun, that location was so hot I had an assistant hold a reflector card to shade me as I shot. I was still dripping wet, I can only imagine what Tanya felt like on the porch in full sun, with reflectors bouncing into her. Another assistant said, “If we can keep standing, we’ll get some great shots.”

Our locations were varied and all pure Mississippi; a little old trailer, puddles in a dirt road, a sunset in a cotton field, a sofa in a blues shack, a weathered door, the front porch of a cotton shed. One blissful respite was an indoors shoot (they had A/C) at the Ground Zero Blues Bar owned in part by Morgan Freeman. It’s a great blues bar next door to the Delta Blues Museum, of course!

A great shoot must always have great collaboration between the creative team. It was my privilege to shoot with such a group of talented people! Tanya’s energy was high when I was wilting, her enthusiasm obnoxious when we all were dragging, and her smile made you forget how hot and tired you really were. It was three days of shooting that took me three weeks to get over. An amazing shoot with an amazing artist/model at a photo set of her choosing, a hot Shaked Up Inn down a hot road and her road of choice happened to be US Route-61.

The first song recorded about this road was Roosevelt Sykes’s “Highway 61 Blues”, cut in 1932. There are a few artists, you might have heard of, that lived near Highway 61, B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Charley Patton, Sunnyland Slim, and Sam Cooke.

A long-hot asphalt stretch known as the “Blues Highway”, Tanya Davis sought it out for many reasons. She added her Nashville flavor to a road with the most amazing Blues history on earth. That is her road, a road worth traveling.