Following the release of her 1978 self-titled debut album, singer-songwriter Gail Davies decided to do something unheard of for women in Nashville in the late '70s: produce her own album.
Unhappy with the disrespect from certain producers and the lack of control over her own music, Davies became country music's first female record producer. She'd go on to produce 1980's I'll Be There, 1982's Givin' Herself Away, featuring a soaring rendition of her friend Joni Mitchell's "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio," and 1984's Where is a Woman to Go?, and racked up 10 top 20 country hits in only a few short years.
Forty years later, though she's praised by artists such as Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee, Terri Clark, Suzy Bogguss and many more for her skills as a producer, vocalist and songwriter, Davies says she feels that, when it comes to industry recognition, she's been reduced to a footnote in country music history.
"I don't think that people really give me the credit. There's certainly nothing about me in the Hall of Fame, I'll bet you that," Davies tells Wide Open Country. "Not a single mention of my name. You know, if you look in any of these new country encyclopedias, it'll skip from Linda Davis to Charlie Daniels...my name is not even mentioned."
Davies has said she was "blackballed" by men in the country music industry who didn't want to work for a woman.
"I pissed off a lot of the gatekeepers in the very beginning," she says. "It's strange because some of them have come back to me since and apologized and said that they didn't realize that I was as good a producer as I was, which is always nice to hear. But, after the fact and a whole lot of destructive energy, it's a little disheartening. I feel, at times, to be honest, like a forgotten person. I don't feel like people really remember what I did or even know what I did. It was tough, standing up. It was a good ol' boy network in 1976."
Davies' journey to Nashville began in Broken Bow, Okla., but her family moved to the Pacific Northwest after her biological father, country singer Tex Dickerson, went to work in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington. ("He was not happy because he loved being in the south and playing his music with his band," Davies says.)
"Because the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard had a lot of sailors that were from the south, there were a lot of bars that played country music in Bremerton, Washington," Davies says. "So many poor southerners left the south during the Korean War and moved up there... Loretta Lynn -- her family. We were just one of those [southern families] that migrated to the Pacific Northwest."
After Davies' parents divoced, her stepfather, Darby Davies, adopted Gail and her two brothers. Davies says her home was filled with country music.
"[My stepfather] knew that my mother loved country music," Davies says. "We had a big farmhouse and we had a great big living room. We would have dances and parties. [My stepfather] went and bought a used jukebox and filled it with Hank Snow and Webb Pierce and Johnny & Jack and all these country records. So, every morning, we woke up and just punched that jukebox and we could hear everything that was going on in the country music at the time."
After highschool, Davies moved to Los Angeles, and was followed by her brother, songwriter Ron Davies, who would go on to write hits for David Bowie, Three Dog Night, Joe Cocker, Helen Reddy, Anne Murray and more.
While working as a session singer in California, Davies was mentored by sound engineer Henry Lewy, who began teaching her to produce records.
"He did all the early Joni Mitchell albums, way up to The Hissing of Summer Lawns and beyond. He produced and engineered Stephen Bishop and Minnie Riperton and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Gram Parsons. He was just amazing," Davies says. "One of the things Henry Lewy said when he took me on to teach me how to work in the studio is he said 'You have great ears...you can hear a pin drop. You know the difference in the different tones and the guitars that you want...That's why you'll make a good producer.'"
Nashville wasn't exactly on Davies' radar. That is, until she lost her voice during a rock show.
"I lost my voice singing in a rock and roll band in L.A. called Jubilee....A friend of mine said, 'Hey, you know, your brother writes songs, maybe you have songwriting talent.' So I bought a guitar at a pawn shop and started writing songs and within a year I had a publishing deal and I was in Nashville."
After moving to Nashville in 1976, Davies quickly learned that the old-guard members of the country music industry didn't appreciate a female artist with her own vision for how her own recordings should sound.
She quotes her bass player Leland Sklar to sum it up: "When Gail Davies moved to Nashville, women were still barefoot and pregnant and in the vocal booth."
"I met a lot of resistance when I first arrived," she says. "But, over time, I think people accepted the fact that I knew what I was doing. The musicians really came around and were happy to work on the albums with me and things got better."
Still, Davies says she had to fight to be heard and, often, men in the recording studio would discount the direction she wanted to go on her own album.
"I had to get rid of an assistant engineer producer that I was working with because he just didn't understand the vision of what I wanted to do," Davies says .
For her second album, Davies took her master tapes to Muscle Shoals.
"I produced with a group called The Swampers -- David Hood and Roger Hawkins and all the guys down there who had backed Aretha Franklin and Etta James and Barbra Streisand," she says. "And they had no problem working with a woman."
For I'll Be There, Davies recruited country-loving rockers Leland Sklar, Billy Payne (Little Feat), Dean Parks (Steely Dan) and Mike Baird (Journey). (She also frequently worked with the legendary bass guitarist Willie Weeks. "I've been really blessed with being surrounded by extremely talented people," she adds.)
"My second album, we had five top 10 records off that album. And that was unprecedented at the time because people would usually have maybe one hit record and then a bunch of songs that the producer owned the publishing on. That was it," Davies says. "From then on, I had no problems. Of course, all the musicians were such fans of Leland [Sklar] and Billy [Payne]. They were all stopping me on the street, saying 'God, I'd love to play on your album.'"
She made a promise to herself to produce all her albums going forward.
"I felt like whatever mistakes I made would be my mistakes," she says. "If I do it, then it's my project. My first album was produced by a guy that I didn't get along with at all. He treated me very disrespectfully and wouldn't listen... I said, after that experience, I will never let anybody produce me again. Ever."
There was one exception to Davies' rule: her son, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Chris Scruggs, a member of Marty Stuart's band The Fabulous Superlatives, co-produced her 2014 album Since I Don't Have You alongside Davies.
Opry member Mandy Barnett says Davies was an early inspiration.
"Jimmy Bowen introduced me to Gail when I was 14, and she produced some tracks on me. I learned so much about recording and producing records from her," Barnett says. "Gail always had great instincts, was really always ahead of her time musically and otherwise. She did it all during an era when it was hard enough to be an artist and a woman, let alone the artist and female producer dealing with all-male record executives and session musicians. Besides all that, she's a hell of a singer! And I'm proud to be her friend."
In addition to her producing and songwriting prowess ("Bucket to the South," "Someone is Looking For Someone Like You," "Hometown Gossip"), Davies has been instrumental in bringing a feminist perspective, from the assertive K.T. Oslin-penned "Round the Clock Lovin'" to the playful "You're a Hard Dog (to Keep Under the Porch)," written by Susanna Clark and Harlan Howard, to country music. And she explored societal double standards on the stunning "Unwed Fathers," written by John Prine and Bobby Braddock, and featuring background vocals by Dolly Parton.
The subject matter of "Unwed Fathers" was particularly close to home for Davies, who faced sexist criticism as an unmarried woman while pregnant with her son.
Davies recounted the experience in the book Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music by Mary A. Bufwak and Robert K. Oermann.
"During the pregnancy I discovered a whole side of society that bothered me very much. And that was an attitude toward women that I had never really confronted before," she said (as quoted in Finding Her Voice). "Being pregnant and unmarried, I found so many people going, 'Oh, poor Gail: She got pregnant, and this guy wouldn't marry her. I'd go, 'No, that wasn't it.' And then I started seeing how women are looked at, like my behavior was bad, yet nothing was said about the man. And so I started reading a lot of books on women and our self-image...During that time I found a lot of strength."
Though well aware of the outdated views on Music Row, Davies says she was still taken aback by country radio's response to the song.
"I ran into Tammy Wynette back in the day and she was having lunch at an outdoor cafe," Davies recalls. "She goes, 'Hey Gail, come over here. Sit down and have lunch with us.' So I joined her and she said, 'So I heard you recorded 'Unwed Fathers.' I said, 'Yeah, you know the song?' She goes, 'Hell yeah, I recorded that on my last album and they wouldn't play it. If they won't play it for me, girl, they ain't gonna play it for you.'"
Wynette was right. Country radio didn't play the song, but Davies' powerful vocals and the unflinching honesty of the song didn't go unnoticed.
"Newsweek magazine wrote a great article about it and said it was the best country song of, I think, 1984," Davies says. "The only reason it wasn't a hit, they said, is because there were too many unwed fathers programming the country radio stations."
Davis' recording also impressed the song's co-creator, John Prine.
"You know, John loved the song," she says. "I did a tour with John in 2002 and he insisted that I sing that song every night. As his opening act, I sang that song every night for John."
Davies continued to take chances and experiment musically. She was inspired to form the criminally underrated country-rock outfit Wild Choir after witnessing a punk-styled country band in London. ("They had purple, green and blue hair and and they were playing country in a really cool, different way and I just was inspired by that," she says.)
Wild Choir released a string of stellar songs: "Next Time," "Heart to Heart" and "Safe in the Arms of Love," written by Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy and later recorded by Martina McBride.
Though they gained a cult following, the band never found commercial success.
"Country radio said it was too pop rock for them," Davies explained.
Wild Choir has since been described as proto-Americana, a harbinger of the genre-blending music that would come to define left-of-center country in Nashville. Once again, Davies was ahead of her time.
Davies has also devoted much of her career to lifting up fellow female artists. In 1986, she organized an all-women Austin City Limits writers round featuring Lacy J. Dalton, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Pam Rose and Maryanne Kennedy.
"Terry Lickona was the producer of Austin City Limits and he had done two all-male in-the-rounds," Davies recalls. "And I called him. I said 'God, Terry, do you not think that there's a single woman who could sit in that group? That Dolly Parton couldn't sit next to Guy Clark and play songs?'"
Lickona agreed and approached Davies about forming a songwriters round celebrating female country lyricists. She says she was reluctant to create a "girls on one side of the room and boys on the other" dynamic ("Like a Catholic dance," Davies jokes), but the imporance of such an event wasn't lost on her.
"I didn't want to miss the opportunity to put some great female writers in front of young aspiring female writers," she says. "So I agreed and we did the show. For a long time it was the most popular Austin City Limits show they ever aired. It was just wonderful."
Davies, who was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2018, went on to form her own record label, Little Chickadee Records, and pen her autobiography The Last of the Outlaws.
She's also remained busy as a producer, helming Caught in the Webb: A Tribute to the Legendary Webb Pierce, featuring George Jones, Crystal Gayle, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Mandy Barnett and more, and Unsung Hero: A Tribute To The Music of Ron Davies, featuring Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell. She released her most recent album, Beyond the Realm of Words, in 2016.
Women still face barriers in the studio and the number of female producers in country music remains small (but mighty). Among them: Alison Krauss, Tamara Saviano, the late Lari White, who produced Toby Keith among others, and Alex Kline, who made history by producing Tenille Arts' "Somebody Like That," the highest-charting country hit produced, written and sung by an all-women team and the first No. 1 country song solely produced by a woman.
But Davies says she's noticed an important shift.
"I think it's still tough for a lot of women, but there's a different kind of comradery among the women today that I see that's very healthy and very much appreciated," Davies says, citing Miranda Lambert and Brandi Carlile among her favorite contemporary country artists.
Though Davies hasn't yet received the recognition she deserves for busting down doors for women in country music, her impact is undeniable.
Nearly 30 years ago, Davies reflected on her role as a pioneering producer in Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music.
"Lately I see a lot of women in country who are getting involved in the making of their albums, so I feel like it's all been worthwhile," she said back in 1993. "I may not get any awards for melting away old prejudices, but I do have the personal satisfaction of knowing I broke up the ice a little bit."
READ MORE: Alex Kline Learned to Love Producing. Then She Rewrote Country Music History
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