Whatever your avocation, doing it professionally for a quarter-century ensures an appreciation for the craft involved. Longtime folkie David Wilcox feels for his songwriting like someone long in its employ, accustomed to its social rituals and seasonal cycles, and dependent on the familial feelings it evokes.
"I have this ability to suddenly feel really blissful — a song can take me all the way there, not just to who I was, but sort of to the person I might become if I really open my heart and see things differently," says the Asheville, N.C., singer-songwriter.
Wilcox has released 14 studio albums over the years, beginning with 1987's The Nightshift Watchmen. It wasn't so much that he wanted to be a singer, as that he felt a certain peace listening to and being involved in music. He gravitated toward this sense of connection, and the possibility that he could speak honestly and directly about what mattered to him.
"There was always a need for something that felt person-to-person and really intimate. I just figured I would find my tribe," says Wilcox when asked about his attitude going into that first record. "If you are trusting that you are speaking to people — rather than pleasing an industry — it makes you write as if you really respect the listener, not only their time, but their intelligence, and you're not going to just spin some cliché rhyme."
Striking a nerve
That sort of "long game" approach has made Wilcox one of the most respected figures in the folk movement. Of course, he got a boost when his second album, How Did You Find Me Here, was picked up by A&M in 1989. He'd been hustling it for a while and sold tens of thousands at shows and out of his car trunk even before A&M came around. His three-album run on A&M concluded with 1994's somewhat over-produced Big Horizon, which broke into the lower reaches of the Billboard 200.
From there it was away from pop and major labels toward the indies and the embrace of the folk genre, broadened and emboldened by O Brother's success. Over the last decade, he's grown into a circuit mainstay. His songs are frank and often witty, such as "Little Fish" off his latest, 2010's Reverie. The snarky tune sounds like Randy Newman in its tuneful bounce, as Wilcox reads a threat into the ubiquitous car bumper appendage: "There'll come a day when every head will bow in fear."
But while he can sound like a rabble-rouser when his cleverness hits a nerve, Wilcox swears he's not trying to change the world.
"I'm not singing to enough people for that to be a valid reason; I would probably quit if I ever just looked at the numbers," he says with a laugh. "The thing that saved my life about music was, here was this place that, because it was so public, it could be unbelievably private. You could be more revealing than you could with your best friend. People were talking about their weaknesses. They were confessing their darkest sins and it was just this trust."
Wilcox's greatest gift is his ability to sing with an earnest, almost matter-of-fact quality that's usually reserved for friends having beers on back porches as they reflect on life's twisting path. On the alternately thoughtful and amusing "Sex and Music," he notes that "What you are going to get out of them both is just what you put in." Like a keen conversationalist he's able to turn an experience with a broken arm's plaster cast ("Cast Off") into a metaphor for untended psychic wounds, as a doctor warns: "You atrophy the longer it stays."
The happy man
For his next album, Wilcox says he's seeking out friends' input for the final song selection. To that end, he's giving them a few dozen tracks divided across two CDs that he's labeled as A-list and B-list songs.
"It's really funny because I've given it to eight friends so far, and they all come back with completely different lists. Like 'I think these are labeled wrong. The B-list songs are way better,'" he chuckles. "There are a lot of songs I say, 'I put this on there but I would never record it.' And they ask why, and I say because the persona in that song is a total asshole. And they say, 'We love you Dave. We already know you're an asshole.'"
Clearly Wilcox has found friends as honest and witty as he is. But as happy as he is with his life, he laments how the industry has changed. Of course, he notes that his son isn't going into music despite being "far more talented."
"He's just smart. He realizes that everyone he knows has never bought any music, ever," says Wilcox. "Then again, it may be the best thing that could happen to music because only people who have to do it — who really love to do it — would do it."
Wilcox knows why he's one of the latter.
"I do what I do because I love the writing and I love how it enriches my life," he says. "The songs that I'm singing every night are the songs that I need — not to learn how to play, but to learn how to live," says Wilcox. "Each time I play the song it reminds me that I could really see the world this way."