Standing on stage at Third Man Records in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, Ethan Daniel Davidson gazes over a microcosm of his life.
In front of him, Orthodox rabbis share floor space with hip rockers; Detroit Pistons alumni rub elbows with members of the city’s business and philanthropic community. Their common ground tonight is Davidson’s music — specifically, his seventh and latest album, Crows, which came out mid-June.
With a guitar slung over his shoulder and a potent band of Detroit-area musicians behind him — including his wife, Gretchen Gonzales Davidson, a veteran of the groups Slumber Party and Kill Rock Stars — Davidson is comfortably in one of his elements, and perhaps the purest of the 47-year-old’s many and varied endeavors.
“It’s sort of become a hobby with a capital H, I guess, rather than a profession,” the father of three says earlier while on a business trip to Chicago. “My life has changed so much, being involved in all of my dad’s sort of stuff after he died, having kids. There just isn’t the kind of time for it [full time].
“But what hasn’t changed is the healing properties of the music. That was always the thing for me, anyway. The music was a salve. It was medicine. And I feel good about it in a way that I didn’t for most of the past 10 years.”
Davidson has always done music by choice, of course. The son of the late Detroit Pistons and Guardian Industries owner William “Bill” Davidson did not necessarily have another path handed to him, but options were certainly there for a career in the business and financial realms. He studied at Hillel Day School as well as Lahser High School, the University of Michigan, Harvard and the University of Chicago, and there were expectations.
“People would say to me, ‘You’ll follow his footsteps and do what he did,’” Davidson says, and his father encouraged him to study finance and accounting.
But there was an even greater appetite to forge his own path.
“When you live under the shadow of a really big tree, you’ve got to get out from under that, otherwise it’s going to be impossible for you to grow,” Davidson explains. “I think there were people over the years who said, ‘This Ethan guy is kind of a jerk ’cause he went off and did his own thing.’ But you have to differentiate yourself from your parents. It doesn’t matter if your father is Bill Davidson or Bob Smith. I think you’ve got to get out there and find out who you are and what you’re capable of. I would rather earn stuff than just walk into it.”
Music became Davidson’s passion during high school, when he began playing guitar and joined the Lahser High School rock band — where he was also introduced to music from the Motown, Stax and Chess labels as well as contemporary rock. He played bass in “different punk bands that no one remembers,” worked with the Detroit groups December’s Children and Ash Can Van Gogh and also backed singer-songwriter Mary McGuire. Another band, Spiral Dance, had an album on the College Music Journal charts during the early ’90s.
But, Davidson notes, “I could never really operate as the odd man in a band. That’s why I started doing acoustic music; I could travel on my own schedule and didn’t have to rely on other people. I could go where I wanted, when I wanted.
“I wanted to live an existence that was a little closer to the bone — just traveling around, living on the road. I didn’t want to live that life of sort of quiet desperation … that I saw a lot in Bloomfield Hills. To me, music offered a way to live that life that I wanted. It’s a way to be out on the road, to connect with people.”
He followed that path to Wiseman, Alaska, which Davidson called home for a time during the early- and mid-’90s — though his touring schedule kept him away most of the time. That’s where he began to write songs in earnest, however. “It’s this tiny little half-abandoned goldmining camp,” he remembers, “and I would play guitar for people, all sorts of old folks songs and country songs. And I thought, ‘Maybe I could try to do this.’ I was out of college by then and didn’t have any plan, so I started writing songs more seriously.”
Davidson has been releasing albums since the early 2000s, starting as a co-owner of the now defunct Times Beach Records label in Royal Oak. He toured hard — including a trek aptly dubbed the Six Year Tour — and also took a seven-year break at one point before returning to active duty with Silvertooth in 2012, followed by 2015’s Drawnigh and now Crows. During the interim, he crept a bit more into his father’s world and is now active in the family charitable foundation, as well as serving as an archivist for the Pistons as the team prepares to shutter the Palace of Auburn Hills, which his father built, and move downtown to Little Caesars Arena.
Compared to Willie Nelson, Gene Clark and Emmylou Harris, the music of Ethan Daniel Davidson on Crows is filled with tales of “men born in the “shadows of mountains,” “black roads” and “coyotes crouching at doors.” Davidson, in a tintype reminiscent of the early-19th-century photographic technique, has been called by Magnet magazine “that kind of legendary folk singer who supposedly died off a generation or two ago.”
“I slept on the floor of that place,” says Davidson, who worked as a Palace stagehand during his teens and 20s. “I carried gear for all the bands. I rolled up cables after concerts that had all kinds of, um, concert liquids on them.
“Time moves on, of course. Nothing is forever. My father died. Chuck Daly died. Jack McCloskey just passed. You’d think at some point there’s going to be none of us left, or very few of us left and the Palace will be long gone. I’m just happy they asked me to stay involved. I couldn’t be more grateful for that.”
The country-flavored Crows — produced by friend and Detroit music icon Warren Defever (from His Name Is Alive) — displays Davidson’s most thorough immersion yet into Jewish theology. He acknowledges a direct influence from his Chasidic studies, including the Australian-Israeli philosopher Martin Buber and German intellectual Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. “A lot of it is thinking about relationships — how do I have a relationship with another human being or an object, that kind of thing,” Davidson explains, citing a song such as “Coyote” that pulls directly from Genesis stories such as Cain and Abel.
“The thing I got from going to Hillel and growing up Jewish was always very philosophically inclined if not religiously inclined,” says Davidson, who does “Jewish learning with my kids on a daily basis” at home. “The thing that was appealing to me was the philosophy and the dialogue. Jews love to ask questions and challenge things, and that was always appealing to me.” And that, of course, dovetails easily into his songwriting.
“Since the first record I’ve drawn heavily from the Bible in terms of imagery,” Davidson says. “I try to code it in a way it’s maybe not so obvious. I don’t hit somebody over the head. I’m not a born-again evangelical guy singing in a church, after all. I’m an armchair Jewish philosopher.”
Gary Graff Special to the Jewish News