Perhaps one of the worst things that can happen to an artist at any time is the closure of a label. Particularly if that label is not very long-lived, and never really has a true breakthrough. It's happened to artists such as James Otto and Little Big Town, and in 2000, it happened to a long-forgotten Virginian named Clay Davidson.
After winning Charlie Daniels' Talent Round-Up on TNN in 1995, Davidson made his way to Music City. He had worked as a demo singer (including Tracy Lawrence's "Lonely" and Ty Herndon's "Steam"), but no labels took him in as an artist until one day, Davidson was invited to a party at record producer Scott Hendricks' ranch. Hendricks, who had just left Capitol Records, told Billboard that "if I ever got a label again, I would sign him immediately." By 1999, Hendricks had founded Virgin Records Nashville, which had already seen minor chart action out of Julie Reeves and Jerry Kilgore, plus minor sales success with phone pranksters Tom Mabe and Roy D. Mercer, but no real breakthrough yet.
But by 2000, Clay Davidson seemed poised to be that breakthrough artist for Virgin Nashville. His lead single, "Unconditional," hit the charts in January 2000, at the start of what would turn out to be a very boring year for country music. On the January 15 chart, Faith Hill's extremely overrated pop ballad "Breathe" was four weeks into a six-week stay at the top. For many rungs below, the offerings were equally bland and devoid of twang for the most part: Lonestar's mega-hit "Amazed" and hanger-on "Smile"; Tim McGraw's "My Best Friend"; Mark Wills proving that he shouldn't try R&B with his cover of "Back at One"; and Martina McBride's girly, saccharine "I Love You". The year would later bring further blandness in the form of such overrated, pop-skewing, often sappy nothings as "I Hope You Dance," "One Voice," "and "Your Everything."
Not that everything was colorless at that point. LeAnn Rimes' "Big Deal" and Kenny Chesney's "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" added some energy; Brad Paisley's "He Didn't Have to Be", Tracy Byrd's "Put Your Hand in Mine," and Clay Walker's "The Chain of Love" added sentiment without going overboard; Toby Keith's "How Do You Like Me Now?!" and Montgomery Gentry's "Daddy Won't Sell the Farm" added a much-needed grit. But those features — energy, sentiment, and grit — all combined in Clay's first offering, "Unconditional."
In it, Clay sings about stumbling home to his parents after a drunken night out and yelling "I hate you" to his father, only to be told by said father, "You could turn away, forget me / Curse my name, but love won't let me let you go / Son, always know / My love is unconditional." That same chorus is then echoed to a woman with whom the narrator is breaking up, and throughout, the contrast is beautiful: smooth but not too slick strings, piano, and guitar against Clay's tough yet tender singing voice. The song seemed to have just enough pop gloss to cut through one of the poppiest years in radio, but enough lyrical and vocal merit to stand out from the pack. And the song clearly resonated quite well, as its #3 peak can attest. The corresponding album, produced by Hendricks, came out in April. (But as of June, he was still living in a trailer park in Mt. Juliet. Funny how slow the wheels can turn.)
On to single number two, "I Can't Lie to Me." This guitar- and Hammond organ-driven and gritty up-tempo that suggested that Clay and co. were listening to Montgomery Gentry a lot — only natural, since he penned "Didn't Your Mamma Tell Ya" on their debut, and would later write "Tried and True" on their second album. "I Can't Lie to Me" pushed Clay's voice to his lower range in another tale of heartbreak that he hides from his buddies: "I've got everybody thinking I'm Superman strong / But that big ol' S ain't on my chest at night when I get home / One look at my reflection and lonely's all I see / I can tell 'em all I'm glad you're gone / But the truth is, I can't lie to me." In fact, Clay's bracing delivery feels a lot like what would happen if Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry's voices were merged. It might've been a little too much grit for Nashville, as it stalled at #26. Finishing off the album was another beautiful ballad, "Sometimes." She worries that their relationship might be dying off, so she asks if he still loves her, and not just sometimes — and when he says "Yes you're all I want and all I'll ever need / I'm still as hopelessly in love as I can be," you can't help but believe him.
Unfortunately, by this point, Virgin Nashville wasn't panning out, so by February 2001, the label was folded back into Capitol. "Sometimes" made it to #21, and Clay was simply dropped without ever releasing anything for Capitol. Other than a report from CMT that he was in a minor bus accident in Effingham, Illinois in 2001, Davidson completely disappeared from the public consciousness afterward. Restless Heart must've listened to the album too, as they covered "Makin' Hay" on their 2005 album Still Restless.
And I am, once again, at a loss as to why. Sure, his music wasn't 100% in line with what was "in" in Nashville at the time. But "Unconditional" had the right balance to be a hit, and "Sometimes" could've done well if the label hadn't closed. And ex-labelmate Chris Cagle went on to score the occasional hit by taking a similar blend of Southern rock and slick ballads. But the music biz is a fickle one, and unfortunately, every now and then, it's the best of the bunch that gets the short end of the stick. And that's a shame, since I would have really liked to hear a lot more Clay Davidson on the radio. And I don't mean sometimes.