One of John T Davis’ earliest memories is of donning the bandana, boots and chaps of his silver screen cowboy idol, Hopalong Cassidy. Deep in the hills of Holywood, County Down, he would saddle up his tin horse Mobo and imagine himself that square-shooting ‘prairie hero’. Those childhood dreams grew into the full blown passion for American movies, music and the mystique of the West that has inspired his diverse artistic achievements.
John is internationally recognized as Northern Ireland’s most distinctive documentary filmmaker and cinematographer. Born in Holywood, County Down in 1947, he showed an early talent for technical design and from 1967 to 1971 studied painting at Belfast College of Art. During these formative years, the songs of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, the novels of John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac, and the cinema verite of D.A. Pennebaker all made a deep impression on his evolving artistic practice.
The inheritance in 1974 of an 8mm camera from his maternal uncle John McBride Neill enabled John to make his first film, the experimental Warhol/Reid-inflected Transfer (1975). He began his professional filmmaking career in 1977, cutting his teeth as cameraman and director on a range of industrial films. He rapidly developed a personal vision and poetic style that has characterized the over a dozen internationally acclaimed, cutting-edge feature documentary films he has directed. These include the groundbreaking Shellshock Rock (1979), a radical, energized record of Northern Ireland’s punk scene which was notoriously banned from the Cork Film Festival, the epic road film Route 66 (1985), Dust on the Bible and Power in the Blood (1989). He went on to make Heart on the Line (1990), Hobo (1991), Hip to the Tip: Atlantic – The Independent Years (1993), Van Morrison Live in Santa Monica (1994), The Uncle Jack (1996), Traveller (2000), A House Divided (2003), and Tailwind (2008). He has also directed music videos for The Outcasts, Delta, Light a Big Fire, Van Morrison and In Tua Nua, and was director of photography for acoustic performances by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker on the BBC Arena documentary One Irish Rover (1991).
John’s films have been screened at national and international festivals and symposia in Cork, London, Dublin, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, San Sebastian, Hong Kong, Prague, Paris, Rotterdam and Sao Paulo. In 2011 The Uncle Jack was translated into Portuguese and released on DVD in Brazil in conjunction with the publication of a book-length critical study of the film. In 2013 his punk rock trilogy, Shellshock Rock, Protex Hurrah and Self Conscious Over You, was translated into Japanese and released on DVD by King Records in Japan. John is the recipient of the New York Film and Television Silver Award (Shellshock Rock, 1979), the Banff Film Festival Special Jury Award (Route 66, 1985), the Celtic Film Festival Award (Dust on the Bible, 1989), Young Audiences Award, San Sebastian Film Festival (Hobo, 1991), and the Best Feature Award, London Festival of New Irish Cinema/Critics’ Choice Award, Hong Kong European Film Festival (The Uncle Jack, 1996). Across his forty year career as a visual artist, there have been major film retrospectives and photographic exhibitions of his work, and his documentaries have been the subject of numerous scholarly books and feature articles. He was elected to Aosdana in 2005 in recognition of his significant contribution to the arts in Ireland.
Music is a prominent feature in each of John’s films, and in recent years he has proven himself an accomplished lyricist and performer of his unique brand of Western Country music. Over thirty years of working and travelling in the United States shooting the landmark films Route 66, Hobo, Heart on the Line and Hip to the Tip: Atlantic – The Independent Years made the country a second home for him and spurred his songwriting career.
The confluence between John’s filmmaking and songwriting is evident in lyrics and melodies sourced in a deep affinity with the people, places and musical styles of North America. His songs build on both the ballad tradition of America’s working cowboys, and the romanticism of Hollywood’s singing cowboys – Gene Autry, Rex Allen, Jimmy Wakely. And they take their place in the stable of noted contemporary Western artists such as Dave Stamey, Ian Tyson, Tom Russell and Brenn Hill.
Last Western Cowboy is John’s first CD recording, and this debut album features nine original tracks born of his lifelong love affair with that country of the heart. Backed by a band of world class session musicians, the songs bring to life unforgettable characters and back of beyond locations. Their crafted lyrics conjure rhythms of romantic longing and spiritual desire, and tell stories about range-riding cowboys, plainspeaking old timers, first time honeymooners and last chance lovers. These are songs for the heart and soul to dance to . . . if you can two-step or swing!
Hard on the heels of Last Western Cowboy comes the follow-up album Indigo Snow. The nine original tracks on this complementary release take the musical style and heart on the line songwriting established on Last Western Cowboy in strikingly fresh directions. Indigo Snow delves deep into the soul of North America’s unforgiving landscapes to present a darker, more introspective vision while staying true to the ballad strains and singing cowboy refrains that won listeners to Last Western Cowboy.
The songs on Indigo Snow range from the title track’s haunting evocation of ‘the land of granite where the ice wind blew’, its indelible chorus urging John’s ‘just let go’ philosophy, through to unflinching accounts of the patriotism and the hypocrisies of military engagements across the generations. This emotionally powerful album brings together range-roaming love songs with songs of heartache and heartbreak, and features poignant, cinematic tributes to hometown hardware store owner Ralph Richards, B-17 pilot Tailwind Charlie, Hank Williams and Beargrease, the unforgettable figure central to Davis’ award-winning film Hobo.
Last Western Cowboy and Indigo Snow were recorded at Mouth Studios in Belfast. The two albums are the result of a fortuitous creative collaboration between John and acclaimed record producer Mudd Wallace, whose musical acumen brings a distinctive signature to the albums. Songs from the CDs will feature on the soundtrack of mshiikenhmnising, the film John is currently researching.