Singer-songwriter David Mayfield doesn’t usually worry much about the vibe or look of a recording studio room. With his band the David Mayfield Parade he’s typically content going headlong into a song, relying on raw emotion. But for the recording of the song “Goodbye Farewell So Long” off his band’s sophomore release Good Man Down , he made an exception. Mayfield approached the vintage-looking microphone in the expansive recording room at RCA Studio B, while the rest of the band took their spots about eight feet apart. They started playing, and went through the song once. “Let’s dim the lights,” someone said afterwards. This trial and error series of events repeated several more times until the lights were so dim Mayfield could barely see the rest of the band. Seemingly alone in the darkened room he felt a flood of emotion. The vibe felt perfect. It was surreal. He started thinking of the legends that had sung into that very microphone and his own place in music history.
David Mayfield’s life is made of these kind of moments, some big and some small.From days playing in his family’s band to playing alongside popular groups like the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, the charismatic and eccentric Mayfield finds musical nourishment in each opportunity that comes his way. He’s found his music’s worth extends far behind being a singer and frontman in a band. We talked to Mayfield prior to the release of Good Man Down (out April 2) to explore some of these moments.
(Ed Note: The album stream has expired, but you can buy the album here)
When you were growing up you, were in band with your family. Could you talk about what that was like?
My mom and dad met each other at a bluegrass festival. They were professional musicians most of my childhood. When I was about 12 or so their bass player quit and I said “Well if you’ll buy me a bass I’ll learn how to play it and be your bass player.” So they bought me a bass with their income check or whatever. And I started playing. Eventually my younger sister, Jessica Lea Mayfield, she joined when she was about eight or nine years old. And then the non-family members all quit and we kind of become the Partridge Family.
We sold our house in Ohio and my folks bought an old bus and we traveled the country playing bluegrass shows and county fairs and churches. We did that for four or five years that we lived in that bus only. So it’s definitely connection thing with childhood. There’s this unique sense of closeness in the family because it wasn’t like dad brought home the bacon and mom did the dishes; we all as a family equally supported ourselves with music. So it was a unique dynamic.
What was a typical day like?
There weren’t a whole lot of typical days I guess. We were home schooled so there would be three or four hours of school in a day which was mostly my mom would facilitate that. And as we got older I would teach Jessica and myself. And after awhile we quit doing it at all. So kind of home school drop-out. For a year we parked the bus in Nashville and played on Broadway and the honky-tonk strip by day because we were kids so we couldn’t be down there at night. We would play noon to four at different places all day and at night we would go off and play a concert somewhere. A lot of the concern with homeschooling is that you don’t have the social life of going to school everyday but I definitely did have a social life. It was just with people twenty and thirty years older than me. So it was an interesting way to mature.
And you played mostly bluegrass?
Well my parents were kind of hippies. So there was some newgrass and some more progressive things. But I’ve always been obsessed with southern gospel and bluegrass gospel music. So we did a lot of that. My parents weren’t religious but I would force them to sing these gospel songs because I thought they were so cool.
During that time you learned the guitar and mandolin?
Yeah. I started on bass really to fill the need but I always loved the mandolin and would always be playing it. When we played shows people would show me things here and there. I never took a lesson or anything in my life but I stole lots of little lessons off of other musicians. I would ask about something backstage or something or at an informal party I would corner someone and ask them something. So the mandolin was my first passion.
The guitar really came after as I started writing and singing. When I was 19 or 20 I started hosting open mic nights. It was before I started writing but it was hard to sing a song and accompany myself on mandolin. So I picked up a guitar and now that’s my main thing.
What’s your guitar playing style like?
Mostly what I do on guitar is kind of a weird mix between bluegrass flatpicking and rock and roll. I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s just fast and sloppy, I say. I play guitar like I eat, fast and sloppy.
The family moved from Ohio to Nashville and back to Ohio. Why was that?
I think my parents got burnt out playing music everyday so I was about 18 when we decided to come back to Ohio. My folks got a house and my dad got a job and I got a job. And we were like “Okay, we tried music but it’s too hard. We want to make sure we know we’ll have food every night.” And have creature comforts and some consistency. We moved back to Ohio and stayed there the next five to six years and that’s when I really started writing and started hosting those open mic nights and all that.
Jessica and I would play at a pizza shop every Monday night. I was talking to my buddy who also hosted open mic nights and I said ‘Man, next Monday will mean that I’ve played at that pizza place every Monday for almost five years.’ And he was like ‘Ah that nothing. I’ve played at the bar in Akron every Tuesday for 15 years.’ And I thought ‘I don’t want to be hosting open mic nights 10 years later. I have to do something.’ Just because my parents were ready to move past that professional musical act didn’t mean I had to.
What was your move to Nashville like later?
I moved back to Nashville a couple months after that conversation. And I didn’t know a soul. I found a room on Craigslist and rented it and just started auditioning on Broadway and handed out cards and was trying to become a session musician. Eventually I got a gig with country artist Andy Griggs who had a few hits in the early 2000s and late ‘90s. You knew he was on the downward slope of his career but it was a paying gig and we were on a big tour bus and I really felt that I made it. And I did that a couple years, which was a learning experience.
We got to play the Grand Ole Opry like fourteen times and tour with Brad Paisley and Sugarland and all these people in the country world and really get to see the professionalism that goes into a touring act of that level. And that’s something I felt I brought into my own music was that even if I’m not playing the Grand Ole Opry I can still take that professionalism into my world.
So I was playing with him when my sister was making her debut record. I went back to Ohio for a weekend and we recorded her album with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. And the Avett Brothers invited her to open up for them on their Emotionalism tour. So I had this choice where I could either stay in this country world and get the good paycheck I’m getting and play this music I wasn’t passionate about but I was playing professional music or I could take a big pay cut and go on tour with my sister and the Avett Brothers and be part of something I felt more personal towards and I opted for that.
It looks like things started happening quickly after that.
I did that tour with my sister and then I got a call from a friend of mine that’s like ‘Hey there’s this band that’s looking for a guitar player and a songwriter and singer. They’re called Cadillac Sky. Would you be interested in looking into this?’ And I was like ‘Well I’m playing with my sister and having fun but it would be nice to have an outlet for my songs because when I’m playing with my sister we’re just playing her songs.’
So I met up with Cadillac Sky and auditioned for that and they hired me. I was with them for two years and made a record with Dan Auerbach and wrote about half the songs on that. It was my first venture into frontman world and being the focus even though I was half-frontman. We went on tour with Mumford & Sons in February of 2010 I believe and we broke up after that. And that’s when I said ‘Well, now what? I guess I’ll do the Parade. I’ll give my own music a chance.’ It was terrifying but it seems to be the right choice now.
You have a pretty unique relationship with Jessica. Could you talk about that?
Growing up in that family band certainly gave us a unique relationship early on because we were each other’s best friends. We didn’t go to school or hang out with people every day. So it was just me and her just hanging out. And we got really close. When we toured together it was really fun to experience touring in this way together for the first time. We write a lot of songs together and I co-wrote 4 or 5 on her last record Tell Me. And she co-wrote some on my last record. And we’ve been writing for her new record.
It’s neat. We can write together so well because we trust each other. We’ve only sat down and written one song together from beginning to end. Everything else has been she’s had a song that she can’t finish or I have a song I can start or something like that. And we’ll hand it off. Her and I were really personal songwriters and sit in the dark and write by ourselves. So that’s worked out really well co-writing as we can have something that is really personal to us and hand it off to the other person and they can write from their personal perspective. It opens and sheds new light on where we’re trying to go as opposed if I’m just writing it and I’m beating the same view into the ground.
Last year you went on a sibling-themed tour with her. What was that like?
It was a lot of fun. We didn’t have any new projects to promote at the time so we decided to play together. It felt like the perfect time to do something different and see if people would be interested in an intimate brother-sister duo acoustic show. There was a fun sense of family. It was a good success and we sold a lot of the shows out. We got to play a lot of the songs we used to play in the family band and her songs and mine and did some new songs. Now that I’m putting out a new record and she’s getting ready to put out a new one later in the year it’s something I don’t think we’ll be able to do for awhile. So it’ll be a year or two before we can do it again. But it’s definitely something we want to do. We talked about doing a duet album someday down the line.
When you were on tour with the Avett Brothers you formed a pretty special friendship with them. What was the first meeting with them like?
I first met the Avett Brothers at a festival southern Ohio called the Appalachian Uprising. We were playing there. My mom has a great stage personality so a lot of times she would MC festivals that we played at. The Avett Brothers played at midnight and my mom had been up announcing all the bands so she was like ‘Will you announce this band tonight?’ I hadn’t heard much about them but my sister was like, “You should listen to these guys. They’re great.” And I watched a YouTube video and thought, “Oh, the banjo’s out of tune,” and didn’t get it when I first saw them. So I met them and they told my how to pronounce their name and this was right before Emotionalism came out.
They were really sweet and sincere guys. They’re the nicest people that you ever want to know. If you want to know what the Avett Brothers are like just listen to their lyrics. They live what they write. We became fast friends because they’re goofy and bat-shit-crazy as well so we got a long great. When Jessica toured with them we did the whole tour. And we all became fast friends. They had me sit in at Merle Fest and I played drums for them at Bonnaroo a couple years ago when their drummer was ill. I’m not a drummer so they must like me for some other reason.
They eventually convinced you to make your own record. What was that conversation like?
We were playing at Seth Avett’s house and Jessica was there and we were passing the guitar around. And I played him one of my songs. Seth was the first one that said ‘Man, you need to make a record of that kind of stuff because that’s a good song.’ And it got me thinking ‘Well maybe I should make my own record.’ Later in a discussion they were like ‘We like Cadillac Sky but you should be your own thing.’ I knew Cadillac Sky was looking like it was going to break up so it looked like the right thing to do, to give myself a chance.
They ended up helping with both your albums.
Yeah, the new one Seth sings on and that first record I did both Scott and Seth play and sing harmonies on most of that record. They were really enthusiastic about helping out.