This is an installment in a series called “One Song,” in which I talk to a songwriter about just one song. I got a chance to talk to David Mayfield at Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion about the song Human Cannonball from his most recent album Good Man Down.
When I arrive, David is recording a video of a new song that will be on his next album. The video will be part of Live and Breathing, a series of intimate performances by artists, shot in interesting locations. This particular interesting location is L.C. King Manufacturing Company, a downtown Bristol business that makes overalls, dungarees and other work clothes. It’s still owned by the original owner’s family and is celebrating its 100th anniversary, which is one of the reasons it was chosen to be the site for the Live and Breathing videos this weekend during the festival.
The other reason is that the sewing machine room upstairs, where the videos are being shot, has a cool vibe and excellent acoustics. I wait in the stock room, along with the band Apache Relay, whose video shoot is next. Oh, and also Bill Alexander, the “Appalachian Hippie Poet,” from Knoxville, who has brought food and drinks for the musicians. Before I talk to David, my friend Karen records Bill reciting a poem he wrote to commemorate L.C. King’s 100th anniversary.
Soon after, David finishes with the video shoot and we talk in the large stockroom, leaning our elbows on stacks of overalls. The song Human Cannonball is rich in dynamics. It starts with a lone violin voicing a plaintive melody, backed by the spare notes of an acoustic guitar, then builds into a lush, full-bodied arrangement. At the end, all the instruments drop out except the guitar and violin, as David sings, “Lady, please don’t forget me now.” By the time David sings the last two words, even the violin and guitar have dropped out, and his voice is alone, the last note dropping in pitch, evoking an unmistakable feeling of loneliness.
David talks about the inspiration for the song. “One of the things with this lifestyle that I find a lot is just going up on stage and having fans and friends and everyone’s excited and it’s a big party and I’m kind of the center of attention. And then when the show’s over everyone goes home and I’m packing up and then I’m completely alone and it’s kind of…you know, a higher high brings lower lows sort of a thing. So I definitely think that’s kind of how I was feeling when I was writing that song. And kind of where that emotion comes from, where it starts with just me and then there’s the big adrenaline rush and at the end it’s still just me.”
Walking in circles cause she wouldn’t pick up the phone.
I’m not so sure that she’s capable of being alone.
I can’t get me to her to tell her that everything’s fine.
If she’d answer I’d send her my love over telephone lines.
I ask David about the yearning for connection that I hear in the lyrics.
“Yeah, absolutely. For 90 minutes or however long we’re up there I feel like I’m the popular kid in high school and then when the show’s over, especially when we’re traveling, and I’m far from family and friends I feel like I don’t have a friend in the world. When I wrote Human Cannonball it was one of those moments where we had a big great show and I was on top of the world and then it was over and then I was alone. And you know, there was a gal in Nashville that I had been courting and she wasn’t answering. We had made plans like ‘Call me after the show’ so I had like 20 minutes between everything being packed up and when we had to start driving to the next place to sit down and call her and she didn’t answer. So instead I wrote that song.”
Then he admits, with a wry smile, “Then, I called her probably too many times, probably called her an obsessive amount of times.”
Even during a show, there are moments when being on stage can feel isolating and he looks for a connection with the audience. I reminded him of how he ended the song at the Reevestock Music Festival He sang Human Cannonball as the encore. After a high-energy set, at the end of the song, he unplugged his guitar, left his microphone behind and walked into the audience. The noisy crowd fell silent as he sang the last chorus, and after the last line he walked away. I asked David if he had planned to end the show that way.
“Well I never plan anything. Anything that ever happens is just inspired by the moment. But I think that I like to connect with the audience in some way. Because I really feel like, especially now, as I’ve started to grow as a performer, and have more people coming to shows, and more people buying records, it feels more like some kind of community is building and it feels like something that’s bigger than just me and maybe it’s a selfish plea to connect with that. I want to be friends with you guys too. I don’t want to just be the dancing monkey.
“So sometimes I kind of like that, I just bring it back to connect with the audience and just remind everybody that we’re on the same level, you know. Just because I’m in front of the microphone and you’re in front of the stage doesn’t mean that there’s any human barrier. We’re just people and we’re all here for the same reason.“
One of the things that makes Human Cannonball so moving is the contrast between the vulnerability of the song and the over-the-top showmanship that David employs during his live performances. His concerts can have almost a circus atmosphere. He often enters the stage by doing a somersault. He throws his guitar back to the bass player. He climbs on anything he can find. I ask him about a particular move he did at a recent performance at Charlotte’s Double Door Inn.
I say, “You did a move that I’ve never seen anyone do in that venue before and I don’t think I ever will again. There were these rafters and you grabbed the rafters and in this amazing athletic maneuver you actually pulled yourself till you were horizontal…”
“To the ceiling. I remember that.”
“Did you know you were gonna do that insane thing?” I ask him.
“Well, like I said earlier, I don’t plan anything.”
“Cause that could have gone really badly.”
“It could have!” He confesses that just last night, during his first performance at Bristol Rhythm & Roots, he was contemplating an even crazier stunt.
“You know, last night I was climbing on the scaffolding beside the stage and I looked up there and I’m thinking ‘I could go all the way to the top!’ And then I was just thinking, my parents are here, we have another show tomorrow…”
“And how are you gonna get down?” I ask.
“Yeah! And I’m afraid of heights. So I just didn’t do it. But yeah I found, all the dumb stuff I do, I’ve never practiced it. I didn’t realize I could do a back bend until I was on stage in front of a thousand people and I did one and was like ‘Hey! I could probably do that tomorrow!’”
The song’s chorus starts:
It’s raining in Boston tonight.
Stars are hiding in my skies.
I ask David if he was in Boston when he wrote the song.
“Yes. We were in Boston and it was raining.”
Karen asks David a question that many listeners probably have about songs with place names in the lyrics. If he had been in a different city that didn’t sound good in the lyrics would he have changed the name of the city?
“Well, my mom talks about a place called Booger Rock. You know, honestly, I don’t think I would have written that line if it hadn’t been…it wasn’t like I was like ‘It’s raining…where am I?’ It came out because that’s where I was.”
Human Cannonball was a collaboration with songwriter and music producer Joey Beltram, and David often collaborates with other songwriters as well.
“He (Joey Beltram) is an old friend of mine and a good songwriter. And it was just something where I had basically the verses all written and then ideas for the chorus, then we passed things around. We were emailing things back and forth, which is what I do a lot of.
“I’m going into the studio in October to make a new record and a lot of it I’m writing with my friend Christian Lee Hudson, who’s a great songwriter from L.A. and we don’t ever get to see each other. So I will literally send him a verse and a chorus and say ‘What do you think of this?’ And he’ll either write back and say ‘Yeah, sounds good. I want to hear it when it’s done.’ And that means it doesn’t speak to him.
“But I sent him a song that I just played upstairs called The Man I’m Trying To Be. And I sent him the first two verses and the chorus just to get his opinion on it. And he didn’t even respond, he just sent me back the last verse fully written and it’s beautiful. And it really spoke to him and he said ‘This is the best thing you’ve ever written’ and I said, ‘You wrote it, you helped me because you found the bookend.’ Because you know, sometimes it’s nice to have a fresh perspective. “
I ask David about the imagery of the human cannonball.
“I’ve always been sort of a fan of the circus…just the show aspect of things. The spectacle. So I had been thinking of that kind of stuff a lot. And just wanting to be where I wasn’t. And sort of thinking that the need to be where I wanted to be was so powerful that if I was just launched randomly into the sky I would land right where I was supposed to be.”
I say, “But of course when you’re launched you don’t know where you’ll land.”
“Right. But I was hoping that I would manifest my own destiny. And simply by being launched I would land right where I wanted to. Cause wherever I would land is where I was meant to be.”