It’s not just that the 16-year-old Matthew Davidson writes his own music, a considerably rare thing among blues prodigies. And it’s not just that he deftly combines these rootsy leanings with towering pop hooks. It’s not just his boyish good looks, either. It’s all of that, as Davidson crafts a sophomore project that is as intriguing as it is offbeat. In the end, Cross My Heart is both a blues record that often moves far afield from the blues, and a pop record with real soul.
And it works, principally because of the endless approachability that Davidson brings to things. “Read My Mind,” featuring producer Jimmy Wooten on bass, provides an early example of how Davidson combines these two seemingly disparate aesthetics. Keying on a relationship narrative that plays out in every young relationship, Davidson effortlessly transitions from a power pop-influenced verse into a scalding roots-focused solo.
The road that brought Davidson to this place, even as his classmates are likely still more concerned with first cars and prom, begins early on. Very early on, in fact: The Louisiana native picked up his first guitar at the tender age of three. By 2007, he was winning the Guitar Showdown run by James Burton, former sideman with Elvis Presley. By 2010, Davidson was leading his own band into venues and festivals from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival to the Dallas House of Blues. He’s subsequently earned the New Generation Award from the Robert Johnson Foundation, and was featured last fall in Guitar Center magazine.
At the same time, though, Davidson remains firmly rooted in his own time. And that’s what gives Cross My Heart its unforgettable spark: “Heartbreaker,” for instance, combines an atmospheric, almost orchestral, keyboard counterpoint with a lyric that sweetly conveys this heartbreaking, very modern lonesomeness. Davidson might rip off a blast of Delta-sparked guitar, but he quickly returns for a soaring vocal chorus that would have fit right in on every radio-ready hit from the Beach Boys to the Raspberries to the 1990s boy-band revival groups.
Meanwhile, “One More Beautiful Thing” is a thrilling moment best described as shotgun-shack power pop, with Kyle McClanahan and Gary Walton on drums and keyboards respectively. (Walton co-wrote this track, as well as “Diamond Ring” and “Heartbreaker.”) When Davidson returns to his instrument for a solo, it’s with the fiery, deeply assured determination.
Lest Davidson be tagged as a popstar simply masquerading as a blues guy, however, Cross My Heart is actually centered by a tough cut called “Diamand Ring,” again featuring McClanahan and Walton. Davison can be heard through unleashing a series of teeth-splintering asides that would have brought a twinkle to the late Stevie Ray Vaughan’s eyes. To be fair, though, even here Davidson’s unerring eye for the approachable guides the song into mainstream waters – making the opportunities for crossover success on Cross My Heart seemingly limitless.
He finally gets down to the nitty and to the gritty, however, on the album-closing “Overseas” – the deepest Davidson digs into both heartbreak and a dangerous urban-blues grind. Anyone who questions this teen’s ability to find the requisite pain, and the requisite passion, to play the blues is directed to this scalding entreaty.
That said, it’s refreshing to know there’s more – in fact, much more – to Cross My Heart, and to Davison.