The West Virginia country boys put their stamp on a classic about hardworking people.
Worker anthems might not get more classic than Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon.” Written and recorded in 1946 and released in 1947 on the Kentucky singer-songwriter’s album Folk Songs of the Hills (which also included his original Sixteen Tons), it lays bare the plight of coal miners. Recorded many times over the decades — perhaps most famously by Johnny Cash, who performed it at Folsom Prison in 1968 and released it on the live album At Folsom Prison — the tune has gotten a new acoustic treatment by the Davisson Brothers Band.
The band hails from the hills of West Virginia. They know coal country. The official music video for their cover of “Dark as a Dungeon” delivers an almost excruciatingly heartfelt performance. “The song lauds the hard work and sacrifice of miners, and it’s also a cautionary tale against working in the mines: ‘It’ll become a habit that’s attached to your soul … there’s just no escaping that life in the hole,’” says lead guitarist Chris Davisson.
In the band’s haunting and hanging delivery, there’s no mistaking that the hole is both literal and metaphorical. Those who work down those shafts breathing coal dust and those who toil on other treadmills to earn a living while spending time away from loved ones might find themselves in an imprisoning work situation as dark as a dungeon.
We talked with the band about their new rendition of “Dark as a Dungeon” and their video performance of the classic coal-miner’s lament.
Download the song here.
Cowboys & Indians: Tell us a little bit about the band.
Davisson Brothers Band: We are a four-piece band consisting of two brothers, Donnie [lead vocals] and Chris Davisson; nephew, Gerrod Bee [bass]; and childhood friend, Aaron Regester [drums]. We’re based out of Nashville but reside in West Virginia. We make music that is true to our roots and where we come from. We live and breathe a country lifestyle. If we are not on the road making music, you might find us taking care of the farm, running hounds, waste deep in a trout stream, or hunting small game, long beards and white tail. We love our family and we love chasing the American Dream.
C&I: So many people have put their stamp on this song. What made you want to record “Dark as a Dungeon”?
Davisson Brothers Band: The idea to record the song came about while we were in Australia last year. We were on a tour with Chugg Entertainment and Casey Barnes. On the last show of the tour, we were the international headliner at the Groundwater Festival on the Gold Coast. The massive crowd in front of us was really in tune and a great listening audience.
We change our set list nightly and a lot of times on the spot during the set. This particular show was one of those times. After looking across the crowd, we noticed the everyday working folks in attendance.
We were reminded of home, so we decided to break the show down and go acoustic for a song like we would sitting on the back porch. We performed an old song that has been in our family for many years and written in the 1940s by Merle Travis. We have always done our own unique take on the song. Donnie had the pleasure of performing this song at a young age with John Cowan (New Grass Revival, Doobie Brothers) and since then it has taken on a ballad -influenced version from John.
C&I: It speaks to you. How did the Aussies react?
Davisson Brothers Band: The song has a powerful, deep meaning and speaks from the heart, so we thought it was fitting. The crowd had had a roar going on through the downtown city with 70,000 plus festival goers. After strumming the first chord, the audience noise was gone. It was as if something magical happened. The silence of the crowd was something that gave us cold chills and felt meant to be.
Donnie sang the first verse and chorus and you could still hear a pin drop. After midway, people were hugging, tearing up, lighters up with all kinds of emotions. As we ended the song, we could tell something special had just happened. We had made a connection with Australia.
From our side, we felt like we had just made friends with the entire crowd. As we walked side stage to bring the full band back out, we realized we were not the only ones in our camp that felt the intense energy and experienced what we did. As we walked over, our label rep from Sony Music Australia was having a moment. He was very fired up over what had just happened and said we have to cut this song immediately. We had never thought about cutting this song and never dreamed we would ever play it in Australia.
The next day, we stuck around to hang with our friends, Lee Kernaghan and the Wolfe Brothers. We were blown away while walking through the crowds by how many people approached us about this song and what it meant to them. We sat and talked for hours with people and shook hands. We could not wait to get back to Nashville and record this track.
We are happy to announce it is done now and available on all digital networks. Thank you, Australia, for bringing this track to life. We hope you all enjoy this version of the Davisson Brothers and Stewart Duncan on fiddle. This is new territory for us, so we hope you enjoy it.
C&I: There’s a video performance of the song that has Chris on lead guitar, Donnie on lead vocals and guitar, Aaron on guitar, Gerrod on upright bass, and Megan Darby on fiddle. What else can you tell us about the video?
Davisson Brothers Band: We are from West Virginia and a lot of our heritage and culture is centered around coal mining and coal-mining families. We do not come from a coal-mining family, but we were raised in the heart of coal country. It’s always been a special way of life here in the mountains of West Virginia and Appalachia.
Our family comes from Big Rock Camp, West Virginia. We would spend our summers at the family farm baling hay, hoeing gardens, pickin’ guitars, and telling stories. We would learn a lot of songs from our uncles and our dad that were passed down to them from our Grandfather Wade Davisson. Our family had settled in our hometown of Clarksburg, West Virginia in the 1700s. Daniel D. Davisson was the very first settler in Harrison County, Virginia, which is now modern day Clarksburg, West Virginia. The state had still been Virginia at the time of his arrival.
Daniel was a major in the Revolutionary War and was awarded 400 acres for him and his family for his war efforts. Upon arrival it was unsettled and Indian territory as well. After building a fort and an ordinary soon later he would acquire a lot more land and become the high sheriff of Harrison County, then Virginia.
The land we ended up with sets on the outskirts of town about 20 miles; our family is buried there dating back to the 1700s. One Davisson tombstone at the family farm says “Killed by an Indian while hunting 10 Mile Creek.”
After years of evolving from the brutal farm life and hard work, the area was introduced to coal mining. Back in those days the coal miners would come up our holler and go to work. Our grandfather would tell us about all the songs that the miners would sing and play during lunch breaks and after shift parties. They always had the newest and most up-to-date songs and music. They would bring these fresh songs for their time from the city. These songs would eventually make it to my family. This song, “Dark as a Dungeon,” is one of them.
Back then no one had access to records and radio stations that far out in the country. They relied on memory and learning songs on the spot. This was one of many songs we have learned from our dad and uncles that we really didn’t know where it came from and the lyrics changed every time you sang and played it. Over the years it made its way into our live show. We always had a deep respect for the lyrics and the emotion of the song and how it represents the working class.
C&I: How about the location?
Davisson Brothers Band: When the discussion came about for the video location we decided to stay close to house and film at an actual Coal Mine Ghost Town. We were lucky enough to have a family friend that owns a few coal mines. They let us in one of their nonfunctioning mines. It was really neat for us to get to experience that. Being there in person and feeling that vibe and knowing how much hard, hard work took place there was humbling. We filmed in “low coal,” meaning the highest point underground is 36 inches tall. We filmed the performance scenes at the 4-T Arena outside of Clarksburg, West Virginia. It’s a horse arena and working farm. Our good friends, Jeff and MaryAnn Tucker, own the arena. We feel at home there.
C&I: What’s next for you musically?
Davisson Brothers Band: We are excited to be releasing a steady flow of new music over the next few months. We have a really great team behind us working really hard. We have spent these last few months off the road preparing for a couple of releases. The break from touring due to COVID inspired our next release. We work with Sony Music Australia as well and also have an amazing Australian team. During the first couple weeks of the virus outbreak, we were doing an interview with an Australian artist friend of ours named Amber Lawrence. Amber has her own Iheart radio show and does a lot of cool guest interviews and social-media pieces. During the interview, she performed a verse and chorus of one of our songs to us and caught us off guard. We were blown away by her take on it.
After the interview, we were on an email together doing a follow-up and a “thank you for having us on your show” message back and forth. We thought we would ask her to write with us. Not knowing what to expect, she accepted the offer. About a week later, we were on a Zoom write together along with our close friend and songwriter buddy Rob Snyder. We had one of those moments where the song just came together. Shortly after the write, we knew it had to be recorded and released. Immediately we got into a studio cutting tracks working day and night while Amber was doing her part in Australia. We didn’t let the 15-hour time difference get in our way. We spent a lot of time making this track and went down a few new roads in the studio. The new song is called “Greatest Show on Earth” and will release worldwide August 7, 2020. Another single will follow in the fall called “Pond Fishing.”
Photography: Image courtesy Justin Mayotte