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A New Chapter: John Davis Reflects On His Life And The Valley, And Says So Long

John Steele Davis sits in his stairwell with homemade twisted wood spindles at his home on Simmons Street. Davis is in the process of selling his home and liquidating his stuff as he launches a road trip adventure.

Some of John Davis’ artistic endeavors include this banjo, the reverse of a bust of William Faulkner and a painted concrete owl.

The Centaur is John Davis’ most favorite endeavor.

The Devil, when art becomes controversial…

By Bryan W. Ward

An Interview

Bold type – is Bryan

Plain text is Davis

So are you going to miss it? 

Yes I’m going to miss Water Valley. uh…I sure am… I’ve had a good time here. I moved here in 2004, in the spring. Bought this house… I’d been living out in the country, in the woods, in Lafayette County. I sold my place and I was looking around, and I didn’t have that much money to spend. I didn’t want to go in debt and I had almost enough to buy this house without a loan and so I moved here.

I didn’t know much about water Valley. It was, it was, pretty wild on this side of town when I moved here. There was some apartments next-door that burnt down. There was a murder next door, and after I’ve been here a month I’s sittin’ in this window right here talking to somebody on my old rotary dial telephone that I was using, and I saw a fire out the window… and there’s a new house there next-door to Jimbo and…uh, whose not with us now, uh…and Julia Thompson. That house burnt.

The street life coming up and down this street was, It was pretty wild (John had been living in the woods). I grew up in Bruce, down the road and I’d lived in Oxford a long time so I’m kinda moving in circles. I was born and raised around here, in this area and used to come to Water Valley when I was young. Got my first pair of glasses from Dr. Edgar, who is still living… had to get ‘em to get my drivers license. I found out I couldn’t see as well as I needed too. So here I am, I bought this old house. It was almost 100 years old at the time and uh…settled in.


So how does it feel to be leaving? 

Well it’s got my head spinning some really. My closing’s coming up and so I’ve got a lot of stuff to move, but my life is really changing. I’m going to be on the road and living out of my pick up with a little camper shell on it… not a big camper. I’m gonna miss a lot of people in Water Valley.  

Well I’ve lived in three counties here, most of my life, that join, Calhoun, Lafayette and Yalobusha and most of my family and friends reside in this three county area here and uh so I’m really getting out of my comfort zone. I’ve got comfortable here. The small-town life is…uh the longer I have lived in Water Valley the better I have liked it, and the more I felt like part of the community. I’m kind of a loner, and I really wasn’t much of a joiner while I was here, but I’ve really enjoyed meeting people and enjoyed being a block or so from Main Street.. and uh ..the grocery store and the hardware store and the bank and everything’s right here. Most my life I’ve been out in the country.


        (John is originally from Bruce)


Bruce is a lot newer town than Water Valley… and I’m not really from town anyway, I grew up on a farm. It was a mill town built by the EL Bruce company, and some wealthy timber buyers came in at some point around the turn of the century and bought up a huge amount of timberland, and they built a spur track from Coffeeville up to Skuna Valley and uh, put a mill in on the North side of the Skuna River and the EL Bruce company,..the Fair company, which is a big timber company, uh the Fair family is a Mississippi family.


Water Valley was the big town. It was really roaring?


Yeah Especially with the railroad.  I remember I use to cut pulp-wood some when I was uh.. 

Cut what?


Pulp-wood, paper wood


Pulp-wood…Oh ok…


And Joe Black had, I guess it was Joe Black Senior, he had a pulp-wood yard right down here. I’m trying to think…maybe just North of uh, Magnolia furniture, back up here.

And I remember a big junk yard here, a “really big junkyard”, I think it’s Mr. Carr, had a junkyard.


It’s kind of odd to contemplate Water Valley as the boom town?

Well, it started, Water Valley uh was the boom town up ‘til 1927 when the ICRR pulled the shops out and that was the year that Bruce was incorporated. So Bruce and Water Valley’s just rival old little towns with the high schools, and sport teams and you know and Coffeeville and Calhoun city and the, you know, all around.

So a little bit, a little bit about your dad?


My dad grew up on a farm, his dad farmed with mules. And he was a twin, his twin brother’s still living. Roy, my dad’s  named Ray. They were born in March of 1927, and they caught the tail end of World War II. They both joined, their older brother who is still living by the way, was already in the army in the Pacific. And since they were in the Navy, after the Sullivan brothers on that, you know went down, uh, they were split up after basic training. And they spent around a year and, uh, when the bomb was dropped they sent a lot of folks home because we didn’t you know, just downsizing the military, and my dad bought a small farm that used to be part of the Davis family, after he worked in Memphis for a while, started the family and I’s born, in 1955 when they moved back to Mississippi from Memphis to right next-door to the home-place on the Water Valley route out here on 32, which I still own part of that land. 

He basically wanted to be a farmer. He started his cattle herd with just a couple three or four cows and clearing up his land, raised a little corn and hay, cotton and, had a day job. He worked for Jenkins heating and cooling, and they did a lot a heating and cooling work here in Water Valley, I remember him talking about doing work at the First Baptist Church, he did work at Wright’s Grocery and all around (laughing).


Tell me about, your very, if you can get it, your very first memory of Water Valley.


OK, uh, my first memory, it’s getting kind of shadowy. I remember uh, my older brother James in the summertime, we’d go stay a week or two with my aunt and uncle in Memphis, and my Uncle Mac Dulaney had some relatives here in Water Valley and uh, we’d ride up. My uncle Mac Dulaney was a truck driver, and they didn’t have children, and uh, we’d go up and stay a couple of weeks, and it was a big treat. Memphis was a big deal. He’s an uncle by marriage. He’s married to my dad’s sister, and he had some relatives here in Water Valley. There was a man named Top, and he’s a little short guy, older guy and this was in the 60s.


And that’s Topp T O P P?


T O P… he went by Top and that family had a restaurant somewhere in Water Valley on Main Street or she worked in a restaurant, one, but there was a house in the country and we spent the night and we went fishing out here at Prophet Bridge. Years later I recognized it from just going up 315. We put in at the Boat-landing and went down to the river and the water was up some, and put out trot lines and caught catfish. 

I remember the Ford place, and Hendricks Machine Shop and, and the Napa place was down here I believe where the Mexican restaurant is now, and uh, I overhauled an engine and Mr. Simmons, uh, I remember buying all the parts for a Ford Pinto and..(laughing) .

I almost bought a 55 or 6 Chevrolet from Mr. Carr right up here in the junk, that used to be here and, what other memories do I have of Water Valley? I remember coming into Water Valley and these yellow housing projects, while I’as still in high school I graduated in 72… or 3…uh, they must’ve been fairly new and when we’d come in, there was two ways to come in, we’d come in where Holley Carburetor is and turn like 32 and come in on the south end of town or we’d turn and the way we’d call it is.. we’d turn right off of 32, we’d come by L.A. Tubbs Grocery and turn… right and then there is a, left hand turn at a yellow brick house that’s Doke French’s house… and I never met Doke French…


What a cool name.


And between here and Paris at Highway 315 years later I noticed is the D Whitt French Memorial Highway. The French’s were prominent people. They owned a lot of farmland and the family may still own this farmland, but pulpwood trucks sometime making that left-hand turn, they were going down a hill and taking that left, it was banked, kinda backwards and they, they have been known to turn over and spill pulp wood all in his yard.

  Here’s another memory I have of Water Valley. When I was in high school my mother, had bought a 69 Chevrolet Impala, brand-new with a 327 and then she bought a 72 Monte Carlo, both from Johnson Chevrolet. 

   Back in those days there was something you did a lot was get the front end lined up where it wouldn’t wear your tires out, and there was a man, Buster Bean, I’m sure a lot of people in Water Valley remember Buster Bean, he had a reputation as one of the best front end men around, and so I took it in to the dealer, and he was, and I got to talking to him. He was real talkative. And he was telling me about he was, he had been legally pronounced dead by Dr. Holley up here in Oxford. 

   He was using a frame machine to straighten a frame on a car and a pin shot out and hit him right in the temple and went behind his eyeballs and they took him up to Oxford and Dr. Holley pronounced him dead but they worked on ’em and he was, he was back at work lining up front ends, and he’d had this pin go in and it was just miraculous, I’as just a high school kid and he was telling me this. I thought this was just a miraculous story. I won’t forget, ever forget him telling me this story…so… just off the top of my head that’s kind of, my, some of my earliest memories of Water Valley.

All right, let me ask you another question. When in your life, have you felt the most amount of hope? When did something turn that gave you this idea that things were really going to be better or going to be OK?


I tell you a big, a big turning point in my life. I had worked mostly blue-collar jobs up until, well most of my working life. I really uh I really just wasted my education opportunities in college… and uh I didn’t have that, I just wasn’t that interested in and I just got out in the, the, the work world offshore, uh…steel work, I did a lot of dangerous work but I learned a lot of skills… and I read a lot and, I, and in , in the 80s at some point I started reading Thoreau. I started reading Walden and I, I read through Civil Disobedience, Walden really resonated with me… 

And I wasn’t getting ahead and I’s, I never saved any money for 20 years, back then I never saved a dime and I really didn’t get in debt much.  I bought a car and a motorcycle I borrowed money for.. and then uh.. I remember I was telling some girls that lived in the trailer park with me, I said I’m fixing to go get a job and then every job I get, when I quit and get another job because my history was… up till the 90s before I started making chairs I never kept a job over a year… 

I’d either leave you know, and this isn’t what I want to do for a living I said every time I change jobs I’m gonna get a raise, I’m going to make more money… and it worked out that way and I worked along and then, and uh, uh had a couple of jobs uh building uh the … I helped build an acoustic lab, worked for a couple different subcontractors.. and got a truck driving job… and I, lived in a truck and I saved almost $4000 in 10 months and I bought a little piece of land, paid cash for… and I decided not to go in debt and to live out of my back pocket… and I didn’t want to haul my tools around because a lot of the blue-collar jobs I had only you know, I had to have my basic tools,  and my tool pouch and I said I’m going to put my tools in my shop and I’m going to sell things out of my shop… and that’s when I really had the…. I lived hard… and uh… I never really finished that house but when I sold it I was able to buy this house… and that was a really big step for me.


So when we first met, I asked you very cautiously if, if you’d ever been married and your response to me was?


Well, I can’t remember exactly what I said but this is, this is I think at the root of it… I didn’t want to, I had seen the way my father struggled and I didn’t want to struggle to support a family …and uh…I guess I’s just Kinda… kinda scared of that.


You said to me, that day I asked you, you said I never figured I could afford a wife.


That’s… yeah, and I’m saying it in kind of a different, kind a, kind a sort of way… and then, and then say if you, if you marry into money… it’s always, she’s got the purse strings and you wouldn’t be anything if it wasn’t for me kind of thing and I didn’t want to be beholden that way either.


In, in all the time I’ve known you, I guess we met in 2010 I’ve watched you build a mandolin..




A violin..




Uh.. there was the upright basses…



That ended up being multiples of upright basses…

Yeah, you helped me with the tuning keys on the second one…


Sure did…

And the headstocks started becoming more ornate…



I remember a segue into boats…

Yes!, building the boat. I still have that boat, I plan on using it now that I am retiring from this house.

And then there was the bicycle…


I recall not just any bicycle, like this crazy long throated, I mean just a really cool looking, it almost looked like it was 100 years old by the time you were done with it.

(Laughing) Yeah, that was a fun project.

I mean all of them were fun projects.

And you still ride around town on that bike? Or did…

This is a different one. The one I’m riding around now is an electric powered bike and the one you’re thinking about I think, it was pedal powered. But I do have an electric kit to put on it. At the time I was ready to start to put the kit on, I got a chance to buy this bike and uh… it’s been, it’s been fun.

So there was the banjo? 

Yeah, made several. 

One of the banjos I had borrowed and recorded with in the studio. Jimbo Mathus ended up buying the same one. And then the sculptures started showing up. Of course, I’m not even giving proper credit to the twisted wood furniture, which we are going to take some pictures of, but then the sculptures showed up… and, and… The, the, the, the centaur, what do, what do we call the one in front of Rasputin’s?




Ok, centaur right?




And it was like, there was the Facebook pictures that were starting to show up and then this mammoth thing showed up. (John laughing loudly) And, the coolest part about that is whenever I have friends come visit, it’s a focal point in the center of town on that side where I can start talking about you and all the weird things that are going on in this town. And then right around Halloween of last year, the top hatted Satan shows up!


(John laughing hysterically)… yes.


(I then asked John what was his favorite project, or rather the one he was most proud of).


The big turning point is the centaur. And I did that kind’a on a dare, I kind’a dared myself. John Forsyth, was making a really out there fertility goddess. He started his on Saturday using some books that I’d bought a few years before, I’d loaned him and I can’t let my buddy get ahead of me. I got to jump in here. One thing led to another and I decided, talking out loud, that I would make a centaur, on a Sunday night. 

And I, came home, got up the next morning and posted on Facebook that I’m making my first concrete statue and from then on I posted it in real time, as I was starting from scratch. I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t quit, because, uh, I was putting it out there, in public! And people were watching me and I had a lot of wonderful responses from a lotta people that were, encouraging, and I had myself on the spot, and I was learning as I went.

I don’t think I could’ve did it without the internet. I might could, not as well. I had my artist friends that helped me and just folks in general. We had a little sculpture movement going. Philip Lewis was in it, Daniel Uncapher, John Forsyth and Jay Callison with me. We were all making concrete sculptures and we were, sharing the books, and sharing ideas and everybody had their different style, and we’re kind’a going into some different techniques. 

We were rolling on this in 2014. John and I started in February… and it kind’a went through the summer and we had a little show the weekend before the art crawl down here at the Crawdad Hole. It wasn’t a huge turn out a people, but we had some folks, that I really respected came down to look at our, our sculpture show. And uh, the centaur, Alan Gross said, I bet you didn’t know when you made that centaur it’d be sitting up on cinderblocks out in front of Dollar General (laughing) but I didn’t know, I just…

  John Forsyth and I talked about no fear. And the fear and anger is what holds people back so much in art, but in life in general. The fear and anger which is just instilled in most people. I just pulled out all the stops on the centaur and, uh, made my mistakes, but mistakes could be corrected. I could grind it off and add concrete and reshape it, and keep going. Anyway, I’m especially proud of my centaur. His career’s still going like hopefully mine is. No telling where he’ll wind up.

  He’s up for grabs. He’s 100 percent mine as is the devil. His career is wide open as certain what opportunities and doors open for him I believe he could come, pass through a lot of doors no telling where he, either one of these will wind up in the world…


John’s Impression of WV now

  Well, like what Water Valley was or is, I mean it’s a a town. It’s a dynamic thing that just changes a lot over the years.  You know people say it’s a suburb of Oxford and… it’s not. It’s a little town with its own life. People that go back for generations, and I’ve just been here 13 years, I didn’t go to school here. I’m not in any of the clubs or the,.. I know some people.. it’s just a piece of the South. It’s just a little Southern town that has struggled like towns all over the world and the United States, has struggled with jobs leaving and going overseas and people having to leave to make a living. And times have changed a lot over the years since I first came here. There’s some good folks here, just like there’s good people everywhere.

  And uh, it’s friendly, it’s open, people, it’s still a walking down the sidewalks. I’m not talking about Main Street. I’m talking about in these neighborhoods, people walk right down the street, because there’s not that much traffic, and the sidewalks are busted up. 

We’ve got one artist, Mari Foster, that does..(laughing) that sees these different shapes and pictures with just busted sidewalks. People are friendly. Since I’ve been here I’ve made friends with people from all different social and economic layers here in Water Valley. I came from the blue-collar and I… I didn’t come from a privileged family and, and in general I didn’t try to really be a big frog in a little pond here, and, and rise in the local political structure and social structure, and I’ve met some fascinating people in the black community, and, uh, the poor white community and the community of people that are business people, and came from uh, some of the more privileged families. I’ve heard the take on it from different sides, and, and like in the art community.


And so, you sold the house and, and you have a lot of love invested, from the spindles that are made of twisted wood, you know, all these things and you’re, you’re going to have to either put some stuff in storage, or you’re going to have to throw some bread upon the water. You’re going to have to do something, but, we’re going to have this big morning, when you get up, and you’re loaded, and you’re getting ready to rock, you’re getting ready to roll.




Where’s the first place you’re going to go? Is it east, is it West? Is it that, we’ve talked about all the different places…


I’m headed west. I’m headed west, and Southwest.


Is there a town, or a state that seems to be on your direction finder, is there a place where you were going to land first?


Well, I’m, I’m going up into the Ozarks. I have friends around Callico Rock, Mountain View, and that area, which a lot of people here in North Mississippi uh, have connections up there, and I happen to, too. 

And, uh, I’m gonna visit for a little while and be camping in my truck and I’ll, got friends and support there and I, and kinda get it all worked out, and I’m heading to Texas. I used to work on oil rigs out of Galveston, I have a friend that lives in Galveston and then I’m heading out to New Mexico.

(Editor’s Note: Bryan W. Ward is a songwriter, musician, audio engineer-record producer, but most importantly, Maggie Ward’s dad.)

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