Waiting for the Muse

The near-perfection of Dave Ray Cecil’s songs

Outlaw country singer David Allan Coe wrote the perfect country song. That, according to the late, great folk-music singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. While Goodman’s proclamation may be open to debate, his prowess as a superb tunesmith is not.

Likewise, there are more than a few judges of talent on a national scale who contend that Dave Ray Cecil may have written the perfect Americana song, or something close to it. Again, that is open to debate, but only because musicologists cannot agree on which Cecil composition is the closest to being perfect. There are at least four contenders so far — and likely several more that the public is not yet privy to. Add to that the very real possibility that he may not have written it yet.

“But I’m working on it,” says the soft-spoken songcrafter. “I’m always looking for the record. Sometimes I think I’ve got it, but then another one comes along.”

Unlike Nashville’s finest, Cecil does not crank out formulaic three-minute ditties on demand. There is a spiritual, ethereal quality to both his music and the process by which he creates it. Trite though it may sound, The Muse, he insists, descends only of its own volition: “You can’t force it,” he maintains. “The song is going to have its way with you, you can’t navigate it. It’s not something I can control.”

While the 48-year-old Greensboro native and Grimsley grad has been writing songs since childhood, only recently have the accolades begun coming his way. In the past year he has been a finalist for two of the most prestigious songwriting competitions in the country: NewSong Music Showcase and Competition and Kerrville New Folk Songwriters Competition. He was one of eight finalists (from over 5,000 entries) invited to perform in the Lincoln Center in New York in the NewSong Competition, and one of 16 finalists from 800 entrants in the Kerrville Competition, appearing at the Grassy Hill Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival.

“I don’t worry about results; I just need to know that I swung at the ball,” Cecil explains. “I’d never done this before and was actually pushed into it, but I must say there’s a sense of validation. It’s really been an enjoyable experience.”

In December Cecil was interviewed nationally on Sirius Radio in Kingsport, Tennessee, and made a nearby club appearance that night. Buoyed by his recent success, he also entered the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest. This month he will appear locally at Doodad Farm on January 13. He performs solo, as a duo with guitar whiz Jack King, and as a trio with King and drummer Wiley Sykes. He is putting the finishing touches on his fourth album, recorded at Eastwood Studios in Mount Airy.

“We’ve got 23 songs tracked, so now I’m trying to winnow it down, and maybe add a mandolin and female vocalist to some of them,” he notes.

Dave Ray Cecil is still flying a bit under the radar as both a singer and songwriter, but with the body of work he continues to amass, it seems inevitable that a bigger stage awaits. After all, the Lincoln Center and Kerrville are two of the biggest. — Ogi Overman  OH

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