A picture of a smiling man, arms wrapped around his baby girl, stands on a bar table. A poster-board filled with more pictures leans against a wall. Candlelight flickers across the glossies, a warm glow suddenly radiating from those frozen moments: He strums his guitar, laughs, kisses the baby’s forehead.
To the left, a speaker sits in front of a stage. It is topped with his tokens–a guitar string-winder, a German beer stein, a weathered acoustic guitar, a black fedora. They speak of their owner, Nathan Davis, a Southern Pines-born fixture of the Raleigh music scene who died suddenly of unknown causes on Aug. 22. He was 30.
Those images–the yellow winder that replaced broken strings, the beer stein passed from father to son, the guitar worn thin from strumming, the black fedora that seldom left Davis’ head–greeted his mourners on Aug. 29 at The Green Room in Hi5, a Raleigh restaurant and bar. Typically, Tuesday nights at The Green Room are open-mic nights, a welcome place for the emerging artist to give it a go.
But in August, it was open to mourn–or, rather, celebrate–one of its favorite staples at a fundraiser for his 2-year-old daughter, Cassidy, the girl in the pictures. The service wasn’t intended for a graveside. Instead, The Green Room’s stage became an altar surrounded by a restaurant-turned-sanctuary, where Davis’ friends, fans and family members joined to celebrate his music.
Davis didn’t have a traditional funeral. Then again, he wouldn’t have wanted one: He was a champion of free-style, free-form open mics. He loved playing. When he wasn’t ripping through his blues-inflected rock at his own gig, the safe money was on him jamming at Crowley’s of Stonehenge, Berkeley Cafe or The Green Room. His friends could count on him to show.
Davis would say he only loved his family more than playing. As such, his friends and fans gathered to celebrate those priorities–his music and his daughter. One by one, members of the audience walked onstage, sharing poems, letters, songs and thoughts. Davis’ parents, David and Sally, were there, saying they want to remember their son in a way that celebrated what he loved.
“We wanted a gathering of everyone he loves, all the people that meant something to him and playing the music he loved,” Sally said. “He would’ve hated for us to dress up in dark suits and mope around. He would’ve wanted us to throw a party.”
Indeed, though the atmosphere at Hi5 was somewhat somber, laughter, claps and cheers spread through the crowd. Many of Davis’ collaborators and musical friends stepped to the microphone: Jason Adamo, a Raleigh singer/songwriter and former Davis tourmate, sang Martin Sexton’s “Wasted,” one of Davis’ favorite songs. Sleeping Booty’s Ivan Owens rang a beautiful gospel melody on his trumpet, and Kevin Thorton of Beggars’ Caravan performed Davis’ diorama, “Carolina Sky.”
Davis’ producer, John Custer, played some of Davis’ newest songs. As Custer cut through the slow-burning “Nickels and Dimes,” the crowd gathered around the stage, again admiring Davis’ songcraft.
This wasn’t the last stand for his songcraft, either: One week later, on Sept. 6, they gathered at the Berkeley, playing and hearing his songs once again. Throughout the night, a crowd gathered on the checkerboard floor, listening to Davis’ music or songs dedicated to him. Again, Sally and David stood together, arm in arm, supporting the memory of their son and his musical legacy. On Sept. 15, a crowd formed for one last memorial in Davis’ hometown.
Perhaps the most resonant moment, though, came when 21-year-old Grant Walker–a fellow Southern Pines native Davis had mentored while in high school–took the stage at The Green Room to play Davis’ “Bittersweet.” Walker couldn’t find the right tuning, so someone handed him Davis’ guitar. Later, he smiled and said: “I felt like he was right there with me.”