The Illusionists: Striking Matches Prove Looks Can Be Deceiving
Sarah Zimmerman and Justin Davis have recently added Cream's "Crossroads" to the Striking Matches live set. "Crossroads," a song that when played like the famous rock band can be whiskey mean and rodeo bull angry. "Crossroads," a song legend tells us was written by a man who sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play guitar. On the surface, nothing about Striking Matches suggests a mean streak, wild hair or ability to spit venom. Nothing!
On the surface, the duo don't seem capable of scaring a dandelion. They're polite, well-spoken and sensibly dressed. Davis looks like the kind of guy who'd spend an hour searching for his favorite cardigan, while Zimmerman recalls memories of every coffee shop troubadour you've ever seen. Get the girl a soy latte, not a Gibson SG.
And then the show begins.
Within moments of the band's set at Acme Feed & Seed in Nashville last month Davis was pounding on his hallowed guitar like a preacher sending the Lord's message to his disciples. It was a new acoustic on this night. The old one had to be discarded after the regular beatings cracked the frame.
You wish you could walk away worthy of how you loved them. And you never can," Davis says of the "Like Lovers." "That hurts.
"Woke up this morning with a pounding in my brain," Zimmerman cries out, grabbing the mic by the neck and announcing her presence with "Trouble Is as Trouble Does." Riffs fly like arrows. Drums, bass, guitars and vocals all battle in harmony — it's difficult to reconcile at first. What you're hearing doesn't match what you're seeing.
Then they pull back to play a few of the softer songs on their debut album, Nothing But the Silence. One has time to sort things out before the catchy single "Hanging on a Lie," the very Civil Warsy "When the Right One Comes Along" (as heard on ABC's Nashville) and "Crossroads."
They close with "Make a Liar Out of Me," a song that sets you back if you thought "Trouble Is as Trouble Does" was a anomaly. Here, Zimmerman shines on slide guitar. Davis watches with a grin as his bandmate and favorite songwriting partner works the strings of her guitar through the neck. She plays — and this is meant as a compliment — ugly.
“I know when I play slide, I mouth what I’m doing on the slide," Zimmerman tells Taste of Country the next day. Both are wearing outfits similar to their stagewear. In fact, she is wearing the same exact pair of black, open-toe platform heels.
"I know that I do that. I’m sure it looks terrible," she says, "But every now and then I’ll think about it and I’ll try to stop, but if I think about it I can’t play the same."
Davis is more of a technician, while Zimmerman seems like she's wrestling a crocodile. There is a softer side to her, however — to both of them, actually.
“There’s a song on the record called 'God and You,' and she played a really sweet slide solo on that," Davis says from the IRS Records office on Music Row. "She probably still made the faces, but it was very much more of a dance than a wrestle.”
The pair's path to their debut album is as unexpected as their partnership. Both came to Nashville with dreams of playing someone else's music. They came from north Georgia (Davis) and Pennsylvania (Zimmerman) and met in at Belmont University. When it came time to pair up for a performance, both wished for anyone else in the room to be their partner.
Guitar playing led to songwriting. Songwriting led to songwriter rounds, and eventually 30 to 45 minute sets three times a week at downtown training hotspots like Hotel Indigo and the Commodore. For two years, they just worked, until finally IRS label head John Grady recognized Zimmerman while teaching a songwriting class at Vanderbilt.
Nothing But the Silence was recorded live, using the band one sees on stage with Zimmerman and Davis each night. They agree that Civil-Wars-meets-Black-Keys is the only descriptor that comes close to what they capture, but they don't spend much time worrying about what box they fit in. If you need them, their separate or shared influences include Chicago, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Otis Redding, Fleetwood Mac, Jimmy Page ...
“That’s mostly what I started listening to until I found a Dixie Chicks record in my mom’s car and completely fell in love with the music,” Zimmerman says.
She recognizes that she's an oddity. For some reason females just gravitate toward the more mellow strumming style of a Mitchell, or maybe something with fiestier lyrics, like Ani DiFranco. Zimmerman remembers being 10 years old and her father buying her a $100 acoustic when she wanted the electric guitar hanging on the wall of his music store. When she earned the electric, she'd get it, he said.
“I never really thought that just being a girl, you should do more of the strumming kind of singer-songwriter thing. I never really thought about it," she says. "It’s just not what I wanted to do.”
What separates her and them from other shredders — and what will ultimately determine their success commercially — is the songwriting. No song on Nothing But the Silence feels like a picker's naughty dream. Guys will love the musicianship, while women will fall into breakup songs like the title track. Davis remembers having the line "Nothing but the silence in between that hasn't already been broken" for nearly six months before he got help finishing the song.
“It was killing me,” he reveals. “I would try and write it down on different pieces of paper just to see if could come to me and I just couldn’t get it. And I think that stemmed from a relationship before I moved to Nashville. You just try to keep going after you moved. It was just this resigned sense of futility that it’s all over.”
"Like Lovers" is similarly heartbreaking. “You wish you could walk away worthy of how you loved them. And you never can," he says of the song. "That hurts.”
The two share a unique trust. Davis explains how guitar playing can be as personal as songwriting. He's more prone to expand his repertoire with only Zimmerman in earshot than he is if a country guitar god like Vince Gill entered the room. There's competition to be better than the other, it's done "in a semi-healthy way," he says.
She probably still made the faces, but it was very much more of a dance than a wrestle.
This summer will find the duo on an extended radio tour to support the album and "Hanging on a Lie." There's no sign that they're growing tired of one another. "Not yet" is how they respond when Taste of Country probed around for some friction or force that will drive them apart ... Not to say there haven't been difficult times.
“Mostly every time that’s happened, instead of turning on each other, we’ve mostly supported each other,” Davis says.
No, it's not a rock star answer, but it's honest. And that may be the only word that adequately sums this duo up.
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