There are few images more representative of the unique natural beauty and spirit of Martha’s Vineyard than the sun setting on a group of anglers trying their luck at Tashmoo before the sun dips below the horizon.
For Island musician Dave Willis, the intensely picturesque landscapes of State Beach, Tashmoo, Chappaquansett, and more speak to him through song lyrics, which he can normally capture on the spot, so long as he opens up his mind.
Willis was living off-Island and working as a plumber until the market crash in 2008. He started working for a plumber on the Island, then ended up selling his house on the mainland and moving to the Vineyard to start his own plumbing business. He worked hard to get established, and once he had enough work coming in, went to get his street performers’ license in Oak Bluffs. From there, he started playing solo shows at the Offshore Ale Co., the Ritz, and other music venues around the Island.
In October 2019, Willis was fishing at Chappaquansett before dawn when the lyrics for his first song came to him. “I was literally wearing my waders, walking over the sand dune,” Willis said, “and the full moon was up in the sky and the sun was coming up over the clouds. That’s when I wrote the first lyrics for ‘Chappaquansett Sunrise.’”
Before long, Willis had thought up a number of songs, and knew he wanted to compile all his ideas into a complete album. “I thought, ‘Well, all the songs have to do with being here and being so lucky to live here,’ so I decided to call the album ‘On Martha’s Vineyard,’” Willis said.
Willis grew up singing and playing guitar. He said his parents were passionate about music, and would often travel around the country as groupies for a band called Rosie and the Country Gentlemen. Willis’ parents would bring him out to Nashville, and follow the band wherever they were playing. “That’s when I fell in love with music, and knew I wanted a guitar — they got me one the very next Christmas,” Willis said.
It’s clear on the album that Willis grew up around country, pop, and folk music. When he was in high school, he ended up getting interested in hard rock and heavy metal, got an electric guitar, and was in a couple of bands playing some harder stuff. But for the album, Willis is going back to his roots, influenced by the likes of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard. And as far as inspiration for lyrical content goes, Willis said it all comes naturally to him when he’s out fishing or driving along State Beach all jammed up with traffic.
“I don’t think you really have control over the song. It just comes to you and you have to be ready to accept it,” Willis said. There are eight songs on the album — some sound alike, some don’t. There’s some R&B, some pop, some rock, but according to Willis, nothing was forced, and everything flowed into him naturally. “The morning I wrote ‘Chappaquansett Sunrise,’ I was literally going fishing. I was so inspired by the beautiful morning, it was the Derby, and just the energy of it all really filled my mind,” he said. “I was just taking a couple casts, and suddenly the melody came to me, the words came to me, just in handfuls at first.”
Toward the end of the Derby, Willis had a similar experience that inspired another one of his songs, “Sundown on Tashmoo.” He had only taken a few casts, and the fish just weren’t biting. But the beauty and serenity of the scene wasn’t lost on him — he grabbed his acoustic guitar out of his Jeep, sat on the hood, and strummed out an open E chord. “Next thing you know, I’m writing my next song on the record,” he laughed. “It’s all about the Derby being over and you’re not too sure what to do with yourself; head on down to Tashmoo when the sun’s going down. You might get a couple bites, you might not.”
Willis said he’s grateful for the time he’s been able to spend on the Vineyard working, performing, and making lifelong friends and acquaintances who share the same love for their home. When Willis first came to the Island, he would go see Jeremy Berlin and Eric Johnson play at Offshore — one of the first exposures he had to live music while living here.
He thanked all his other music friends who made the album possible, and those who inspired him along the way to write and perform his own tunes. “When I started making the record, I didn’t have a band, I was just writing songs,” Willis said. By the third solo song, he realized he needed to record some of the content, and needed to find a studio. He met producer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Parr, who allowed Willis’ dream for his creation to be fully realized.
“Jimmy is a sweetheart of a man, he is extremely talented. Without him, the record simply doesn’t happen,” Willis said. Parr plays bass on almost every song, and also jumps in on percussion every once in a while. Willis also got former Offshore owner Phil McAndrews to play drums, Jim Eddy to play guitar, Jeremy Berlin to play piano, and Nancy Jephcote to play violin and viola. He knew he wanted a female vocal part, so he got his friend Andrea Dello Russo to sing on the album, and brought on Alan Lucas as a full-time bass player. Willis gave a shoutout to many others who were on the record and who helped him along the way, including Mike Alberice, Mike Benjamin, Johnny Hoy, Delanie Pickering, Casey Smith, and others.
Dave Willis and his Down Island Band continue to practice and work on new material, and are hoping to have a full CD release party in the late summer or early fall, when everyone can get together without the hectic summertime schedule holding them back.
“Until then, I’ll be doing some solo performances starting in July, and just continuing to enjoy life on beautiful Martha’s Vineyard and seeing if any more songs will pop into my head,” Willis said.
Find “On Martha’s Vineyard” wherever you stream your music, and catch Dave Willis performing at the Ritz, Offshore, the Portuguese-American Club, the Port Hunter, and other venues around the Island this summer.