Following the Palmetto Bluff debut performance of its EP Clean Slate, Tell Scarlet readies for the next step.
Before they were freshly minted recording artists with a hot EP and a slew of concerts and private events around the Southeast, Tell Scarlet was a wedding band paying the bills by covering “Play That Funky Music” at receptions around Savannah.
And before that, they were family.
Yet, even as their debut, Clean Slate, racks up Spotify spins worldwide, Tell Scarlet is still getting the party started at weddings and private events. And above all else, no matter the bevy of changes the group has seen in its three years as a band, they remain family.
Quite literally in this case. Dual-threat vocalists Mary Davis and Julia Shuman are mother and daughter, joined on stage by the padre de familia Jeff Davis, Julia’s husband, Corey, and the newest addition Will Davis, the youngest of the Davises and the group’s resident rapper.
“He’d been in high school and we were just waiting for him to grow up,” Mary said, her sly chuckle growing into one of the regular peals of laughter that seem to flow through the group when they sit down to discuss their craft.
“Oh thanks, Mom,” Will responded, mockingly playing the part of the petulant teen, which only added to the laughter.
Traditionally, the only people that argue more than family members are bandmates. To see the members of Tell Scarlet interact, both on stage and around a coffee table in Savannah during a magazine interview, is to see that tradition upended by a swift current of love and respect.
“We all have the same vision,” Mary said. “It’s a good fit. Everyone here works really hard.”
“It’s quality family time. When we’re playing, I’m off the streets and out of trouble,” Jeff added, setting off another round of laughs.
“It’s a lot of respect all around. Will, for example, is better than I am at a lot of things,” Julia said. (To which Will replied, “Like being a dude. Everybody has something valuable they bring to the table.”)
“What you’re saying is: we are all the secret weapon,” Will added.
Everything about that shared love for one another and for their craft infuses each Tell Scarlet show. Originally formed as a wedding band, they determined early on that if they were going to become successful by tearing through the classic reception songbook, they were going to make each song their own. Switching deftly from “Love Shack” to “At Last,” the band relies heavily on its astounding collection of talent to breathe new life into songs that decades of weddings have otherwise driven into the ground.
“That’s who we are,” Mary said. “We’re not afraid to cover anything.”
The exceptions are few and far between—“Electric Slide” is relegated to the iPod while the band goes out and joins the party in dancing, while Jeff claims they don’t play “Y.M.C.A.” because, “I don’t fit into the chaps.”
But for everything else, the band leapfrogs from genre to genre with a mix of party-starting hits and standbys, all infused with their inimitable sound.
“If Twenty One Pilots, Fleetwood Mac, and Little Big Town had a baby, it would be Tell Scarlet,” Julia said.
And now that signature sound has found a new home on the five tracks that populate the band’s debut EP, Clean Slate. Performed live for the first time during a recent concert at Palmetto Bluff, the recording sessions for Clean Slate not only allowed Mary a chance to reach into a deep lyrical well formed from a long career in music, but also gave Corey and Julia’s fledgling Little Bird + Big Sound label its first recording.
“I started writing just for myself, but with Tell Scarlet in mind,” Mary said, who sent the first vocals to Corey on her iPhone one day on somewhat of a whim. To her surprise, he laid down backing tracks to the vocals and created the demo version of what would become the title track: “Clean Slate.”
And here we see an intriguing part of the family bond that ties Tell Scarlet together as a band—the mutual respect between Corey and his mother-in-law.
The blending of his pop sensibilities with her inspired lyrics can be found on every note of the new EP. “I like working with Mary,” Corey said. “It’s like we’re really close friends. Some people you work with, the chemistry isn’t there. Especially in this craft.”
“I like the challenge of finding out what makes someone want to hear a song over and over again,” Mary said, describing what Corey refers to as “ear candy.”
With Jeff showing Corey a few pointers on equipment he’d need, Corey began building the in-home studio (he refers to it as a “blanket fort”) that would launch his record label, the EP, and a new chapter in the band’s history. “My whole house is a studio at this point,” Corey laughed.
“We really have two sides to us now,” Mary explained. “In the beginning, we positioned ourselves as a wedding and event band. Now, we’re a band who plays events.”
And beyond corporate events, you’ll find Tell Scarlet regularly performing at Savannah’s City Market, this year’s Palmetto Bluff concert series, and venues like the Myrtle Beach Hard Rock Cafe.
“It slept the first year, it crept the second year, and it leaped the third year,” Jeff said of the band’s paradoxically slow-growing overnight success.
And no matter what changes the band sees in year four and beyond, with plans for larger venues and a new EP every year, there will be one constant: they will forever be family.
CLEAN SLATE, TRACK BY TRACK
Tell Scarlet’s debut EP, Clean Slate, takes the pop-country aesthetic that has made the band’s covers the darlings of the Savannah party scene and infuses them around five wholly original tracks. Written by Mary Davis and produced in the self-described “blanket fort” in Corey Shuman’s kitchen, the EP beautifully showcases why Tell Scarlet is one of the most sought-after bands in the Lowcountry.
CLEAN SLATE | The title track barrels right out of the gate with a grit-and-grease country riff that pairs with Julia’s silky vocals like steak and red wine. “It’s just badass,” Will said. “I hear that and feel like I should have a pistol on each hip.”
MAKE LOVE NOT WAR | The jangly guitars and mandolin place this track squarely in the pop-country genre and showcase the powerhouse production Corey brought to the table. “I love the explosion of the chorus,” Corey said. “It feels like a hoedown at the beginning, and then you get this wall of sound.”
WOODS | Tell Scarlet is in large part defined by the pairing of Mary’s and Julia’s vocals, and here those harmonies soar over a love note tinged with a melancholic vein of pure country. “We call it the cowboy love song,” Mary said.
EVERYTHING UNDER THE SUN | The country takes a backseat to the pop on this synth-heavy radio-ready track that commemorates a time in the band’s life when, like the song says, everything was changing. “Corey and Julia had just gotten married, and there was a lot of change happening all at once,” Mary said. “We’re family. That’s why the song talks about how love is the main thing.”
FOREVER FAMILY| The first track written for the EP, the tear-jerking closer, takes us out on a simple blend of acoustic strings and Tell Scarlet’s signature harmonies. Mary wrote the song a few years ago for her brother and sister-in-law’s non-profit Project 143, which helps orphans find a home. “You can really hear her heart in it,” Jeff said. “You can hear it in all of them, but that one is special.”
By: Anna Jones
Photos by: Barry Kaufman / Shuman Fine Art Photography