Love affair with Ohio brings Kent alum musician home

Amy Cooknick

Joe Walsh. Chrissie Hynde. Devo.

Thoreau Hawk.

Many who dream of success in the performing arts have plans of one day running away to California or New York — somewhere bigger, somewhere brighter. They want to get out of Ohio and get into a culture that they think will foster their creative leanings.

Brett Davis, Kent State alumnus, who strums his guitar under the name Thoreau Hawk, tried running away. He went to Boston. He went to California. He went to New Mexico, among other places.

This past October, he came back to Kent and its rich musical history.

“When I first moved out to California, my buddy had been out there already, and he was a Kent State grad,” Davis said. “He said, ‘Dude, don’t do a thing different. Californians love Ohioans.’ And it’s true. If you’re a really talented Ohioan, you just blow people away out there.”

Davis graduated in either 1995 or 1996 — he can’t quite remember. But he does remember vividly the culture and appreciation for all types of art he learned at Kent State.

Graduating with an English major and art history minor, Davis absorbed all he could about art, music, literature, philosophy, politics and ideas in general while studying at Kent. Whether learning in a classroom or in a coffee shop, he said he was always listening to new ideas.

After graduation, Davis said he lived in Boston, then made his way to California in 2001, where he lived with a hippie from upstate New York.

“When I was out in California, I was so lucky,” Davis said. “I got out there and I had been working with special needs kids and I was really burned out. (My roommate and I) used to play with all these people up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. All our friends would come up and we’d have these huge jams and by doing that, I learned how to play. I would learn how to anticipate the chord changes, then I would play more and more and more.”

Davis lived in California for a few years, then moved to Crownpoint, N. M., where he taught on a Navajo Indian reservation. He said the conditions on the reservation wore him down, comparing the experience to a “crisis of faith.”

“I was called so many names,” Davis said. “You go home and you’re just like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I quit teaching to do music. I can’t tell you how hard it was to work with the poor. I lived for the past two and a half years in the most remote place I’ve ever been, and it was in the name of keeping a job.”

It was in New Mexico that Davis said he got the inspiration for his stage name. The next town after Crownpoint was called “Thoreau.”

“It’s drug-riddled, but it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in,” Davis said. “It’s weird.”

As an English major, the name struck a chord in Davis. He said the name became a nod both to his time on the reservation and to ideas he embraced from Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.”

He added the name “Hawk” to represent his political beliefs.

“I’m hawkish about sticking up for what I believe in and having some backbone,” Davis said. “Hawkish about sustainability and storytelling. To me, ‘Thoreau Hawk’ embodies ecology and sustainability.”

Davis has a lot to be hawkish about. He embraces his Kent heritage and is eager to share his opinions on the town he knows and loves so well.

His years in California and his knowledge of college life in Kent have led him to compare the two, and he said he has many questions about both, especially regarding the May 4 legacy.

“I understand why Kent has a hard time with it,” Davis said. “But after traveling, it’s very overt that we can use this occasion to become a place with thought, rhetoric, understanding, compassion. I understand it’s here, but when you think of Kent State, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?”

Davis said he wants Kent students and residents to accept their mutual past and come together over it artistically. He said he realized after being in California that Kent has more natural talent than the western state, but less people who are willing to recognize that and stay in the area.

“On returning back to Kent, it really is kind of this borderline bohemian college town,” Davis said. “Everyone says that I should live in California, but when I went to California and hung with new-agers, I came across as a little bit more authentic. You come back to Ohio, and Ohio has more of a tolerance, and they’re more genuine. When you go to these other places, people sink into ‘Oh my God, now I get to be ‘it.’’ In Ohio, (you’re) pretty much already ‘it.’”

Now, returning to Kent after nearly 15 years away, Davis said he has begun to find “it” for himself. His sandy beard and shoulder-length hair, with his sun-weathered look show his California influence, but it’s places like Checkers-N-Trophies in Kent and Nervous Dog in Akron that make him feel at home.

“I’m down there collaborating at Checkers-N-Trophies because the place is just the perfect place,” Davis said. “It’s got that small little stage where you can project your voice. There’s an intimacy. It feels like you’re a part of it.”

Davis said there aren’t many places anymore with that atmosphere. He reminisced about performing in the Kent Starbucks and how it has become a place of business more than a place for artistic expression.

Davis expresses himself through folk music storytelling on a parlor guitar. His songs are a mix of originals and lyrics he relates to.

“There’s some pretty fantastic ideas that are being said,” Davis said. “As long as you make the words your own, you get to be the storyteller at that point. I don’t mind doing covers because I get to use their words to tell the stories or emotions that I’m feeling.”

Davis said his desire to tell stories through songs comes from the fact that he has so much to say.

“I want to see what happens with growing old and telling stories,” Davis said. “I look at some of the things I wrote as time capsules. They change meaning and context as you get older.”

Davis said he finds the best stories in folk music because it’s so versatile and human.

Now Davis said he is trying to earn enough money to record his first demo.

“I find musicians are just threadbare and poor because they know that they don’t want to be divided up anymore,” Davis said. “They just want to live in their work, but again, nobody leaves a tip for us. I just like showing up at Checkers-N-Trophies and seeing how people react to the live (music). If it’s really good, it reminds people of reality.”

Davis said he loves live music so much, that he doesn’t have music online, other than a few videos on his YouTube channel, GenteelBrett .

“When you’re a musician, you want to play,” Davis said. “I’m not doing it to make money or be popular or get laid. Yeah, when you’re young, those are the rewards. But now I’m getting a thrill out of hearing people who are really about desire and camaraderie. It’s about where you are for that hour.”

His advice to young musicians is not to wait on anything.

“You gotta do it now,” Davis said. “It’s easier to couch-surf when you’re 19. It’s easier to live a little bit more poverty stricken because you’ve got the luxury of getting it done and building a reputation. So if you’re gonna do it, start doing it as soon as possible. Have courage enough to tell your story in a very lyrical way and a very expressive way.”

Now Davis comes back to the Starbucks where he used to play and talks about old times. He still knows many of the people who stop in. He asks them where they’ve been since he left and tells them where he’s gone since then.

Holding his guitar, ready to perform once again — impromptu this time, his favorite way — he surveyed his unsuspecting audience and commented on the excellent acoustics of the wooden floor.

“It’s fun being back in Ohio,” Davis said, strumming a chord. “The best people are in Ohio. Please quote me on that.”

Contact Amy Cooknick at [email protected].