Because Mannheim Steamroller’s Chip Davis is the best-selling Christmas recording artist of all time, executives from New York and Los Angeles gladly make frequent treks to Omaha, Neb., to meet with him. Seemingly without fail, they always ask the same question.
“Before people come here, they’re always wanting to know why I choose to stay here, in Nebraska,” says Davis, founder of the New Age band Mannheim Steamroller. The Grammy winner doesn’t even bother trying to explain his heartland headquarters to the city slickers anymore.
He simply invites them to his two-story home atop one of Omaha’s Ponca Hills, the highest point in rural Washington County. As they get out of the car, deeply breathe in the pure air and look out over the Missouri River bluffs and Davis’ rolling 100 acres, “They’re not asking any more questions,” says Davis, 57, with a grin. “By the time the visit’s over, they don’t want to go and are asking when they can come back.”
Davis’ expansive property, which includes a century-old barn and original farmhouse, and serves as home to two German Shepherds, a cluster of chickens, three horses and a pony, allows him to blend family, music and business ventures into one seamless life.
His love for rural America runs deep, a feeling that was instilled in him while growing up in the Ohio towns of Hamler (pop. 623) and Sylvania (pop. 18,670). Childhood memories of neighborliness—and the scents and sounds of the countryside that was his playground—made an indelible impression on the man whose Fresh Aire CD series, which debuted in 1974, is credited with creating the Adult Contemporary and New Age musical genres. “It’s in my nature. My grandfather was a country doctor, and he sometimes took me along on house calls,” Davis says. “I prefer that my children grow up in this setting, too.”
From Convoy to Christmas
Davis’ career began when he wrote advertising jingles for a bread company that starred a fictional truck driver named C.W. McCall. The radio and TV ads became a phenomenon, and Davis and ad executive Bill Fries went on to produce the 1975 10-million-selling theme song of the movie Convoy and other hits. Meanwhile, he kept tinkering with combining classical composition and rock, ultimately selecting the name Mannheim Steamroller for the new sound after the classical term, the Mannheim crescendo.
Vivid recollections of family and community, especially at Christmas, are a big reason that his musical compilations have consistently climbed the Christmas album charts for 20 years, beginning in 1984 with Mannheim Steamroller Christmas. Davis and his core musicians, and the ensembles and orchestras that often accompany them, infused new vitality into traditional carols, to the tune of more than 23 million Christmas albums sold. They perform the nation’s No. 1 Christmas concert tour and will play to 200,000 fans in about 20 cities this year.
“Christmas is a season of celebration and a time for family and friends,” Davis says. “It’s a very focused time and includes music, food, smells—things everyone knows and has grown up with.”
For Davis, it’s all about the total sensory experience, so he launched Mannheim Steamroller Lifestyle Products, which includes coffees, candles, body lotions and barbecue sauce. And Mannheim Steamroller isn’t just about Christmas music; the group has CDs for other holidays, including Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Independence Day, as well as general New Age music projects. Davis’ music, tours and products garnered $23 million in sales last year.
The catalogs, products, music and some 50 employees are all plugged into the hub of Davis’ creative empire, a small complex of buildings a few miles from his home. “It only takes me six minutes to get to the office,” he says. “I get to work in some of the greatest cities in the world and still come home to the country at night.”
Davis and his family—wife Trisha, daughters Kelly, 13, and Elyse, 5, and son Evan, 8—don’t take the life for granted. The tight-knit family enjoys time together outdoors, whether they’re roasting marshmallows at the permanent campsite Davis built in a wooded area near their home, or bow hunting life-size rubber animal targets he has strategically hidden in the brush.
Still, the Davis property is not without reminders of Dad’s high-tech profession and spectacular musical career that make all this possible. Among the tall grasses, oaks and maples are mounted microphones, carefully placed 200 feet apart to record the wind, the birds and rustling leaves. The mikes are wired underground to deliver those sounds of nature to Davis’ recording studio in his basement, where they become integral parts of his recordings, especially the Ambience series. Many of the scenes in Mannheim Steamroller’s visual extravaganzas seen on DVDs or experienced at concerts come from spots right on his land.
A down-home determination
These high-tech intrusions into the peaceful, pastoral scene serve as a reminder of the anomaly Chip Davis is: Like many creative geniuses, he doesn’t fit a mold. He’s a Billboard-topping recording artist who is happy mowing 50 acres on his mid-size John Deere tractor. He’s a classically trained musician, yet he’s an astute marketer with uncanny business savvy. He can focus intensely for days on a project, but, at the same time, possesses a down-home, put-your-feet-up-and-relax easiness.
Perhaps most significantly, he has sold more than 30 million albums his way—outselling Bruce Springsteen and Sting in the last 15 years—against the advice and wisdom of music industry gurus. They told him his 18th-century rock ‘n’ roll, which married classical instruments such as harpsichords and recorders with electric bass, drums and synthesizers, would never work. Many urged him not to bother with Christmas music, because it just doesn’t sell, so he simply started his own label.
“When I hear ‘no,’ or ‘you can’t,’ I say, ‘Oh yeah?’” Davis says. “I get that from my dad and my grandfather. My son has a big case of it, too.”
Because of that determination, Davis has been able to continually create new albums that sell in an industry where stars come and go quickly. “I’m not trying to create a fad. Most of my music is classical, so there is something in it that has longevity. It’s hard for others to copy us, so we don’t hit saturation,” he explains. “People are still discovering us.”
Somehow, Davis also finds time for philanthropic work. His concert and album project to benefit Yellowstone National Park generated more than $500,000 and made him the largest private donor in the history of the National Park Service. His latest venture involves equipping hospital rooms with music from Mannheim’s Ambience series. He says nurses in a pilot project in Minneapolis report that the music soothes the anxieties of child cancer patients.
Christmas 2004 finds Mannheim Steamroller releasing its fifth Christmas CD, Celebration, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its explosion onto the holiday music scene. The annual Christmas concert tour, which started Nov. 19 in Billings, Mont., will end, as always, with a hometown concert in Omaha on Dec. 26.
With books to complement his compositions and new CDs of patriotic and Halloween music, it seems there is no limit to Davis’ creativity. “I love what I do,” he says. “I love the creative process—making things that affect people and make their lives better.”