Steve Dawson heeded Nashville’s siren call

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Only a year ago, Steve Dawson was packing up his Henhouse studio and Black Hen record label and heading for Toronto—a natural development, some might say, for the long-time local performer, producer, and slide-guitar demigod. But when the Georgia Straight tracks him down at a Calgary breakfast joint, the cellphone number we’re asked to dial starts with 615. That, as any country music fan knows, is the area code for Nashville, Tennessee. Somewhere along the line Dawson’s travel plans took a hard turn south, and so far that’s been a very good move.

Toronto, he explains, is really not that much cheaper, or busier, than Canada’s most expensive city. Nashville, on the other hand, remains a place where a good musician can earn an honest living.

“I did some work with [American roots guru] Tim O’Brien, and he was raving about Nashville,” Dawson reports. “And then I did this show with Colin Linden about a year ago in Vancouver, and he was raving about Nashville too. So my wife and I went down to check it out, and we really liked it. I’ve got friends down there, and we just thought it made a lot of sense. The cost of living is substantially lower than it is in Vancouver, so that was appealing. And there’s something about being so close to so much music that I’ve always loved that’s kind of mind-blowing to me, actually.”

Music City, then, is living up to its reputation. “In a lot of ways, yeah,” says Dawson, who notes that as a producer he’s already been cutting tracks with players like Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans and the country hotshots from Marty Stuart’s band. “They’re just sitting in a room with me, doing overdubs like any other musician would,” he marvels. “It’s unbelievable, in a way—and people like that are everywhere down there. Like, if you’re hanging out with your kid in the park chances are the person beside you will turn out to be some crazy bass player or something like that. It happens so often it’s ridiculous!”

For his current tour, however, Dawson is sticking with the crazy bassist who’s been his right-hand man for several years, the droll and solid Keith Lowe. It’s a pretty easy gig for that Seattle resident, however: half the set is given over to numbers from Dawson’s latest release, the solo-guitar showcase Rattlesnake Cage. On first hearing, the new disc sounds like Dawson’s tribute to such early influences as John Fahey, Leo Kottke, and Mississippi John Hurt, but on closer examination it turns out to be more of a conversation with those masters than an emulation of them.

“I don’t have a problem with wearing my influences on my sleeve, I guess,” Dawson admits. “But there’s a huge difference between learning how Mississippi John Hurt played something and copying that versus letting that percolate for 15 years and then coming back to it. That distance—that time—allows things to sit, and meanwhile you’re influenced by other things as well.

“When I’m composing with solo guitar, I want to utilize those influences but also come up with little hooks that are just slightly off-kilter, I guess,” he adds. “I wanted to use the technology that was available in 1950, but maybe do something melodically that people wouldn’t have done back then. Like, I might put some kind of tritone, open-string lick into a ragtime-style tune because I’d been listening to an Ornette Coleman record or something.”

Will Dawson be able to integrate the sounds of that avant-jazz innovator with those of his new Nashville pals? That remains to be seen, but the smart money says it’ll happen.

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