Steve Dawson: Groovin’ and Slidin’
The Canadian fingerpicker jumped into the deep end of Nashville’s guitar pool, where he’s thriving as a solo artist, sideman, and producer.
Listening to the slinky, undulating moan of the tremoloed slide guitar that kicks off “Loose Ends," the opening track of Steve Dawson's new full-length Solid States and Loose Ends, might conjure images of a dragonfly hovering low over a steamy Mississippi Delta swamp, or maybe a gator lazily skimming the surface of some remote Louisiana bayou. And you might find yourself thinking, surely Dawson grew up somewhere in the South.
And you'd be right—if, by “South," you mean the south of Canada. Dawson was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, which remained his hometown until he and his wife moved to Nashville three years ago. But like some other notable Canadian-bred musicians before him—the Band and Daniel Lanois come to mind—Dawson has always been drawn to musical styles rooted in the South, whether blues, country, soul, or gospel.
All of those influences are evident on Solid States and Loose Ends, Dawson's seventh solo album. His talents as a guitarist, producer, and creator of moody soundscapes have rightfully earned him comparisons to T Bone Burnett and Ry Cooder, but his formidable vocal and songwriting skills are also on full display on the new album. “Final Words," “You Got What It Takes," “California Saviour," and the aforementioned “Loose Ends" bears echoes of vintage Little Feat, due in part to the swampy grooves or lyrical content, but also Dawson's voice, which at times brings to mind the late Lowell George, another fabulous singer who mined the veins of American roots, yet created a fresh and original sound.
For evidence of Dawson's gifts as a slide player, check out the solos on “Loose Ends" and “Can't Put That Monkey on My Back," or the video we premiered here in March of him performing “Driver's Wheel" on his Celtic Cross Weissenborn. But on the intro to “Little Silver," for example, he demonstrates that he's also a phenomenal straight-up fingerpicker. In addition to laying down tracks on a wide variety of guitars—electric, acoustic, resonator, pedal steel, lap steel, mandotar—he also contributes some pump organ, celesta, and Mellotron to the proceedings.
Dawson's band is a fitting tribute to his musical voyage. The rhythm section features a couple of Canadian musicians, bassist John Dymond and drummer Gary Craig, known for their work with another Canadian-turned-Nashvillian, Colin Linden. Dawson also looked to his new hometown, bringing in some of Music City's finest: keyboardist Kevin McKendree, multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, saxophonist Jim Hoke, trumpeter Steve Herrman, upright bassist Mike Bub, vocalist Keri Latimer, and two of the McCrary Sisters: Regina and Ann.
To further explore his vast music interests, Dawson recently started a podcast, Music Makers and Soul Shakers, available on iTunes. His first episode, featuring an interview with Bill Frisell, was released on March 13. In the weeks since, he's spoken with Tim O'Brien, The Wood Brothers' Oliver Wood, John Hammond, Mary Gauthier, and Marc Ribot, among others.
Dawson spoke with Premier Guitar from Winnipeg, where he was in the midst of a Canadian tour. He discussed his musical roots, his fingerpicking approach, and what it's like to jump into the deep end of the guitar pool in Nashville.
Are you enjoying living in Nashville?
Yeah, I love it. I left Vancouver for a few reasons, but mostly just to make a big change and go somewhere where music is front and center. And it's sure different in Nashville than it is in Vancouver.
Describe some of your influences.
I guess like most kids that I knew, I got into bluesy rock stuff first. The big guitar influences for me were the Stones, Cream, Hendrix, and Duane Allman. Pretty soon after that I started delving deeper into where those guys got all their stuff from. This was pre-internet days, so I had to do a lot of reading. Being a music nerd, I just searched out Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and from there it was just one step further to Robert Johnson and Son House.
“I use these ProPiks that have no covering on the fingertips," says Dawson, shown here with his 1930 National Style 0. “Your fingertip is still making contact with the strings."
A little bit after that I got into Ry Cooder. He's a little harder to find when you're a kid. He's obviously a big influence on me, his '70s records in particular. I got into all that stuff. And I hung out quite a bit with Bob Brozman back 15 years ago or so, and he turned me on to a lot of Hawaiian music.
I hear some Little Feat in your music. Were they an influence?
I was big into Little Feat for a while. I played in a band that was quite Little Feat-like. Lowell George was a real slide guitar influence. I think mostly because you could actually do his stuff fairly easily. Then it's a lifetime of making it sound as good as he did. The finer points of what he was doing is all in the touch and the tone, which is way harder than the actual notes.
There are elements of your singing and songwriting that bring to mind Lowell George, too. “California Saviour" reminds me of some of those quieter Lowell George tunes.
For sure. I haven't been listening to that stuff lately, but it's always percolating there in my brain.
Are you exclusively a fingerpicker? Do you ever use a flatpick?
I've been only fingerpicking since I was about 20. I went to Berklee, and there was a guy there named Bob Stanton. He was really into Chet Atkins kind of stuff. I took a bunch of lessons from him. Eventually, after learning from him, I just dropped the flatpick entirely.
I did a little bit of playing in bluegrass bands. I developed a way to play like a flatpicker using my thumb and finger as well. I found ways to make a thumbpick work with me. So I use a thumbpick all the time, and bare fingers. When I'm playing pedal steel or lap steel I use fingerpicks as well, but never on a regular guitar.
So you don't use nails?
Just skin. I don't use nails at all.
When playing acoustic did you you have to develop calluses on your picking fingers? Is it tough to get the volume you need with skin?
I don't really have a problem with that. When I'm playing around the house and in the studio, I have a fairly light touch. But as soon as I'm playing with a band, I tend to dig in. I just go with it. Sometimes I end up cutting my hand a little bit, but for the most part, it's fine. They're callused up a little bit, but I'm not a big callus guy.
But you're willing to bleed for your art.
I'm willing to bleed. [Laughs.]
What amp do you use live?
These days I mostly use backline amps. I don't really travel with an amp. The one I'll default to for backline is always a Fender Deluxe Reverb reissue. Those are really consistent. I like them a lot. The Princeton, too.
Steve Dawson, a guitar virtuoso of many styles, is shown here with his vintage 1960s Harmony Roy Smeck guitar. See him and it in action in the video at the end of this article. Photo by Alice Dawson
And when you're not on the road?
I use the Swart Atomic Space Tone all the time. If I'm playing in Nashville, I'll tend to just use that amp.
On the record I used a Flot-A-Tone combo in conjunction with a blackface Deluxe reissue. The Flot-A-Tone is a little rattier and compresses a little bit. I mix it in.
What slides do you like?
I like glass slides. I switch around a bit. I have a ton of them and I can't remember who made the one I use the most. I got it at Gruhn Guitars [in Nashville] and it's got an edge to it on the inside, which I like because you can grip it. It's kind of heavy. I wear it on my pinky. I'm not too picky about slides and I'll change them just to try something new.
What about fingerpicks?
I use ProPiks that have no covering on the fingertips [the Finger-Tone series]. Your fingertip is still making contact with the strings. I've used those for years.
What tunings do you use?
If I'm playing electric, I tend to drop both my E strings down to D. That's my main tuning for most of what I do.
And the middle four strings are in standard tuning?
Yes. I like that because it has elements of open G and open D that I like. And so I can navigate all kinds of different keys without capoing. And with four strings that are still standard, I can be pretty functional with chords.
I also use open D and open G, and I use a C tuning a lot as well. When I play lap-style on the Weissenborn, it's almost always in a C tuning. So that's a lot lower. That's my preferred lap-style tuning.
Is it like open D, but just a whole-step lower?
It's different. From low to high, it goes C–G–C–G–C–D. It doesn't really relate to open D or open G.
So you have a D on top? Almost like a Cadd9 vibe?
I love the end of the solo on “Loose Ends" when the band drops out, and there's a little harmonic at the end.
Yeah, that was a fun accident.
“Leave Me Behind" and “Little Silver" are both clearly rooted in blues, but you manage to make them fresh and different. And it's not always easy to do that. You manage to reimagine the progressions. Is this a conscious thing?
I usually compose the music before the lyrics, and I'm not particularly interested in writing a straight-ahead blues progressions song. So I'm definitely aware of trying to work around the edges a little bit. I really admire people like the Wood Brothers and Delbert McClinton, who can take that form and do something different enough with it.
And having different influences … I got really into Bill Frisell a long time ago, and I think he's rubbed off on my composition a little bit. And jazz stuff that I listen to—I think it all rubs off.
I love your tremolo sounds. How were you getting those?
Completely from the Victoria Reverberammo [tube-equipped analog effects unit]. It's got that biased tremolo that's almost like a Leslie sometimes. And if you hit it with a little overdrive and push it really hard, it really makes the amp react differently, which I like. When I'm gigging, or if I'm traveling, I sometimes don't bring it, and I use a Strymon Flint, which does a pretty good replication.
A lot of your music sounds ideal for film or TV. “Driver's Wheel" comes to mind as a perfect opening show theme. Have you had any luck in that realm?
Yeah, I have actually. I've placed a number of things in various films or TV shows over the years.
Things you'd already recorded? Or that you composed specifically for a film?
Almost exclusively something I'd already recorded. I've done a few soundtrack things where I'm composing for the film, but in general it's people licensing stuff that already exists. Soundtrack work is something I'm keen to do more of. But that's a hard nut to crack. It's a small world of people that do that stuff.
Was the video for “Driver's Wheel" shot at the Henhouse, your home studio?
Yeah, in my studio, which is detached from our house.
Have you done a lot of producing?
Yes. I've probably produced seven or eight albums since I moved to Nashville. It's a big part of what I do. I worked with a lot of Canadian artists before I moved, and I continue to work with a lot of Canadian artists because they all want to come to Nashville, so it's a perfect scenario for them. But I'm also working with a lot of local Nashville bands and songwriters. And I play out all the time with different people as well—a band called Reverie Lane, and I play pedal steel for a country artist named Violet Delancey. And Linda McRae—she's a Canadian from Vancouver as well, and now she lives nearby. That's pretty cool.
Here Dawson gives the solo treatment to one of the tracks on on Solid States and Loose Ends, “Broken Future Blues." Shot in the studio behind his Nashville home, the video provides some great close-ups of his slide and fingerpicking techniques. Notice how rock-solid the groove sounds, despite being created with just one guitar and two hands. Be warned: You may find yourself scouring the web for a vintage Harmony Roy Smeck guitar, which won't be easy (or cheap) to come by.
Was there any sense of intimidation when you first moved to Nashville?
It was extremely intimidating. I had a few friends. I know Colin Linden from Canada. I knew Tim O'Brien from working with him a bit in Canada as well. Those were my two real connections when I moved here. I went to school with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings way back but I hadn't seen them for many years. Other than that I didn't know very many people.
That was kind of appealing. That's kind of why we decided on Nashville. My wife and I were going to move to Toronto, but I knew so many people there. So we decided to go for it in Nashville. And yes, it was incredibly intimidating to move to a place like Nashville, and a place where you don't have friends and family. But people are so friendly here. It didn't take too long to find people to play with.
I've lived in Nashville for almost 19 years now, and the music community has always felt mutually supportive, in a genuine way.
Yes, it does feel like that. Whether it's working with artists at a club, or doing a session and meeting a bunch of great players, everyone is really nice and easy to get along with. It's been a great experience so far.