Rockabilly of Ages
In 1958, Ronnie Dawson, a nineteen-year-old Dallas native, cut "Rockin' Bones," a wildcat anthem about boogying beyond the grave whose refrain boasted, "There's still a lot of rhythm in these rockin' bones." Almost forty years later, Dawson has reached an age when most of his peers are rocking in chairs, not on stage. But his bones haven't let him down yet--and a growing legion of fans thrilled by his blend of furious rockabilly and frenzied country hope they never do.
The role played by "Bones" in his vibrant career strikes Dawson as extremely appropriate. "It is ironic, isn't it?" he says, his drawl oozing Texas like a peach oozes juice. "And I understand that. I've lived those lyrics, man. What goes around comes around. And I mean, boy, you've got a perfect example of that here."
Nonetheless, Dawson is quick to point out that his commercial renaissance, symbolized by a growing discography, a new record deal and a busy touring schedule that includes approximately 150 concerts per annum, can hardly be described as a return from the dead. "Everybody says this is a comeback, but it's really not. I had no hit records back then. I had a little attention, but nothing like now. But just about everywhere we go now, we have crowds waiting on us. It's really neat."
Twangsters are flocking to Dawson in part because his music hasn't lost a step in the four decades that he's been playing it. Quite the contrary: His sonic approach packs a joyous, spontaneous punch capable of leveling the slick, manufactured efforts of many younger rockabilly competitors. "A friend of mine called it 'R&R--real and raw,'" Dawson notes. "That's what it is, man. There's not any frills to it. And that's the way I think this music ought to be done. You know, there's not much musically that you can stretch with this. It's three chords and it's feeling--and I think the only place that you can vary it is with the feel." How should the music make a listener react? "Well, it's got to turn you inside out."
Just Rockin' & Rollin', Dawson's inaugural effort for the Upstart imprint, does just that. The scintillating disc features sixteen blasting-cap rockers, hillbilly humdingers and hip-shaking raveups loaded with soul, grit and fire. It was cut live in England's Toe Rag studio using typically real and raw techniques. For instance, the handclaps and cheers that can be heard on Dawson's rollicking version of the Bill Haley-like title tune were provided by revelers shanghaied from the sidewalks of London. "We went out and got several people off the street to come in there," he reveals. "I said, 'Y'all come on in. Y'all want to be on a record?' It was at Christmastime, and everybody was in a festive mood, so we got about eight people to come in, and we jammed them all in the studio. It was wonderful."
Dawson traces his musical obsession to his father, who fronted a Dallas fiddle band, Pinkie Dawson and the Manhattan Merrymakers, during the Forties. The group, which also hosted a radio show for a time, was a great inspiration to young Ronnie, who was raised in the Texas town of Waxahachie. "I always really knew what I was going to do, even when I was five or six," he says. "When I heard my dad play the first time, it was all over. And certainly by the time I was twelve or so, I knew. I was doing things like taking vocational agriculture and thinking about farming, but deep down I knew that was it."
As a kid, Dawson was a quiet sort who mastered the mandolin and the guitar in the privacy of his room. "I knew I could play, but I wouldn't play in front of anybody," he recalls. "I'd play in church, but that wasn't quite the same thing." But the chance to perform a pair of early Elvis Presley numbers in a local teen-talent contest changed all that: "I wasn't very reclusive anymore. After Elvis hit the bigtime, anybody who could play a guitar, man, was hot stuff. It wasn't hillbilly anymore. It was a different thing."
During his late teens and early twenties, Dawson, who became known as the "Blonde Bomber," achieved modest regional success thanks to "Rockin' Bones" and another single, "Action Packed." But the experience of touring the Southwest as the opening act for soon-to-be-legends like Presley and Gene Vincent didn't last. When the popularity of Fifties rock waned, he returned to the Lone Star state and took day jobs and did advertising voiceovers that kept him going between local gigs. He also made occasional attempts to crack the Nashville music scene--but it wasn't until the Cramps covered "Bones" that he was discovered by a new generation of pompadoured music lovers. The enthusiasm of ducktailed U.K. music fiends led to the release of a collection of Dawson's early work and a subsequent tour of Great Britain.
In 1989, England's No Hit Records issued a new Dawson disc, Rockinitis; it was followed by the CD Monkey Beat in 1994. A Carnegie Hall appearance that same year increased Dawson's American exposure and led to a deal with Crystal Clear Records to put out a smoking, twenty-song compilation of his early cuts and demos. The set hit stores in 1996, shortly before he inked a pact with Upstart, a subsidiary of Rounder Records.
Receiving opportunities like these so many miles down the road is rare, Dawson realizes. "I've got old football-player friends from the Dallas Cowboys who I've known for years. Dave Edwards, Leroy Jordan and Don Meredith--people like that. And they all say the same thing: 'You're lucky that you can still do it.' That's the thing--it's something that I don't fully realize yet. Probably, when I have to quit, which I hope is never, then I'll know what they're talking about." To him, folks who think that someone can be too old too rock "don't really know what they're talking about. And when you see my show, you'll see that. It's very intense and very contemporary. It's been likened to a black camp meeting, which is a great compliment." Moreover, he believes that other musicians of his vintage can do what he's doing if they put their minds to it. He's been urging Mack Curtis, a fellow Texas rockabilly pioneer, to step into the spotlight again. "He's retired, and he's a grandfather, too--and I've been after him. I tell him, 'Mack, you don't know what you're missing. You can still be a grandpa--that's wonderful. But you should be out doing this.' So he's thinking about it."
However, Dawson concedes that the years can take their toll on musicians who don't look after themselves properly. "I've certainly seen some bad examples of those kinds of people. Gene Vincent, for instance. I mean, he's dead, right? He died because he abused himself. And Elvis, he's dead. All these wonderful people are dead. So what I try to tell young people is that you can't do anything when you're gone. You might be a bigger star, but you won't know anything about it." He adds, "I've had some talks with people like Horton Heat, who lives here in Dallas. I saw him trying to live up to that bad-boy image, and you can't do that for very long." Has the Reverend taken this message to heart? "From what I hear, not much," Dawson allows. "Though I do think he's slowing down a little."
At the same time, Dawson feels no pressure to change his act to conform to contemporary standards--something that the promoters of North Carolina's Sleazefest, a three-day celebration of surf and roots rock put on by the members of Southern Culture on the Skids, didn't understand. "They wanted to know if it was okay if a chick got up and stripped during my set, and I said, 'No, I don't want that. That's not what I'm trying to do.' Don't get me wrong: I'm not against stripping. If somebody wants to do that, fine--but not with my stuff. My stuff is pure, and that's the way I want it to be. It's the same way I feel about Elvis impersonators. I don't want an Elvis impersonator opening for me. I don't want them to be anywhere around me. That's sleazy to me.
"If I'm going to do it, the music's going to be the most important thing," he continues. "If it's not, then I don't want to be part of it. It's like when they used to have these Willie Nelson picnics down here. Now, I know Willie, and they're all great people, but it got to be where it was just a party and the musicians didn't do nothing but party." In his opinion, "The music should've been the main thrust of the thing. There's fine lines everywhere, and that's where I stand. Some traditional things should stand up; some should go by the wayside."
For his part, Dawson has no intention of going anywhere. "Right now, this is just a whole lot of fun," he says. "It never ceases to amaze me what music does. You wouldn't believe who I've found myself sitting by. People like Doc Severinsen, Jonathan Winters, Henry Mancini, Count Basie, who's one of my heroes, and Lefty Frizzell. If it hadn't been for music, I probably would've never went anywhere. But I've been all over the world, playing my music. Every time I think about that, it boggles my mind."
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