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He kept gigging in Dallas, played drums on recording sessions (including Bruce Channel's monumental hit "Hey! Baby"), and eventually formed a country-rock band called Steel Rail. Through the years, a fanatical underground rockabilly cult had begun to scoop up rare singles and bootlegs by even the most obscure hillbilly cats. In England, the obsession was particularly strong. To English record collectors, Dawson was a mysterious and an exciting figure.
In 1986, Dawson got a call from a British fan who sought permission to press up an album of some of Dawson's vintage cuts. It was the first album of Dawson's music ever to be released. Eventually, Dawson suggested that he'd like to go to England to perform. The rapturous reception he received on his British mini-tour set him back on the rockabilly path of his early work. "These people knew more about my stuff than I did," he marvels. "And I just thought it was old shit that I had in storage."
In 1992, Dawson joined forces with a young Austin rockabilly trio called High Noon. Initially, High Noon would play a gig in Dallas or Austin, and simply bring Dawson up to play a couple of old classics like "Rockin' Bones" and "Action Packed." The response from the ducktailed true believers was usually so riotous that Dawson would end up stealing the show. It wasn't long before Dawson started headlining club gigs in Dallas, and word began to spread of his remarkable, undiminished power. On the nights when he fronted Lone Star Trio, a band of kids practically young enough to be his grandchildren, Dawson rocked circles around them.
In 1994, Dawson was invited to participate in a Carnegie Hall show devoted to Texas music. His performance earned a photo and rave review in the New York Times, and suddenly Dawson was rock's oldest new sensation. The man who only six years ago limited himself to occasional cameo guest spots now plays a whopping 120 shows a year. Dawson says he'd play more than that, but his unbridled shows take so much out of him, he needs to limit each tour to about five weeks.
"They're pretty intense," he says of his gigs. "I like to keep 'em thatta way. I like to keep refreshed. We go out and play a while, and then we come back in and charge our batteries. You know, sleep a little, eat a little, and then go back out again."
Until last year, the members of High Noon formed the nucleus of Dawson's live band. But when it came time to record his debut album for Upstart, Dawson put together an all-star lineup which included Los Straitjackets guitarist Eddie Angel and drummer Bruce Brand.
"I was doing all my recording overseas, and at that time, we couldn't afford to take a whole band over there," he says. "I had told them, 'You guys are gonna be on my next record,' and that one didn't work out, so there I was, and I really felt like I owed them something. So in January we went down and recorded a live album at the Continental Club."
The new live album, titled Ronnie Dawson Live at the Continental, will be sold almost exclusively at Dawson live shows, and effectively closes a chapter of his career. The members of his band wanted to move in more of what he calls a "country-swing" direction, but as Dawson firmly states: "That's not what I do. I play rock 'n' roll."
His commitment to a particular, highly elusive sound is what led him to record Just Rockin' & Rollin' at Liam Watson's Toe Rag Studios in London. Dawson found Watson's studio to be one of the few places on the planet where the gear, the engineering techniques and the vibes allowed for his kind of vintage sound.
He's found another such place in Portland, Maine, and plans to begin recording his next album there in August. This time, his band will be able to play the sessions.
If Dawson wasn't such a modest, unassuming guy, you'd swear he was on a one-man crusade to maintain rock 'n' roll as a vital life force, not merely an arcane museum exhibit. How else to explain the second wind that's currently driving his career with such force?
"I'm just a late bloomer," he says, adding with a laugh, "maybe it's just because I've had a little more practice. But I think I have stayed crazy. You know what I mean by that. You've gotta be crazy. The only difference I notice between myself and guys that I know that got out of it for a while is that they seem to not have that fire that they had.
"I don't know if you just forget it, where it goes out, and takes a while to get it going. But I never did. I kept playing. I always thought that there was a place for me in this business somewhere. There must be, 'cause I really can't do anything else."
Ronnie Dawson is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, April 14, at the Rhythm Room, with The Ramblers. Showtime is 9 p.m.