Rockin' Bones

Rockabilly hero Ronnie Dawson is still crazy after all these years

Ronnie Dawson is talking about his dad.
The 58-year-old Texas rockabilly legend is explaining the thrill he felt as a youngster whenever he saw his father, Pinky, a Western-swing bandleader in the '30s and '40s, kick into a tune. But whenever Dawson describes his dad, he could just as easily be describing himself.

"He was a quiet Virgo kind of a guy," Dawson says by phone from his Dallas home. "Then all of a sudden, when he'd get an instrument in his hands, he'd holler and go wild. I just loved it."

Like his father, Dawson is a humble Texas gentleman, with a wild streak that he strategically conserves for those moments when he's onstage and becomes the legendary "Blond Bomber." He has a deep, North Texas drawl that's so mellifluous that it carried him through his lean musical years as the voice of Hungry Jack pancake commercials.

Dawson takes some pride in being called "the king of rockabilly," but he politely reminds people that he plays rock 'n' roll, in its various permutations, and has never limited himself to rockabilly. If he's adapted with astonishing grace to a world which has practically forgotten rock 'n' roll, that might be because he vividly remembers a world before rock 'n' roll, and it was that world which lighted the flame of his musical obsessions.

"Every time we'd move to a new town, my dad would always look up local musicians, guitar and fiddle players, steel players, whatever," he says. "They'd get together at people's houses. We used to call them musicals. All the kids, the women and men are all together in one room. It was just a great time. I could just listen to cats tuning up instruments and I'd get excited. I was 4 years old, and I'd get real torn up. I knew that as soon as I was old enough to get an instrument, that was probably what I'd do."

It's been a long, slow, frequently frustrating climb for Dawson ever since he made that discovery, but in recent years his perseverence has been rewarded. At a time when most of rock 'n' roll's first wave of artists have met their maker or faded into pale shadows of their young selves, Dawson retains all of his teenage fire, and has actually deepened his musical skills through the years.

He's the first person to remind you that his wild early singles like "Action Packed" and "Rockin' Bones" were never really hits, but Dawson is actually benefiting these days from his lack of commercial success in the '50s and '60s. He doesn't have the albatross of an old hit to peg him as an "oldies" act, so while a Chubby Checker must endlessly flog "The Twist" on the casino circuit, Dawson can captivate a crowd with tunes off his acclaimed 1996 Upstart album, Just Rockin' & Rollin', or his 1989 recording of "Yum Yum," currently featured in the hit film Primary Colors.

For a medium so obsessed with youth, Dawson's case is a hard one to figure out. The pattern was long ago established that rock performers would make their major statements by the time they hit 25, and usually run out of steam by the time they hit 30. Dawson seemed a particularly strong candidate for early retirement. His early singles were brash, hedonistic ravers defined by Dawson's absurdly high-pitched voice, which made him sound as though he'd just inhaled a big dose of helium. Though Dawson was in his late teens when he cut the rollicking "Action Packed" for the Houston-based Backbeat label, the effect is akin to hearing a smart-ass 12-year-old brag about how worldly he is, touching and unintentionally hilarious. Such early tracks were loaded with rocking gusto, but they didn't sound like the work of an artist with a long life span.

Dawson subsequently got picked up by Dick Clark's Swan label, and the star-making machinery went to work, eager to turn Dawson into a blond, raw-boned teen idol. Despite Dawson's two appearances on Clark's American Bandstand, his records got buried in the payola scandal, which forced Clark to pull back from playing records that he had a financial interest in.

Dawson says, "By that point, I thought, 'I'm snakebit, man. This is just shithouse luck.'" Even so, he now believes that his failure at Swan actually saved his career. For one thing, his Swan records didn't accurately represent his sound. He was not allowed to play guitar on the tracks, and all the songs fell into what he calls the "doo-waddy-wop" style of the times, with the same done-to-death "Poor Little Fool" chord changes. For another thing, a hit at the time could have easily branded Dawson a pretty-boy, one-hit wonder.

"I would've gotten hung in that formula," Dawson says. "If I'd had a hit then, I probably wouldn't have had another one. I've seen a lot of guys come out of that, and never shaken that has-been stigma."

No matter how disappointed Dawson felt at the time, he insists that he never considered quitting. "It was just a temporary thing," he says. "I was young and resilient. I still am."

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.

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