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Johnny Dilks strides into DeMarco's 23 Club hurriedly, wearing a dusty pair of overalls. He's here to see a man about a horse. See, Dilks is a country singer, DeMarco's is a Bay Area honky-tonk and Dilks' friend Leonard Iniguez has a horse named Hobby who's willing to be photographed with Dilks -- it all works out. Dilks is running late; he just got back from having the front end of his pickup truck realigned.
DeMarco's, which sits at the foot of the main drag in sleepy Brisbane, in the shadow of San Francisco's Cow Palace, is the country bar that time forgot. Opened in 1941 by John DeMarco, it became a popular place with Hunters Point shipyard workers, as well as collegiate types looking to slum for the evening. DeMarco's, guitarist and trumpeter Jimmie Rivers once said, was where "the dancing starts at 9 and the fights start at 10."
That's a quote on which Dilks, has instant recall, consistent with his grasp of country music history; he's laying claim to a tradition that doesn't get around much anymore. Which is to say, country tradition itself. Barring the Bakersfield-soaked likes of Dwight Yoakam and a handful of others, country is often a laughingstock from a critical standpoint; it's splintered into either airbrushed Shania Twainery or rock 'n' roll hybrids whose ties to actual country history are often tenuous. Dilks has diligently -- and unapologetically -- staked out a middle ground, walking in the footsteps of Western swing musicians from the postwar era: folks like Rivers, Bob Wills and Tex Williams, all country singers and, it's worth noting, Californians.
A scholar of country music traditions, Dilks has been performing Western swing ever since he decided to retire from the punk scene in which he spent his teen years. With his latest band, the Visitacion Valley Boys -- guitarist Paul Wooton, bassist Brendan Ryan, fiddle and mandolin player Brian Godchaux, steel guitar player Billy Wilson and drummer Pat Campbell -- he recorded his first album, Acres of Heartache, designed to showcase his remarkable versatility as a singer and songwriter. There's the barroom-brawl swing of "Comin' on Thru," the high-speed and -pitched yodeling of "Yodel Till I Turn Blue" and the high-lonesome honky-tonk of "Acres of Heartache." The album was recorded last year using vintage mikes, resulting in sonic similarities to postwar country songs that are downright uncanny: Dilks' vocals sound like they've been dipped in shellac.
Dilks is anxious to look the part if he's going to be posing with a horse, and at this moment the overalls aren't going to do. Hobby's just going to have to wait in DeMarco's parking lot while Dilks drives to his house to pick up the proper attire. "It'll just take 10 minutes," he assures everyone as he heads over to his rust-colored pickup truck and clears off the passenger seat, moving a double-barreled shotgun out of the way. (Dilks shoots in tournaments, and claims to be a "fair, not great" shot. "I'm not fast, but I can hit the targets.") Then it's off to Burlingame, where he happily talks about California country's rural traditions in the middle of a not-very-rural patch of rush hour traffic.
Dilks grew up in San Mateo, and spent his summers with his father around Sutter Creek, near Calaveras County. When he was 12, he started working at a sign shop, where he was introduced to country music through his best friend's father. "I got Hank Williams and Patsy Cline beat into my head at a young age," he says. "I didn't really like it back then, but I heard the songs, knew them, and liked some of them -- I remember I liked 'Kaw-Liga.'" But that's where his interest in country music ended, at least for a while -- punk came calling, and Dilks spent his weekends hanging out at Berkeley's 924 Gilman club, playing in bands and "getting into all kinds of trouble, fistfights and everything."
But when Dilks was 15, his aunt gave him her record collection of around 600 old 45 rpm rock 'n' roll singles. Dilks liked a few of the songs -- Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, mainly -- but he proceeded to do what most enterprising teenagers would do in his situation: look into selling off the records, or at least trading them in for something else.
At Jack's Record Cellar in San Francisco, he collided with racks and racks of antique country history and steered himself toward the staff's suggestions: Billy Jack Wills, Moon Mulligan, Jimmie Rivers, Brisbane Bop. "And that was it, man. I was hooked. I spent all my money on records for, God, four or five years."
At 19, Dilks became a student of guitarist Jim Campilongo, and tried his hand at songwriting. "I think he brought 150 records to the first lesson," says Campilongo. "He practiced like crazy. Every week he'd have a new song that he wrote that was a great song." The two would play together off and on in a variety of groups, including a show with Rivers last year. Eventually, Dilks asked Campilongo how he might go about starting a Western swing band. Campilongo's advice was simple: Look for good musicians and call them up.