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."