An idea whose time has come

The List of Rock and Roll Calamities is as legendary as it is long: Richie Valens’ fatal plane crash on that cold Iowa morning. Carl Perkins’ car accident on the way to the Ed Sullivan show and international stardom. Ronnie Dawson’s fateful signing to Dick Clark’s Swan label, just as the payola scandal was beginning to break.

But bad luck will never keep a true rock ‘n’ roller down: Valens’ small body of work is as popular today as it could conceivably have been, even if he had lived. Carl Perkins went on to international fame and glory long before he died of a stroke last month. And as for Ronnie Dawson … well, the fame and glory part is just now beginning to happen — again. After 40 years in the business, Dawson has another chance to do the only thing he ever wanted: play sincere, soulful rockabilly in front of dancing crowds.

Dawson’s career first took off in the mid-1950s when, as a fresh-faced teenager, he would routinely bring down the house at the Big D Jamboree, Dallas’ answer to the Grand Ole Opry. On various occasions, he upstaged more established acts, including Elvis, Johnny Horton and the country crooner Webb Pierce, who once walked out at the prospect of following the young rocker’s unruly act.

After his name and music came to Dick Clark’s attention, Dawson was signed and ready to rock on Clark’s American Bandstand, which would have been the push he needed to get into the national arena. But when Clark became embroiled in the payola scandal — allegations that he was accepting bribes to push certain artists — the beleaguered Clark was forced to turn his back on the skinny kid with the blonde flattop and the loud Stratocaster.

“Everything that happens, happens because it was meant to,” Dawson muses by phone from his Dallas home. “I don’t feel weird about it. I don’t worry about it. I just figure it wasn’t my time yet.”

But all indications are that Dawson’s time has finally come. With four albums of vintage rockabilly under his belt, Dawson is drawing bigger crowds than ever. It hasn’t been easy: After 30 years of laboring in obscurity — club gigs, radio commercials, a ’70s country-rock band — he got a fateful phone call from a London-based record producer named Barney Koumis, telling him what a legend he’d become among England’s music purists. Koumis went on to offer Dawson a sweet deal to get his music back on the market.

That music is an original brand of high-octane rockabilly — trashy, lo-fi and straight as a west Texas highway. His latest album, Just Rockin’ and Rollin’ (Upstart, 1996), is a prime example: 16 songs recorded live in glorious mono at London’s Toe Rag studios, itself renowned among aficionados for its vintage equipment. The songs on Just Rockin’ capture not only the sounds of the imperial days of rockabilly, but something else, something deeper — the joie de vivre of a master practicing his craft with a wonderful, ragged abandon.

“We wanted an honest sound when we recorded that album,” Dawson explains in his fatherly drawl. “We wanted to use the best of the old days and the best of these days, too. I was wondering what made that old sound so good, and I realized that it was a live thing — when you play live in the studio, you get a certain feel, you get a groove going.”

That attention to the purity of the music, often at the expense of making good money, is the very thing that has made Dawson such an inspiration to younger musicians. Indeed, Dawson’s music and wildman stage antics have helped inspire several generations of psychobillies, from the Cramps, Southern Culture on the Skids, the Flat Duo Jets and X (Billy Zoom should’ve paid Dawson royalties every time he held a guitar and grinned), to newer acts like Los Straightjackets and the Rev. Horton Heat. The latter two bands, in fact, have returned the favor by contributing session and touring guitarists to Dawson’s various bands.

“I like to keep some younger people — a young guitar player, at least — in the band,” Dawson says, with a laugh. “I like hungry musicians. Hungry musicians make good music.” When asked exactly what young musicians contribute to his music, Dawson doesn’t have to contemplate very long: “The guitarist I’ve got now, he’s got a little distortion on his guitar, he plays a little different than I do, he makes the band a little greasier. I like to keep my arrangements fresh and everything, but I don’t want a slick sound.”

As if all of this weren’t enough, Dawson has even more tricks up his sleeve: It seems that, in the 1970s, his country-rock band, Steel Rail, recorded some material that’s now languishing in someone’s basement. With the recent surge in alternative country, and the healthy state of roots music in general, a project like this takes on the proportions of a lost classic. “Yeah, we’re trying to get that released,” Dawson says. “We had a rock rhythm section, and a real heavy steel-guitar player. But we can’t get in touch with the fellow who has it.”

He pauses, probably thinking about the fickle fates of fortune. “I’m sure it will find its audience someday.”

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