North Shore News
The Mississippi Sheiks were only together for a short period of time in the early 1930s but the fiddle and guitar group were immensely influential on American popular culture with many musicians, such as Muddy Waters, citing their significance.
Steve Dawson's tribute album collects 17 songs from the Mississippi Sheiks catalogue in new recordings featuring the likes of the North Mississippi Allstars, The Chocolate Carolina Drops and Madeleine Peyroux.
The West Vancouver-born musician talked with the News about the making of the record prior to its release next week.
North Shore News: The new album sounds like it was a real labour of love.
Steve Dawson: It was for sure. The seeds of it started almost two years ago now. The process was pretty long in the sense that there are so many artists involved and with anything of this sort there's a lot of behind the scene stuff going on -- logistics and getting everybody together at the same time.
North Shore News: Have you ever been involved with a project remotely like this?
Steve Dawson: No, nothing like this. I guess the only thing comparable would be booking a music festival or something where a whole bunch of people come to the same place at the same time but this was different in the sense that there was a recording involved. We didn't have a big budget so we were really trying to make things work for relatively cheap. It was definitely a unique experience for me.
North Shore News: Not a big budget but the record comes across as fully realized.
Steve Dawson: I'm used to making things work within a relatively small budget but it was still a fair chunk of money. There's favours called in and there's studios giving me cheap studio time. I did a lot of the work myself which saved money. Things like that are just essential to the process to make it affordable.
North Shore News: How did you choose the people you wanted to work with?
Steve Dawson: There were a number of people I hadn't worked with before although generally there was some sort of connection with everybody. Like Madeleine Peyroux, I've opened with her before so I just e-mailed her and asked if she would be interested and she was totally keen. John Hammond is a really close, old friend of Jim Byrnes, who I work with all the time, so he put me in touch with him. Things just sort of happened that way. I think the only one that was completely out of the blue was the North Mississippi Allstars -- I just happened to catch them on a good day I guess because they were totally into it.
North Shore News: The North Mississippi Allstars kick off the record with their take.
Steve Dawson: I thought that was really fitting because they are around the modern Mississippi music scene. Their dad, Jim Dickinson, who died just a month or two ago, was really the kingpin on the Mississippi recording scene over the last 40 years or so. It made a lot of sense to have those guys on the record.
North Shore News: How did Van Dyke Parks become involved?
Steve Dawson: That was through Oh Susanna. He did this big, crazy string arrangement for her. Van Dyke I've been a huge fan of for years. He's just a wild music mind. Suzy was in Los Angeles doing some radio promotion and Van Dyke Parks heard her on the radio and phoned the radio station and said, 'I really dig what you do and we should do something together.' For some reason it just never came together. I don't think she really knew who he was and when I heard that story I kind of freaked out because I was a big fan. I just asked her if she would get in touch with him and see if he would be involved. We started talking and he agreed to do it and was really into the project. He's actually from Mississippi and so he felt a kinship to it.
North Shore News: Del Rey actually knew (Mississippi Sheiks member) Sam Chatmon.
Steve Dawson: When he resurfaced in the '60s, as a lot of these older blues musicians did, he ended up around the Santa Cruz area and she used to just go to clubs and watch him play and hung out with him and learned guitar from him basically. She seemed like a real natural fit to have on the record.
North Shore News: With so many types of styles how did it all play out?
Steve Dawson: Some of the stuff was done completely separately and sent to me like in the case of the North Mississippi Allstars. We just agreed on the song that they would do and a rough idea of what they were going to do and then they just did it themselves and sent it to me. I went out to Ottawa and did sessions with John Hammond and the Carolina Chocolate Drops and a little bit of stuff in Toronto and then we had this big blowout session in Seattle where we had a studio for two days. I brought in a house band and we kind of plowed through everybody. We just backed people up which is kind of the way I'm used to working anyway. We used a bunch of really amazing Seattle musicians and got all these people to come into Seattle and do their tracks. I wanted to have a consistent sound through a number of the tracks and so that's how we managed to do that.
North Shore News: How did you record the sessions? Were they mostly live off the floor?
Steve Dawson: Yes, very live. The way that I saw it happening was to do it that way. In the spirit of the music you want to capture the moment and some of the imperfections that can happen doing a live kind of thing. Almost all of the Seattle stuff was done as you hear it. We did three or four takes of most of the stuff but there wasn't a painstaking process of going back and trying to fix things. I got people who are really good and everybody just nailed it.
North Shore News: Madeleine Peyroux couldn't make it to Seattle but she's on the album.
Steve Dawson: That was a last-minute thing. She was finishing her new record which is out now. She was getting ready to come here and then all of a sudden they had to go back in and redo a bunch of stuff so the day of the session I heard from her that she wasn't going to be able to make it. We talked on the phone and she actually did a rough recording of ("Please Baby") and sent it to me and then we all sat around in the studio and figured out how we would back her up if she were there. We recorded the track without her and sent the track to New York and she did the vocal and sent it back.
North Shore News: Did you get everybody else you wanted?
Steve Dawson: The whole project has morphed so much over the year and a half that the whole thing's been going on. There were some people that fell through at the last minute but I'm happy with the lineup that we've got. The one that got away, so to speak, is Ry Cooder who had agreed to be on the project and was into the idea and then for whatever reason he just couldn't do it. He was going to do his own track in Los Angeles and I was pretty excited about that but for whatever reason he couldn't get his track done. That was the one that I really missed having.
North Shore News: He'll be sorry he missed out.
Steve Dawson: Maybe. It's too bad. Another time.
North Shore News: How did the Texas Sheiks become involved?
Steve Dawson: I talked to Geoff Muldaur. We'd just done something together at the Vancouver folk festival and I told him what I was doing and he said, 'Well, funny you should mention that because I'm just about to go in and (do a Mississippi Sheiks) record. His friend Stephen Bruton, who played with Merle Haggard for years, had been diagnosed with cancer and a friend of theirs had offered to get them all together to do this project. They were calling it the Texas Sheiks but essentially it was a bunch of Texas musicians doing the Mississippi Sheiks songs. He said 'This is happening and if you're interested we can do a song for you and you can put it on your record.' I knew he'd be doing it with a real traditional bent. He got his group together which is a really killer group of musicians.
North Shore News: Did you get all the songs you wanted on the disc?
Steve Dawson: There's a few obvious songs that I really wanted like "Sitting On Top of the World" the one song that people actually know by them so getting the Carolina Chocolate Drops to do that was cool. All my favourite tunes of theirs we managed to find somebody to do them. There's about 75 songs by the Mississippi Sheiks and we got 17 of them and that's pretty good.