Call it the successful career itch. Over the past decade, Steve Dawson has become one of Canada's most respected roots music performers and producers. You'll find his expert ear and frequent guitar credits behind 30 acts on his own Black Hen Music label and beyond, names like Kelly Joe Phelps, Jim Byrnes, The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute and Edmonton's own Kat Danser.
His 2003 Juno win as part of Zubot & Dawson is now just one of many awards, but the Vancouver-born guitar ace was still itching to take things further, to go bigger and smaller. The smaller part was to make his first solo-instrumental album, a gorgeous new disc called Rattlesnake Cage, featuring all-original guitar tunes in a traditional vernacular that sound so fine you might not realize they were mostly recorded in one take on a single vintage microphone.
The bigger step came in uprooting and moving to Nashville last September.
"My wife and I decided to get out of Vancouver and try something new about two years ago but I was bashing my head against the wall to find the right place."
They wanted to find a home with adjoining studio space in a city that wasn't insanely expensive. In the end, it was that other ubiquitous Canadian roots producer Colin Linden who suggested they consider Nashville.
"It felt like a big jump off a cliff but it's what we were looking for. There are some of the most amazing studios in the world just blocks away. You can find great musicians in a lot of cities, but there are a lot of them here. It's known as a country music town but there's all kinds of cool, underground stuff going on here and venues doing music seven nights a week. I think a lot of the mentality about this town started changing a few years ago when Jack White (The White Stripes) moved here.:
Dawson says he finds Nashville reminiscent of the way Vancouver was in the 1990s when he was just starting out as an apprentice musician, a fresh graduate of Boston's Berklee College. It also reminds him of Edmonton, for its friendly size and cultural bent.
He's hoping to tap Nashville's session scene for playing opportunities, but fans will be happy to know he isn't deserting his Canadian friends.
"I'm hoping to carve out a little niche for myself, making the kind of records that I do and to really keep working and focusing on Canadian music. I think there's a draw for Canadian artists to come to a place like this."
Dawson is already scheduled to produce new albums for bluesman Big Dave McLea and two other Winnipeg acts while Black Hen is getting ready to release several other albums he made before the move, including new discs from Jim Byrnes and Kelly Joe Phelps.
Rattlesnake Cage was recorded about a year ago on a single Neumann M49 vintage microphone that was hanging in a Detroit church for a half-century before a friend saved it, knowing that Dawson was obsessed with tracking one down. He used four contrasting guitars and a couple of slides to create the 11 sparkling gems on the album.
Dawson says it might be his most honest experience in making music.
"I've never done anything like this before, to just sit down in front of one microphone and play with no frills, no effects, no overdubs, just to capture the essence of the music. It's something I've always wanted to do. I actually tried to make an album like this 10 years ago but it just didn't come together."
His approach to fingerstyle guitar intentionally references parts of roots music history, pioneers like Mississippi John Hurt, and others.
"For me, acoustic guitar music in the mid-1970's turned into something I just lost interest in, both for the technology and the technique. I wanted to emphasize and explore traditional things from the 1930's and up to the '70's that drew me in the first place, to ignore later developments. The stuff I respond to has sloppy bits and wrong notes but it's presented with a deep understanding of early American folk music. Now I understand it well enough to make it work."