Steve Dawson had it pretty good in Vancouver: A house with his own backyard studio (the converted garage he called the Henhouse), tons of work as a musician and producer, his own monthly concert series at the Electric Owl that featured Alvin Youngblood Hart and Colin James, among others, and the list goes on.
Still, Dawson felt the pull to get away. In many ways, Vancouver’s oft prohibitive cost of living, especially for artists, had its way with him and his family.
There was talk of moving to Toronto, where provincial arts grants certainly are in better supply, but eventually Dawson couldn’t keep fighting it: He and his family were going to Tennessee.
“We decided to move about a year ago,” Dawson said in a recent phone interview. “We were pretty set on Toronto but hadn’t totally figured out how to make that work. A big thing for me was to find a place where I could have what I had in Vancouver: A space separate from the house where we could record and not harass the neighbours too badly. I was in Toronto a bunch of times for projects and was having a hard time finding places. I have a love-hate thing with Toronto too. There’s a real draw to it as a musician because there’s a lot going on there. But, at the same time, West Coasters find Toronto annoying. So I couldn’t find an ideal situation, and I wasn’t looking forward to winters there.
“A few people I work with were raving about Nashville. I did a show with Colin Linden in Vancouver and he offhandedly said: ‘Don’t go to Toronto, go to Nashville.’ My wife and I went down there to check it out and we really liked it. It’s small and really beautiful. Everything we are told as Canadians about Americans doesn’t seem to apply to that part of the country for some reason. It’s just a great city and it’s really affordable to live there — it’s way cheaper than Vancouver and Toronto. We wanted to shake things up and make a big change. I guess Toronto didn’t feel like it was that much of a ‘night and day’ kind of change. We thought the challenge was fun and intriguing.”
Considering Dawson’s musical roots, whether it be his love of classic bluesmen, of string bands, or his spiritual kinship with assorted six-string road warriors, Nashville makes sense. It’s a hard workin’ town made for hard workin’ musicians. And Steve Dawson is one of the hardest workin’ around.
His output during the last decade as a producer and musician has earned him seven Juno Awards and a dozen Western Canadian Music Awards.
Some have even dubbed him the Canadian Ry Cooder, in reference to Cooder’s constant work as a roots revivalist. Not far off the mark when you consider Dawson’s acclaimed Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Project, an homage to the highly influential and criminally underappreciated American string band.