It’s not that Steve Dawson and Jesse Zubot didn’t have big plans for the future when they first started playing music together, just over two decades ago. They just didn’t quite know what they were.
“We just wanted to rock out, basically,” Dawson tells the Straight, reached at home in Nashville, Tennessee. “We just kinda clicked really quickly, but I wouldn’t say that we had any real ambitions, other than that we were both ambitious. I don’t think we knew what we wanted to do exactly—and, I mean, going back 20-plus years, there’s no way I’d suspect that he’d be doing that and I’d be doing this!”
That, for fiddle virtuoso Zubot, is touring the world and winning multiple awards with Inuk experimentalist Tanya Tagaq; running his own Drip Audio imprint as a home for mostly Vancouver-based improvising acts; scoring feature films such as the recently released Indian Horse; and living on bucolic Vancouver Island. And this, for the guitar-playing half of the partnership, is also running his own label, Black Hen Music, with an emphasis on Americana-flavoured singer-songwriters; operating the full-service Henhouse recording studio in Nashville; and living in the city that is the absolute epicentre for the kind of song-focused, guitar-based music he’s loved ever since he scored his first set of fingerpicks.
Not bad for a couple of kids who, initially as the bar-boogying Spirit Merchants and then as instrumental “strang” purveyors Zubot & Dawson, were always in the music business for the music first, with the business only a necessary afterthought.
More recently, the two seemed to have gone their separate ways, and not just geographically. Dawson’s gotten deeper into his roots in blues, country music, and the American primitive guitar styles of John Fahey and Leo Kottke, while Zubot has been fruitfully exploring electronically processed sound and abstract noise, along with an ever-more-daring approach to the violin. But the two recently reconvened to work on Lucky Hand, Dawson’s eighth solo effort (and second all-instrumental undertaking, after 2014’s Rattlesnake Cage). The results indicate that their rapport is still as intuitive and complementary as ever.
Suggesting that Dawson’s approach to music-making is just as oblique as his more experimentally inclined creative partner’s, Lucky Hand’s chamber-music-inflected approach to Americana draws on an obscure footnote in musical history: that time when, riding high on his success as Beach Boys main man Brian Wilson’s Smile-era lyricist and sounding board, Van Dyke Parks was a near-ubiquitous figure in the recording studios of the late 1960s and early ’70s. After contributing string arrangements, production ideas, and philosophical musings to records by everyone from Frank Zappa to Frank Sinatra, Parks provided especially useful encouragement to a pair of Dawson’s guitar heroes, Lowell George and Ry Cooder—and it was a trip back to Cooder’s debut that gave the younger musician the impetus to turn a collection of instrumental sketches into a major step forward.
“I didn’t want to make another totally solo record, but I didn’t want it to be a band thing,” Dawson explains. “So I was just kicking around some different ideas, and there’s a couple of Van Dyke Parks records that I’d always loved. One is that first Ry Cooder record, where he does a really kind of avant-garde string arrangement to ‘One Meat Ball’. It sounds like Ry Cooder’s just being Ry Cooder, but then the rest of the track is in outer space—like, totally reharmonized.…And then there’s that other record that Van Dyke did with Phil Ochs; I think it’s called Greatest Hits, even though it wasn’t a greatest-hits record. That’s just like a folk record, basically, but then partway through every song, the Van Dyke string arrangements swoop in and carry the song off to another world. So that was really the conceptual inspiration, those two records.”
Enlisting Zubot to play Parks to his Cooder, Dawson made Lucky Hand in Vancouver, recording live off the floor with the fiddler and his brother Joshua on first and second violins, violist John Kastelic, and cellist Peggy Lee, along with occasional input from trombone, clarinet, and French horn. The resulting music is innovative, gorgeous, and successful enough that Dawson and company will re-create its magic during the upcoming Vancouver International Jazz Festival, opening for Dobro wizard Jerry Douglas.
For now, though, Dawson is busy assembling a very different project: the third incarnation of his Black Hen Roadshow, a touring package of artists associated with his record label that this year includes country singer Leeroy Stagger, MonkeyJunk’s Juno-winning guitarist and harmonica player Steve Marriner, and soul chanteuse Ndidi Onukwulu.
“I just thought it was a good group of people who would be copacetic on-stage,” Dawson says. “And the ‘roadshow’ idea is that we do mini-sets where the band and I back everyone up, and they get to do their own little show in the first half. And then in the second half everyone gets on-stage together. It’s sort of like a festival workshop, in a way, except it’s not as chaotic, because we kind of know the material—and by the time we get to Vancouver we’ll know it pretty well, because that’s the second-last night of the tour.
“We’ve still never all been in a room together,” he adds with a laugh, “so there’s always a bit of mystery about how it’ll go. But everyone’s a pro!”