Though he's hardly a soundalike, it's hard not to notice the influence of Ry Cooder on at least some of Canadian (currently Nashvillean) Steve Dawson. Both are superb players of acoustic and electric guitars, both are deeply informed in grassroots sounds (blues, folk, early jazz) and each traffics in a fusion music one might characterize generally as bluesy folk-rock with r&b shades. (I suppose one could add that Cooder goes into the studio with larger budgets, not always an advantage.) Neither artist, it is true, is more than an adequate vocalist, but one doesn't listen to them for their singing. It's their instrumental mastery and their novel but top-flight arrangements.
Solid States & Loose Ends is a satisfying collection of solid originals and strong covers, among them three traditionals (of which the blues ballad "Delia" is the best known) and Joe Tex's "You Got What It Takes" (more raunchy than you'd think if you aren't listening carefully). Dawson's fingerpicking on the more or less acoustic tracks is seriously ingratiating. Besides standard six-string, he's playing National Steel, dobro and more, all with the command and confidence of a master.
Dawson, who has produced others (among them Jim Byrnes, John Hammond and Kelly Joe Phelps), produces himself here, assembling a tight studio band in tune with his vision of melodies and rhythms from different eras melded together seamlessly. I'm glad to hear the oldtime "Riley's Henhouse Door" (Riley being legendary hillbilly guitarist Riley Puckett, an influence on Doc Watson, from his 1936 recording) and Dawson's own tuneful "California Saviour." Not, mind you, that there's anything anywhere here to dislike.
Dawson's more recent release, Lucky Hand, is an instrumental outing, all originals but bearing names like "Old Hickory Breakdown," "Hollow Tree Gap" and "Little Harpeth," which follow Bill Monroe's philosophy of honoring the pedigree of newly composed materials by bestowing on them old-seeming titles. Because some of the pieces are close to orchestral in their arrangements -- though populated by instruments one could have heard on a street corner or a front porch or a country dance a century or more ago -- the listener's imagination conjures up something like an alternative past defined by pure sound, sort of like a dream of an elusive something at once recognizable and mysterious. You can get it that John Fahey, Leo Kottke and other so-called American Primitive guitarists explored the territory decades ago, but Dawson, ably assisted by classical arranger Jesse Zubot, moves the ideas gratifyingly forward.
Like the best recordings, Lucky Hand repays repeated listenings. Solid States and the new one, his seventh and eighth respectively, give the impression that an already gifted artist is now coming fully into his own.