Immersing myself in Steve Dawson’s impressive catalogue these past weeks, I wasn’t surprised as much reinvigorated by the intensity and diversity of the music he has chosen to create over the past decade and a half. There are certainly commonalities linking his recordings—the quality of his playing, naturally, but also his obvious appreciation for the history of all roots-based music—but what becomes most apparent is Dawson’s incredible versatility. When one encounters music from a Steve Dawson album, one is never quite sure what will be heard: blues, folk, country, string-band, and jazz, it is all there. Equally evident is that there is no doubt that one is listening to a master.
Steve Dawson is one of Canada’s most significant roots musicians and producers. Now based in Nashville, Dawson continues to develop his own songwriting while honing his studio and instrumental chops.
I’ve admitted it before, and I am comfortable stating it again: most instrumental roots music albums—bluegrass, blues, folk, and the all-encompassing Americana—bore me. Wait, that is a little strong, and ‘bore’ is a lazy word. Still, instrumental albums certainly don’t engage me to the degree that music with verses and rhyme does. Still, I’ll listen to Doc Watson and Flatt & Scruggs’ Strictly Instrumental or the Tony Rice Bluegrass Guitar Collection anytime; I guess it just depends on the presentation—noodle incessantly or aimlessly and you lose me before the third cut.
No fear of that with Steve Dawson’s Lucky Hand. Mr. Black Hen Music has created, with a handful of guests, a compelling collection of—alternately—lively, moody, and progressive acoustic, instrumental roots tunes.
Across the 45-minute set are expansive and airy solo and duet pieces as well as a few full-blown string wizard combo collaborations. What is especially appealing (but not terribly surprising) is the multiplicity of sounds Dawson brings to his compositions. There is a subtle bluegrass groove to “Hollow Tree Gap,” while the atmospheric “Lucky Hand,” “Bentonia Blues,” and “Hale Road Revelation” have blues foundations, the latter featuring an impressive slide performance. Dawson lays out a fitting and inspired tribute to Doc Watson-styled phrasing and picking on “Lonesome Ace.”
Dawson also circles back to long-time partner Jesse Zubot on several string-rich pieces including the playful “Old Hickory Breakdown” and the musical imagery that is “Bone Cave.” Dawson is further complemented by Josh Zubot (violin), Peggy Lee (cello), and John Kastelic (viola). John Reischman joins Dawson for the slide and mandolin duet “Little Harpeth,” a piece that (to these abused and untrained ears) weaves into near neoclassical territory.
The cinematic opening “The Circuit Rider of Pigeon Forge” is an expansive suite effectively incorporating ostensibly discordant essentials of western film scores of the 50s, chamber music, and intimate late-night guitar progressions with rock ‘n’ roll fervor. Somehow, it all works, and sets the tone for a musical journey that is consistently challenging, surprising, and unblemished.
Lucky Hand is Steve Dawson’s eighth ‘solo’ album. It stands comfortably beside his best albums including Solid States & Loose Ends and Nightshade.