Steve Dawson may not be a household name, but with the release of 2014’s Rattlesnake Cage, he put himself on the radar of many acoustic guitar fans, including me. The sideman, record producer, and family man has recently taken time out of his busy schedule to record a follow-up to Cage called Lucky Hand, which showcases his fluid playing alongside string quartet, harmonica, and mandolin.
A Canadian ex-pat, Dawson moved his family and recording studio operation to Nashville a few years back. His Henhouse Studio has produced music by Matt Patershuk, Kelly Joe Phelps, and John Hammond, as well as the Birds of Chicago, with whom he is currently on tour.
Like Rattlesnake Cage, Lucky Hand features Dawson’s playing on six-string, National Tricone, Weissenborn lap slide, and 12-string guitar. The all-instrumental album’s song titles include references to places in and around his newly adopted town of Nashville. “The Circuit Rider of Pigeon Forge,” “Bone Cave,” and “Old Hickory Breakdown” paint an aural landscape of Southern rural charm and mystery. And the addition of strings has opened and enhanced Dawson’s compositions, providing an air of sophistication. However, the mood is not high-brow, but intimate, humble, and inviting.
The interplay of guitar and mandolin on a song like “Little Harpeth” is layered and exquisite, with melody lines doubled, while a fanning guitar string effect adds a lush ambience. Dawson showcases his solo 12-string playing on “Hollow Tree Gap,” with its incessant groove and quick-fingered dexterity. The album’s final track, “Bugscuffle,” brings us back home with Dawson’s lovely solo playing on Weissenborn lap slide.
What prompted you to record a fingerstyle guitar record with string quartet?
I recorded Rattlesnake Cage about four years ago and I wanted to follow that up, but then I started thinking I wanted to take that in some new directions. At the time, I was revisiting Ry Cooder’s first records and a Phil Ochs record called Greatest Hits—which is not actually his greatest hits—and the common thread was Van Dyke Parks’ and Ochs’ wily string arrangements, which take pretty straight-ahead guitar music and turn it into something else. And then I contacted Jesse Zubot, who I have worked with for many years—we had a project called Zubot & Dawson that released three instrumental records. He had been doing a lot of string arranging recently. I had written the songs, and then we discussed them a bit to decide which would be the best to have string arrangements on.
Did you record the tracks together or separately?
We recorded together. It was really fun. The process was, I wrote the songs solo and recorded them on a phone. Then I sent them to him and was specific about which parts were set and which parts were a little stretchy; and then there are some parts which are completely improvised. He knew what my roadmap was, so we convened in Vancouver and recorded live.
It’s me facing the four string players and I’m about 15 feet away from them, and that’s how we did it.
Let’s talk guitars. You played six-string, 12-string, Weissenborn, and a National Tricone on this album, correct?
That’s right. And I think there is a little ukulele in there, as well.
Were you playing uke or was somebody else?
I overdubbed it. It’s just a little textural thing on a couple of songs.
What kind of 12-string are you playing?
It’s a Taylor Leo Kottke signature model which is designed to be tuned down to C#, but I tune it down further to a B. That thing is a cannon—it’s really unruly. If I played it all the time I would feel like it’s more under control, but I always feel like it’s about to come bursting out of my hands. I like writing on it. Sometimes you come up with fingerpicking patterns and you can get in a rut, but as soon as you get a 12-string under your fingers, all the voicings change and everything flips around. It’s kind of an exciting way to write music.
Do you play the 12-string in any open tunings?
The open tuning I have landed on for a lot of stuff is tuning the 6th and 1st strings down to D: D A D G B D [double dropped D]. That, for me, has come in really handy as a sideman for fingerstyle and slide guitar. I like it because I can relate to the low register as open D tuning [D A D F# A D], and the high register I can relate to as open G tuning [D G D G B D], and also the middle four strings are in standard tuning, which means I can fret a lot of normal chords as well. All the 12-string tunes on this record are using this tuning, except tuned lower.
With the six-string I used open D and open G, and a weird open C. I don’t often write in standard tuning, but on this album I think there are two in standard.
What’s the weird C tuning?
C G C G C, and then sometimes I make the high string a unison on the C and sometimes I use a D on there. That’s sort of my main Weissenborn tuning. On this album there is one six-string song where it is that tuning but the top note is an F: C G C G C F. I got that tuning from Kelly Joe Phelps.
On the resonator are you using open G?
On the resonator I use double dropped D, open G, or open D. The Tricone does not like being in C.
Yeah, there is not enough tension to hold the cones in place or something.
Do you use fingerpicks?
I do when I play the Weissenborn. I use ProPiks, the ones that don’t have any fingertips in them, so it still feels like your fingertips but you’re getting the volume of the metal as well. For regular six- and 12-string guitar I only use a thumbpick.
Being a producer and engineer, do you have a favored method for miking an acoustic guitar for recording?
I experiment, but my main thing for recording acoustics is I base it around a mono recording concept. There’s generally one mic giving 95 percent of the sound. The modern concept of stereo miking the guitar is cool, but it makes everything sound larger than life. For my music, I don’t want that. I like it to sound warm and inviting and like you’re sitting five feet away, rather than shoving your head right inside of the guitar. I feel like a lot of modern guitar music is presented very forward and in your face. I really like old recordings. Also, I don’t sit very still when I play and that can present problems when you are miking in stereo.
Obviously, fingerstyle blues informs a lot of your playing, but are there any other players you draw inspiration from?
Sure, definitely Doc Watson is a big inspiration for me. Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, as far as the non-blues guys. For fingerstyle acoustic guitar, Tampa Red was a really big one; Lonnie Johnson was a big one; Ry Cooder and David Lindley. I got into John Fahey and Leo Kottke when I was pretty young and learned some of their stuff when I could. Some of the Hawaiian players like Sol Hoopii and King Bennie Nawahi were influential for the Weissenborn.