When country-folk contrarian Townes Van Zandt quipped that there are only two kinds of songs, the blues and zip-a-dee-doo-dah, he could have been talking about Rattlesnake Cage, wherein fretboard virtuoso Steve Dawson weaves those two skeins-songs of joy and sorrow-into single slipknot, shape-shifting instrumentals.
With flavorful titles like "Flophouse Oratory," the rust-colored patina of turn-of-the-century murder ballads and fly-blown medicine shows clings to Dawson's mischievous compositions. On "Blind Thomas at the Crime Scene," Dawson alludes to John Fahey's nom de plume while summoning Fahey's contrapuntal fingerpicking on a Larrivee jumbo six-string. Attacking and cajoling "The Flagpole Skater Laughs from Above" with his Taylor 12-string, Dawson merges the percussive classicism of Leo Kottke with the rasping bottleneck slide of Blind Willie Johnson.
Dawson folds fingerpicking and steel-string techniques into tempo-jumping, meditative pieces that ping-pong between silken and guttural tones. Yet this set is not Baroque or overstuffed. Instead, Dawson delights in American primitive stylings, and he doesn't stop with nods to Fahey, Kottke, Ry Cooder, and Mississippi John Hurt. He also recorded these unadorned, yet detailed tracks on a vintage tube mic discovered in an old Detroit theater.
Adding a Weissenborn and a National Tricone to his toolkit, Dawson applies jazz elasticity, ragtime minstrelsy, and the proto-C&W whine of Hawaiian steel guitar to folk, blues, and bluegrass forms. The result is a guitar analog to the eccentric Americna of Van Dyke Parks-a pensive, fluid, blind-siding, and melodic song cycle that slides along a whiplash curve.