Canadian roots music master Steve Dawson’s Rattlesnake Cage showcases Dawson’s astonishing guitar skills as they should be – intimate and acoustic. Dawson, whose passion for roots music prompted him to found the Black Hen Music label in 1995, has been a force in the Canadian music scene and now, having relocated to Nashville, his star continues to rise.
Dawson’s reputation has been built not just with his guitar picking but with his production and business skills as well. He has won two Juno Awards (Canada’s music awards) for his own artistic work, and his production work has been associated with five more. Black Hen, according to its website, is “dedicated to producing music that is diverse, eclectic and primarily acoustic-based.” The label’s stable of artists includes Kelly Joe Phelps, Jim Byrnes, Old Man Luedecke, the Sojourners, and the Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Project (featuring the work of Phelps, Byrnes, Bruce Cockburn, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the North Mississippi Allstars, John Hammond and Bill Frisell).
Dawson’s own career featured a period in the late 1990s and early 2000s in which he principally collaborated with violin and mandolin player Jesse Zubot. Dawson’s own first album in 2001, Bug Parade, showcased his creative guitar playing with the help of a band. So did his next four offerings, which sometimes gravitated to soft country-rock or jazz. But Rattlesnake Cage is Dawson’s first all-instrumental solo guitar effort, and it is strongly reminiscent of John Fahey’s masterful recordings on Takoma Records in the 1960s and 70s and those of Fahey proteges Leo Kottke and Peter Lang.
Rattlesnake Cage not only shows that Dawson is an awesome talent, but presents a mix of folk and blues style Americana picking that is great to listen to. The music is an interesting blend of music – primarily folk but with elements of blues and even jazz. Like Dave Grisman’s funky take on bluegrass, which he calls “dawg music,” Dawson’s work on Rattlesnake Cage and on some of his earlier albums falls somewhere outside what could be labled “folk music.” Rattlesnake Cage opens with the lively “Blind Thomas at the Crime Scene” and the catchy “Flophouse Oratory,” followed by “The Medicine Show Comes to Avalon,” Dawson’s homage to the picking style of Mississippi John Hurt. Other album highlights include “While the West Was Won, The Earth Didn’t Know It,” and “J.R. Lockley’s Dilemna.”