Steve Dawson isn’t the most accomplished pedal-steel-guitar player in Nashville, and he’d be the first to admit it. But the modest Canadian is well on his way to being among the busiest, and that has a lot to do with growing up right here in Vancouver, B.C.
“I’m getting called because I don’t play like the other kids. And I think I don’t play like the other kids because I never really learned properly,” the Tennessee transplant says with a laugh, reached at his home in Music City.
“I kind of have a slightly different approach, but I didn’t set out to be different,” he continues. “I just never learned all the stuff I would have learned if I’d been around here, I guess. That’s what they keep commenting on: ‘Oh, that’s really different from what we’re used to!’ Which is good, I guess, because I keep getting called back.”
Dawson’s going to get busier once Nashville’s A-list producers discover everything else he can do. His tough new Solid States and Loose Ends CD makes a strong case that he deserves a place in the electric-slide-guitar pantheon alongside his idols Lowell George, Ry Cooder, and Sonny Landreth.
It also showcases his work on mandolin, Mellotron, and a variety of acoustic guitars, in addition to some unusually incisive songwriting, most notably on the dystopian “Broken Future Blues”. While the record compiles songs written over several years—here and in Toronto, as well as in Nashville—that tune in particular is inspired by some of the less savoury aspects of his new life south of the border.
“Living in the South is so foreign, in certain ways,” Dawson reports. “When I look around I sometimes think that I could be in East Van; it kind of looks the same, and people aren’t that different, really. But then certain things happen and you realize ‘Okay, we’re not in Vancouver anymore!’ Like, I was in a studio the other day and the engineer was packing a .45. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Vancouver that much.”
When Steve Dawson plays lap-style guitar, he's never mistaken for a young Pete Townshend.
For now, pistol-packing knob-twiddlers are a rare sight in Dawson’s own Henhouse studio, where both the in-house rhythm section and most of the clients carry Canadian passports. Dawson has recently produced albums for roots veteran Linda McRae, folk-pop songwriter Christa Couture, and No Sinner blues belter Colleen Rennison, and he doesn’t mind admitting that he sometimes poaches Blackie and the Rodeo Kings bassist John Dymond and drummer Gary Craig from his Nashville neighbour and fellow Canadian, Colin Linden. The two Torontonians anchor most of Solid States and Loose Ends, and also help make the stay-and-play Henhouse an attractive destination for other northern talent.
Increasingly, though, Dawson is making his own mark as a frontman, and as something of an impresario, too. His new Music Makers and Soul Shakers podcast series compiles wonderfully informal interviews with everyone from jazz adventurer Bill Frisell to rock pioneer Duane Eddy; listen to it at www.stevedawson.ca/makersandshakers/. And his Black Hen Travelling Roadshow Revue, which hits Vancouver this weekend, is an opportunity to hang out with some of his favourite people, both on-stage and off.
The current incarnation features Dawson and local bassist Jeremy Holmes backing indie-rock songwriter Roxanne Potvin, Prairie Oyster singer Russell DeCarle, and Mississippi blues titan Alvin Youngblood Hart. “Jeremy and I are going to be the house band, basically,” Dawson says. “Every person is going to do a little mini-set with us backing them up in the first half, and then in the second half we’re all going to be on-stage together, and there’ll be lots of interplay and messing around with everybody else’s songs.”
It sounds like fun—even more fun, maybe, than showing up for a studio gig at the corner of Chet Atkins Place and Merle Travis Way, pedal steel in hand.