A folk music renaissance man who has embraced his many roles in the new era of non-tangible musical enterprise, Steve Dawson is a multi-talented producer and performer who has helped to sculpt Canada’s musical landscape. Newly relocated to Nashville from his beloved Vancouver, B.C., Dawson’s decision to step out from behind the soundboard to record his own solo guitar album may have been his riskiest gamble to date. Fortunately his one-man tango with fame and fate has been captured in the guise of Rattlesnake Cage, a viper-mad concoction of whiskey and rawhide.
“There’s currently a huge resurgence of interested in old-time music,” Dawson says. “I notice a lot of people going that direction, which is good in one way because it brings people back to listening to great music that was done between the ‘20s and ‘50s. But, you really have a look at what was being done back then closely in order to appreciate that there’s a lifetime of practice sound and soul that goes into those recordings. I think that often gets overlooked.”
A much-requested producer with an abiding affection for authentic and soul-stirring music, JUNO award-winner Dawson has brought international attention to an abundance of burgeoning talents by way of his record label, Black Hen Music. Founded in 1995, Dawson’s anything-but-mainstream label hosts bevy of widely-acclaimed artists and acts including Jim Byrnes, The Deep Dark Wood, Old Man Luedecke, The Sojourners, Shuyler Jansen and Devin Sproule.
“I’ve had a lot of different experiences in the studio,” he explains. “For each album I produce, I have to look at ultimate artistic goal. This time around, I didn’t set out to create a solo instrumental album, per se. When it came time to write and record I didn’t approach the process any differently than I would for any other musician: I decided to keep it simple. I’ve had some great successes recently with recording deliberately scaled-down albums for other artists. While the sound they were going for wasn’t applicable to every situation, or every album’s specific needs, I realized the potential was there to pull it off with just a solo performance.”
Drawing on the rich musical traditions of bluegrass, folk, blues, rock, county and other heirloom genres, Rattlesnake Cage is a skillfully executed tribute to the rootsy forerunners who have inspired Dawson over the years. A capable and intuitive player, Dawson handles his six and twelve string guitars with remarkable speed and an unobtrusive sense of confidence.
“I had just made a record with an artist from Portland, named Kelly Joe Phelps, that was quite compelling to me. We had isolated his solo vocals with using a single, vintage, vacuum-tube microphone and it worked really well. I knew I wanted to do something that was even more scaled-down and went against all modern recording principles, and he encouraged me to do a solo guitar album.”
Dawson’s nimble fingers set fire to wire and wood as Rattlesnake Cage sidewinds through eleven elegant yet bucolic tracks. The gentle rambling approach of “Blind Thomas as the Crime Scene” slithers into a liquor-lubricated “Flophouse Oratory” while “The Medicine Show Comes to Avalon” and flanking title cut could easily serve as period-piece soundtracks. A former artist-in-residence at The Banff Centre, Dawson’s meadowsweet guitar melodies have a natural and timeless appeal that transports his audience to days long since passed and perhaps adventures yet to come. Bottled like moonshine, Dawson’s painterly string-plucking stirs up Deadwood dust and washes it all away like a bubbling mountain stream. His guitar and a lone microphone as his only companions, he seems content to ride off into the Nashville sunset without becoming another neon cowboy.
“My songs were recorded with same antique microphone we had found for Kelly Joe’s solo album; it kind of spurred on my recording process. It has this old-fashioned sound that’s so beautiful and warm and it was a neat thing to have around since it was also a constant reminder to keep things simple. There’s a habit with acoustic guitar instrumental music to veer off into hi-fi territory. Sure, some people have a sonic preference for those types of recordings where they make everything sound massively huge like you’re inside the guitar. I wanted to emphasize the opposite sort of technical prowess on this album by putting it all through one microphone. I wanted to create an intimate smaller-than-life sound so it feels like you’re sitting 10 feet away from me.”
Catch Steve Dawson at Festival Hall (Calgary) on March 21 and Festival Place Theatre (Sherwood Park) on March 22.
By Christine Leonard