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Good at being the best
The youngest man in rock and roll, Ronnie Dawson gets hitched and grows up (sort of)
By Robert Wilonsky
This is a far cry from the apartment Ronnie Dawson once lived in. For three decades, give or take, the man resided in what really amounted to a rather large room, one crammed full of books, photographs, tour posters, videos, and the collected flotsam of a lifetime spent making music. There was hardly any room for Dawson himself, hardly any room for the casual amenities — like, you know, a bed or a kitchen. Stepping into his old place, a room above the pool at the Leeward Island Apartments near McMillan and Mockingbird, was like crawling inside a time capsule undisturbed for so long, the dust had dust.
Dawson now lives only a few hundred feet away from his old place, but it's so different from that crash pad, it's shocking even to see him standing in such an abode — one pristinely decorated, lit candles filling the front room with a springtime aroma, every CD and book shelved away. This is a home, a woman's touch evident the moment you walk through the door. If anything at all remains the same, it's the man who answers the knock at the door — the 59-year-old rock-and-roll hero sporting a backward baseball cap and denim shirt, looking even from just a few feet away like a man half his age, if that old.
"When I moved out of my apartment, I found things in there I hadn't seen in 30 years," Dawson says. "Including a couple of dates." Maybe she wasn't lurking behind an old bookshelf, but the woman Dawson calls Chris qualifies: She and Ronnie dated in the '60s, but only a handful of times. She has forever lived in this duplex-turned-house — which her family has owned and lived in for decades — and knew Ronnie when he truly was a young man, not too far removed from his days as a teen wonder playing the stage at the Big D Jamboree. They remained on-and-off acquaintances for years, until she became his business partner...and then, not too long ago, his wife.
That is how Dawson ended up living in such immaculate quarters. After years of being convinced he was set in his ways — too old to share his life with anyone, too concerned with his resurrected career even to have much time for women — the once-and-future Blond Bomber has finally given in, settled down. Though perhaps that's the wrong way of putting it. To say Ronnie Dawson has settled down is like saying a 2-year-old is all grown up.
It has been a hell of a year for Dawson, whose 84-year-old mother, Gladys, died last year. She had been ill for a long time, and Ronnie tried to take care of her as best he could, but it was difficult, being on the road so often. That was how he reconnected with Christy: He placed a "call for help," and she began taking care of his business and his mother.
"She came to my rescue," Dawson says. "I wasn't in trouble. But you can't do it alone, and I always thought I could. I got showed I couldn't." In the end, it was Christy who convinced Ronnie to marry her — almost told him he was gonna do it. He couldn't say no. She wouldn't let him.
The man turns 60 in August, and still he continues to make records that have the dual ability to startle and delight — rather astonishing, given that most albums these days can manage neither feat. This week, the tiny Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based Yep Roc label releases More Bad Habits, yet another album in a catalog that features not a single misstep, not a single album or song that doesn't serve to remind you what music sounds like in the hands of a man who was there when the doctor cut the umbilical cord, slapped its mama, and called the baby rock and roll.
If there's a difference this time around, it's that Dawson is no longer recording in England on equipment built during the days of the Korean War. For the first time since the 1960s, Dawson cut his album in the States — in Maine, actually — with a real band (including a teenage guitarist from Cleveland) instead of pick-up musicians or whoever was available for the sessions at the time. More Bad Habits is also in stereo, another first. Long gone is that unhewn, primitive sound that has served him so well throughout such "comeback" albums as Still a Lot of Rhythm (released in England in 1988), Rockinitis (1989), Monkey Beat (1994), even 1996's Just Rockin' & Rollin', Dawson's sole record for Rounder Records subsidiary Upstart. The result is a disc that finally surrounds you, absorbs you — places you on the stage, not simply in front of it.
"I can still listen to the album," Dawson says in that deep, melodic twang of his. "I still like to hear it. I haven't gotten tired of it at all. I love the way it just comes on. This is the first time I did the songs on tour before we went in the studio. And when you do that, you're not searchin' for the grooves. They're just right on."
It is perhaps appropriate that in 1999, more than 40 years since he first stepped onto a stage or into a studio, Dawson has made the finest record of his career. He's a man who seems to age backward, who continues to search for new inspiration in the most unlikely places. He exists almost to disprove the long-held belief that rockabilly is the most narrow of genres, one that died almost moments after it was born because it had no place to go.
More Bad Habits sounds at times as though it were recorded in New Orleans by a bluesman who just learned how to play country in a punk-rock club. Songs such as "Toe Up From the Flo Up," "Chili Pepper Mama," "Bayou Beauty," and the burn-it-all-down closer "Party Slab" are scattered in the best sense of the word, the sound of a man on a quest to pack everything he's ever heard into two minutes and 58 seconds and go off in search of more everything.
He likes to point to two songs off of Just Rockin' & Rollin' — "Mexigo" and "Veronica," both Tex-Mex-tinged throwdowns, rock and roll made at the last bar on the border — as proof of his willingness to try anything once, or twice. He mentions how he was inspired to do both after sharing the Carnegie Hall stage with conjunto accordionist Mingo Saldivar in 1994, when both men were brought to New York City as part of a roots-revivalist showcase. Wearing a big grin, Dawson says they're "conjuntobilly" songs.
Above Ronnie and Christy's fireplace hangs an enormous yellow-and-black poster advertising a show featuring Dawson and the late Carl Perkins. Dawson says he keeps it there to remind himself of his place in rock-and-roll history: "Below Carl Perkins," he says, not at all joking. Yet Dawson — who spent much of the 1970s and '80s making what he calls "country-rock," meaning songs that sounded as though they were written by Jimmy Webb and performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young — is a study in evolution. Where Perkins and Gene Vincent and their lot backed themselves into a corner in 1956, Dawson moves forever forward. And to think that when he was a child growing up in Oak Cliff, he never even wanted to perform in public. It wasn't until a friend forced him to, during a Future Farmers of America talent show, that Dawson discovered what he'd end up doing for the rest of his life.
"I was a sophomore, and I'd just play at home," Dawson says, recounting a story he seldom tells. "I was bashful. My buddies knew I could play, and they went by my house and got my guitar and took it to school. The teacher said, 'We got a guy here and somebody said he could play gee-tar. I don't really think he can.' I looked up there, and it was my guitar. I was on the spot, and I had to play, and when I did, I went crazy. I never said anything to anyone. I went to school and walked next to the walls and did my work. That was when it started."
It's somehow appropriate, then, that the very same week More Bad Habits hits stores, Dawson's 1958 semi-hit single "Action Packed" also appears — this time, on a four-disc boxed set from Rhino Records titled Hot Rods & Custom Classics: Cruisin' Songs & Highway Hits. Indeed, "Action Packed" — credited to Ronnie Dee — is the first song on the box's first disc, coming before songs by the likes of Gene Vincent, the Beach Boys, Junior Brown, and Hank Williams. Then, on May 19, "Action Packed" and "Rockin' Bones," also recorded in 1958, will appear on yet another Rhino box, Loud, Fast & Out of Control: The Wild Sounds of '50s Rock.
It is not a little ironic that of the men with whom he shares space on that box — among them Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry — only Dawson continues to record, continues to be relevant. Only he keeps jumping on tables, strutting through audiences, going into studios and making records better than the last. Berry, Lewis, and so many others were long ago sealed in plastic and put in storage. Not little Ronnie Dee.
And to think, Dawson couldn't even stand "Action Packed" when he first heard it. He didn't even want to cut it, preferring instead to do "Green-Eyed Cat," "Rockin' Bones," anything but the song first recorded by Johnny Dollar. He just didn't like it, couldn't play it, couldn't sing it — not a thing went right during the sessions.
"I don't think I've ever told anybody this, but when I actually did the song, I was mad," he says now, laughing. "I was pissed-off. That's probably why it's got that edge on it. I can listen to it right now, and I sound really weird on it on a couple of places. Funny, ain't it?"
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