Johnny Dilks' Acres of Heartache
"The genuine article." "A cynical bastard." "The love child of Hank Williams and Patsy Montana." Johnny Dilks has been called many things, but at the ripe old age of 27, "larger than life" fits him best. Born on the peninsula south of San Francisco, he spent every summer of his childhood in the Sierra Mountains helping his father pan for gold. He kept busy the rest of the year getting into various degrees of trouble and digging through the yards of deserted Victorian houses for antique glass and porcelain.
At age twenty he bought Heritage Repair, the antique restoration shop in Belmont which he still owns and operates. He's got an insatiable passion for Victorian architecture and furniture. There's not a single factoid about nineteenth century outhouses he doesn't know. His record collection would inspire envy in the most avid vinyl junkie (though it can't come close to that of Deke Dickerson, whose double-necked Mosrite guitar Johnny restored and customized).
He's a proud Harley Davidson owner. He's practically the mascot of Brisbane's legendary DeMarco's 23 Club. Almost every bone in his body has been broken sometime in his life. He loves surfing, fishing, guns, and bourbon. And I haven't even begun to talk about his songwriting, or his guitar prowess, or his yodeling, or the eerie similarity between his singing voice and the voice of the late Hank Williams.
We rendezvoused last week at the 23 Club--partly to admire his most recent fracture (a broken finger, which Johnny himself "realigned" with his fist on the kitchen counter), and partly to discuss his new HighTone release, Acres of Heartache.
Let's start with the building we're sitting in. Back in the day, this was the main spot for country music on the peninsula, right?
Yep, this was a famous spot. Famous for getting drunk, getting in fights, and hearing great music. It all happened here back in the 1940's and 50's. Look around you at the these photos and you can see who played here. Lefty Frizzell, Jim Reeves, Marvin Rainwater (my ex-girlfriend's uncle), Carl Perkins, Skeets McDonald, T. Texas Tyler, Bill Monroe...
So this place was on the circuit.
Tommy Duncan, Webb Pierce, Ernest Tubb, Marty Robbins...
What was the name of the club across the street?
Dick's Tower. But that wasn't really happening until the 1960's. Buck Owens was the house band there. Jimmie Rivers was the house band here.
Wasn't there a story about the two of them trading gigs one night?
There were endless stories. You'd have to ask Rivers about that. Rivers beat up Buck Owens pretty bad once. Over Bonnie Owens, who was Rivers' girlfriend before she married Buck.
You started out playing punk rock, and only after several years did you move on to rockabilly and then country and western swing. Were those transitions natural and gradual, or sudden and decisive?
They were pretty natural. I just became a better musician and moved on. But I still like all those kinds of music. I'm still the same person that I was when I was a punk rocker. I still break fingers in my hand from fighting, and I still get drunk, and I still do the same shit I did back then. Punk rock's real music. It's real emotion and real aggression and real stuff that has to be said that nobody else is saying. In a lot of ways, old country music was kind of like the punk rock of the 1950's.
What is it about western swing that holds your interest now?
It has to do with the melting pot metaphor for the development of America.
How do you mean?
The accordion came from the polkas. The fiddle style came from the Acadians who migrated down from Louisiana...or the swing fiddle, which came from France. The other kind of accordion is Norteņo Mexican accordion. Horns and trombones came from New Orleans jazz. Regionally, western swing is the great melting pot of American music. It's got blues, Dixieland, Cajun, Tex-Mex, big band... My band does a really wide range of stuff, from straight country to Bakersfield numbers, Louvin stuff, bluegrass, gospel...
So you must draw a lot from your collection of recordings.
That and my knowledge of people and what they did and who they hung out with. A lot of those guys were wild men. Hank Williams, wild man. Jimmie Rivers, absolute wild man. Buck Owens, not so much of a wild man. Spade Cooley, wild man.
Do you think about that when you listen to their songs?
Well, it's kind of obvious. Hank wrote about real shit. Guys like Roger Miller wrote about stuff they dreamed up. I try to write about real shit.
What's the cosmic connection between your band, the furniture business, antique bottle collecting, vintage records, and all that?
They're all examples of classic Americana. For sure. The bottle thing is sort of a Leave it to Beaver hobby, though. I've been doing it since I was a kid. Victorian furniture is the best stuff ever made, in my mind.
But it's also the most elaborate, and completely different from punk and rockabilly, which are very stripped-down and spare.
But western swing is extra ornamental. Those bands were playing dances, so they had to keep people interested and dancing.
I've heard "Acres of Heartache" called a sort of Sons-of-the-Pioneers-meets-Marty-Robbins tune. Would you agree?
I think of it as more of a Carl Smith "Loose Talk" kind of vibe.
"Lose That Woman Blues?"
A lot of Hank in that one.
"Yodel 'Til I Turn Blue?"
That's just my twisted mind.
Tell me again how you learned to yodel. There was that record you found...
It was a homemade Kenny Roberts record--he recorded it in his living room or something. It had a yodeling lesson on one side and a duck call lesson on the other side. I'm not sure whether Kenny Roberts was doing the duck calls or not. It was quite a novelty record. I also learned to yodel from my formal voice lessons.
I was meaning to ask who Kenny Roberts was.
He was the king of the yodelers. Although he wrote some pretty sissy songs. "The Cream Puff Cowboy," or something.
What have you been listening to lately?
This week I've been listening to Josh White, a blues guy. Bluegrass...a lot of bluegrass gospel numbers. Some black gospel stuff. Youth Brigade, One Man Army, Minor Threat, a lot of 1970's Oi! bands, the Foreskins, the Business, the Oppressed, Cockney Rejects, Angelic Upstarts. Robert Mitchum. I listened to Robert Mitchum a lot last week.
How would you define the ultimate musical success?
Enough money to support myself on. Security through music. That would be the realistic answer. The punk rock answer would be a bottle of cheap whiskey, a flashy car, and a hot lookin' chick.
--by Lindsey Westbrook