BBS Interview: Steve Dawson

By Mike Mellor
January 2010

Steve Dawson is on a mission.

The Canadian producer/musician/songwriter (and former student at Berklee College of Music) didn't think that the pioneering string band/country blues outfit The Mississippi Sheiks were getting enough historical attention. Even though they wrote “Sitting on Top of the World,” were wildly popular in their time and influenced the most popular generation of blues musicians, they remain largely forgotten.

So what did Dawson do? He assembled a stunningly diverse and talented group of blues and American roots musicians (of whom John Hammond and Geoff Muldaur are just two) and produced Things About Comin' My Way - A Tribute to the Music of the Mississippi Sheiks. The group's catalog is just as dynamic as the roster of artists updating it, which together explains why the album was recently nominated for a Blues Music Award.

Steve spoke to me from his home in Vancouver last month.

Mike Mellor: One thing I noticed about this record when I heard it on…I usually don't go for compilation or tribute albums. They just feel like a collection of castaway songs piled together. This one definitely has a real cohesiveness to it. Was that a conscious effort on your part?

Steve Dawson: It was. That same thing irritates me about some of the compilation records and tribute albums I've heard. I wanted to avoid having all kinds of different sounding tracks of varying quality with varying instrumentation and having it seem like a pasted together project.

So it was definitely a conscious decision. We wanted to record at least the bulk of the record in the same place with the same people and at the same time, which gave the recordings kind of a congruous feel, I think. We also had a house band for a good chunk of it.

It was a lot of scheduling and stuff, but I thought in the end it would be a more interesting record, because I wanted people to be able to listen to it from beginning to end.

MM: Instead of just cherry-picking a couple of good songs.

SD: Yeah, exactly. The idea is that this is really an album, as opposed to just a bunch of people contributing stuff.

MM: You recorded and mixed most of the album yourself and you played on at least half of the tracks. For the three that were done independently (the contributions from the North Mississippi Allstars, Bill Frisell and Geoff Muldaur), did you give them any instructions on how it should come out?

SD: No. I told them what the concept of the record was. We talked about the material and the song, and I picked a song for Bill Frisell. But as far as asking them to play or record a certain way, absolutely not. In the case of the North Mississippi Allstars that was their dad, Jim Dickinson, who died a couple of months ago…I mean, he's like one of my heroes. (laughs) I didn't feel like it was necessary or warranted for me to say, “Hey, can you make it sound like this?” I just knew that he would do his thing and that it would be great.

MM: And that it would fit the aesthetic.

SD: Yeah. From what I knew about the band and what I know of Jim, I knew it wouldn't be a problem.

MM: I'm wondering how you got all these disparate people together. These are a lot of famous names, busy people…

SD: Well, for me…I'm a fairly busy musician. I'm up here in Canada and playing in Europe and a little bit in the States. I just kind of run into people a lot, especially at blues, jazz and folk festivals. I end up playing with a bunch of people and get to know them that way. Probably half the people, like Kelly Joe Phelps and Geoff Muldaur, Madeleine Peyroux...these are all people I've played with over the years.

Everybody else was just one step away from somebody I knew. Like Bruce Colburn, I didn't really know him at all before, but his manager had released some of my music a few years ago. I just asked him and he seemed into the idea and Bruce was really into the idea early on. John Hammond is a good old friend of a guy that I work really closely with named Jim Burns. Jim was already signed on to do the record and I said, “Hey, how about your pal John Hammond?” (laughs) So he talked to John and he was into it. It actually came together very easily.

MM: From reading the promotional material, it seems like everybody on this project was really enthusiastic about it.

SD: Yeah, it's a great body of work and I think when people discover a new group like that, and one with a wealth of material, people get really into it because you need them to listen to a bunch of it to find out what songs are really going to work for them. So it's not like I'm just sending them one song and they don't know anything about it.

You know a lot of the people on the project didn't even know who the Mississippi Sheiks were. I wasn't looking for people that could be an expert on the subject or anything. I just wanted people that I thought would do an interesting job of doing a modern take on one of their songs. So for me a lot of it was introducing them to the Sheiks and sending maybe seven or eight songs I thought would be relevant and interesting for them, and then go from there.

MM: You know, it's really bizarre. I'm fairly knowledgeable when it comes to blues history and I hadn't heard about the Mississippi Sheiks until about three years ago. I don't understand how a group that was that popular at the time and that immediately influential can just fall off the radar.

SD: I know! It's bizarre, isn't it? I can't think of any other group that was as successful in their own time as these guys were, and you can look at the direct influence on people like Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King, who definitely acknowledged their influence. And you know, those guys themselves are incredibly influential...

MM: You know, I even hear it in Hank Williams.

SD: Yeah, for sure, yeah.

MM: But no one will ever admit that.

SD: It might be harder to trace that one back. (laughs) But you know, it's all music that was going on at the time and those people all had access to those kind of records. It's hard to imagine them not being an influence on all those people.

MM: Yet all these blues historians and American ethnomusicologists have been bypassing them for decades. It doesn't make any sense.

SD: Yeah, it is weird...but hopefully we'll put an end to that.

Boston Blues Society is going to lend our hands to this effort. This January, The Killing Floor blog will go song by song through the album. We will present the original recording side by side with the cover and Steve will provide anecdotes, insights and photographs. We are grateful to Steve for being so generous with his time and energy and hope this can serve as a prototype for future collaborations with other artists.

Check back early and often.

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