THE MUSICAL GENRE “AMERICANA”might be more accurately labeled “North-Americana,” because from The Band and Ian and Sylvia to Daniel Lanois and Luke Doucet, this genus has been as rife with talent from Canada as from the United States. Joining these ranks is British Colombia’s Steve Dawson, a master of most 6-stringed instruments and an in-demand producer of roots-based records.
His latest production, Things About Comin’ My Way [Black Hen], is a multi-artist tribute to the music of the Mississippi Sheiks. Dawson hopes it will introduce people to this ’30s acoustic string band, who—though enormously popular in their time—have been historically overshadowed by lone guitarists like Robert Johnson and Son House.
“The Sheiks were an actual band which was unique at the time,” says Dawson. “Their super-loud sound came from playing events for hundreds of people with no amplification. When they recorded, they would freak the old microphones out, adding a distorted quality that I love.”
student of the old forms, Dawson is far from a revivalist. “I don’t live in 1930, I live now, and all these new tools are available,” he explains. “I still use the old-school approach of live performance when recording, but there is no point in trying to recreate a band like the Mississippi Sheiks in a museum sense. My concept with this record was to have a few people that did authentic, originalsounding takes of the old style, but also to find people who could interpret that style in more modern ways.”
As a guitarist, Dawson leans towards traditional styles that employ fingerpicking, as well as instruments that require wielding metal in the left hand— including electric and acoustic slide, National steel, Dobro, Weissenborn acoustic lap steel, electric lap steel, and pedal-steel.
His instrumental education was in some ways typical of roots guitarists in general—playing electric guitar in high school rock bands and playing bars and nightclubs in his mid-teens—in other ways, not so much.
“I went to Berklee College of Music straight out of high school,” he recalls. “I was thinking that I would study jazz, but I realized that to really get into jazz I was going to have to dedicate my life to just doing that. I felt I wasn’t ready. I wanted to explore other styles. I got into slide guitar and Berklee was quite receptive to letting me play it in classes like sight reading.” In another class, called Ragtime Fingerpicking Guitar, Dawson met future roots royalty Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, who exposed him to a wealth of old-time American music.
Ragtime also changed his right-hand technique forever. “I got into using a thumbpick and have never used a flatpick since, not even when I play bluegrass,” he says. “I never grab the thumbpick and use it like a flatpick. I play downstrokes with my thumb and upstrokes with my fingers.”
His newfound love of acoustic music led to nearly a decade of touring in a duo with fiddle player Jesse Zubot, who is featured heavily on the Sheiks tribute. After the aptly named Zubot and Dawson disbanded, the Canadian guitarist decided it was time to learn a new instrument.
“The one instrument I always wanted to play, but was afraid to start, was the pedal-steel,” admits Dawson. “I had been playing Weissenborn as my main instrument for almost ten years at that point. There are certain things in the left and right hands that you can relate to pedal-steel, but as soon as you actually get behind the instrument you are totally lost. With a Weissenborn or a Dobro you are thinking of it almost like a guitar in terms of where you are fretting notes and playing out of positions. With a pedal-steel it is a completely different concept.”
He found that the pitch-altering pedals and knee levers totally changed the game. “You can play a complete song, with pretty intricate chord changes, without moving your left hand at all. You just have to really understand chords and inversions,” he says.
A grant from the Canadian government allowed him to study with first-call session man and non-traditional pedal-steel virtuoso Greg Leisz (Bill Frisell, Joni Mitchell) in Los Angeles. “I spent about two months learning everything I could about playing pedal-steel on my own without any instruction,” he relates. “I got the basics down that way, then went down to LA and studied with Greg. I would record everything, then come home and transcribe it. That is all I did for six or eight months.
“I play with three fingerpicks and a thumbpick, which is one more fingerpick than most players. Because I played so much bottleneck guitar I tend to keep my fingers resting on the strings. I use them to damp the strings. There is another pedal-steel damping technique called ‘palm blocking’ that I don’t do. It is more of an old countrymusic technique that I find hard to make sound modern.”
When Dawson returned to playing standard guitar he discovered that his approach had changed. “I find that something funny happens to your brain when you play pedalsteel: Playing chords on a guitar tends to be more about full chords with five or six strings involved in the chord, whereas with pedal-steel often you are just implying chords with two or three notes—huge block chords don’t really sound that good on the pedal-steel.” As a guitarist he found himself applying this technique of implying chords in one position as opposed to moving up and down the neck.
Dawson often plays three or more instruments on a track, presenting some recording challenges, starting with which one to record first. “I tend to have a main part that I will play live with the band,” he explains. “For the Telescope record I was mostly playing pedal-steel initially. That way the band can hear the melody and we can get into the tune.
“Most of the weird textural, looping, and/or feedback kind of stuff I do later. I just experiment, and don’t plan those parts out. I can’t do that stuff on the live basic tracks because it only works about 20 percent of the time.”
Then there is the issue of allowing each of the stringed instrument voices to be clearly heard. “If there is a banjo and a National in the same song, I would probably use a ribbon mic on the National and a condenser on the banjo, because right away you have different timbres from the different mics. And I would mic one further away so it sounds more distant in the room,” he says. “These are subtle differences but they make mixing easier. I always record acoustic instruments in mono—I find that stereo makes them sound too hyper-real. Also, I like to keep the panning quite wide and with stereo miking it’s harder to separate things. They tend to blend together.
“I usually put a microphone at least a foot and a half away from the instrument—for me that is close miking. I find that if you are two feet away, with a nice mic and a good preamp, you should be able to get a good sound, unless there is something wrong with the instrument—or the player.”
Dawson’s slide sound on the title track of the Sheiks tribute rips through the speakers like some of Ry Cooder’s rawest tracks. Little surprise, then, when Dawson admits that the pickup configuration on the Stratocaster he used was influenced by Cooder’s setup. “That guitar has a lap-steel pickup made by Jason Lollar in Seattle in the bridge, and a lipstick pickup. The Lollar has this great bite to it,” he says. “It was run through a Flot-a-tone amp—this weird old accordion amp from the ’50s—and a modified Fender Deluxe reissue. The Deluxe has had some tweaks like a new transformer and reverb on both channels, the EQ was modified so it is a bit more responsive, and a few tubes were changed. I also replaced the speaker with a Weber. The sound on that song is the Strat through an Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai, into those amps. I love that pedal, it’s my main pedal for echo.”
Dawson’s Cooder-esque slide and tremolo guitar also feature heavily on his latest production, a gospel trio called The Sojourners. Released on his own Black Hen label, it represents yet another prime example of “North-Americana.”