When it comes to guitar playing of the rock and roll variety, six-stringer extraordinaire Deke Dickerson has few rivals. The latest album from Dickerson, who brings his band to the very cool Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River on Thursday evening, October 20 for an 8 PM performance, has just been released. It leads the Compact Capsules charge this week as we look at a variety of odds and ends releases. Let’s get to it.
None other than the Reverend Horton Heat has declared Deke Dickerson to be the best rockabilly guitar player in the whole world. Having seen Dickerson perform on numerous occasions, it’s a declaration that is hard to dispute. Whereas Dickerson can literally tear it up on both the six and 12-string guitar, his latest album called The Melody (Major Label Records MLCD-002) isn’t about guitar theatrics. Instead, it is a record that is much in keeping with its title. “I wanted to put out an album of songs that they simply wouldn’t leave your head,” says Dickerson in the accompanying press release for The Melody. There has always been a most definite retro tinge to the music of Deke Dickerson and his band the Ecco-Fonics. Considering Dickerson is a musicologist of sorts well-schooled in American music forms as diverse as surf, rockabilly, hillbilly, country, R&B and doo-wop, the throwback flavor of his work is not surprising. Think of it as honoring the past while at the same time reinvigorating some great old songs and accomplishing it all in expertise fashion. The Melody is a 15-song extravaganza from Dickerson that draws from a wide range of sources from American music past. They range from Willie Nelson (“I Never Cared For You”) to Jerry Lee Lewis (the high-spirited “As Long As I Live”) to 1950s Texas rocker Al Urban (“Lookin’ For Money”) to Faron Young (“Safely In Love”) to Buddy Holly (“Tell Me How”). In keeping with the vintage covers, the Dickerson originals on The Melody also have that retro glaze to them. “Good Time Gal” is a pleasing hunk of honky tonk purity while “Looks Like I’m In Trouble Again” is a bop-happy beauty of a catchy tune. The very cool “Love is Like a Song” is Dickerson getting his doo-wop ya ya’s out while “Mr. Cheater” is a hip little bopper. As promised, The Melody is a collection of songs with melody to spare. Credit guitar genius Dickerson and a tight backing combo that features cronies Jimmy Sutton on bass, Carl Sonny Leyland tickling the ivories, Dave Berzansky on steel guitar, and regular Ecco-Fonics drummer Chris Sprague who in addition to contributing plenty of sweet harmony on the vocal end is responsible for two of the 15 numbers (“Right or Wrong” and the Holly-esque “Give Me All Your Love”). “It’s the same mixture of my favorite American forms of music that I’ve always played, but done in a way that will make every song stay in your head for weeks,” says Dickerson in summing up The Melody. From what these ears hear, it is mission accomplished.
Speaking of Chris Sprague, he is also one half of the Sprague Brothers. The duo recorded a couple of records for HighTone earlier in the decade before striking out on their own. The collection Best of the EssBee CDs (Wichita Falls Records) is rock and roll in all its purity. Be it surf instrumentals, rockabilly, Merseybeat ala the early Beatles and Dave Clark Five, pop harmonizing in the style of the Everly Brothers, or West Texas rock ‘n’ roll in the style of Buddy Holly and Bobby Fuller, the Sprague’s cover it all in ear-friendly fashion on this excellent collection.
Dave & Deke Combo
Back to Deke Dickerson, before moving in a solo direction and fronting his own band, he was one-half of the hillbilly/rockabilly good-time project the Dave & Deke Combo. Begun around 1990 by Dickerson and Dave Stuckey and based out of Southern California, the band was the toast of the rockabilly and hillbilly scene releasing a couple of longplayers and some 45s before calling it quits in the mid-1990s. The newly released retrospective There’s Nothing Like An Old Hillbilly: Lost & Found Treasures 1991-2005 (Bucket-Lid Records BL503) is a stern reminder of just how on target this band was. Like Dickerson, D&D Combo co-hort Stuckey was also well schooled in the roots of rock and roll and hillbilly music. The duo’s most distinguishing characteristic was its harmonizing drawing inspiration from such close harmony pairings of the past as Louisiana duo Rusty & Doug Kershaw (a cover of their “Hey Mae” makes the Lost & Found Treasures cut), Louvin Brothers, Everly Brothers, and Delmore Brothers. At the same time, the band could always tear it up with the best in the business and there’s plenty of that type of action on this collection, too. Checking in at a very generous 22 tracks, There’s Nothing Like An Old Hillbilly brings together Dave & Deke Combo rarities from various sources spanning EP to LP and movie soundtrack to live recordings and 45s. It also includes several previously unreleased sides from the band including a brand new track recorded last February. Hot stuff is putting it lightly when it comes to describing There’s Nothing Like An Old Hillbilly.
Steel Guitar Caviar
In addition to his own music exploits, Deke Dickerson is also the CEO of his own record label that he calls Ecco-Fonic Records. While the label has released primarily 45 RPM records over the last decade or so, as of late it has dipped into the longplayer market to release recordings from some of Dickerson’s very talented pals. One such cat is steel guitarist Jeremy Wakefield. Based out of Southern California and a supporting player of the first order, Steel Guitar Caviar is the name of Wakefield’s solo debut for Ecco-Fonic Records. It’s a fitting title for what is a terrific album comprised entirely of instrumentals with Wakefield in the lead role working his steel guitar magic to the hilt. Once upon time, steel guitar instrumental records from the many aces of the genre were the norm. We’re talking legendary players like Speedy West, Leon McAuliffe, Jerry Byrd, Lloyd Green, Buddy Emmons, and Pete Drake dating as far back as the 1950s. Somewhere along the line, albums of that type fell out of favor with players relegated strictly to supporting roles primarily on country recordings. Recent years has brought a renewed interest in the instrument with albums from folks like Robert Randolph, Jon Rauhouse and even the legendary Green being released in the last three or four years. Add Wakefield’s 14-track Steel Guitar Caviar to the resurgence in recordings of this type. All too often associated strictly with country music, Wakefield takes the steel places far and wide. Jazz, lounge, bump and grind exotica, swing and honky tonk, Steel Guitar Caviar showcases Wakefield’s talent in all of those settings.
Two from Texas, Austin that is
When the Vow Breaks (Country Mile Records CMR0001) is the name of the second longplayer from one-time Johnny Paycheck sideman Billy Dee Donahue. Like his debut album from three years ago, Donahue’s approach is rooted in the hardcore side of country music. Singing in a weathered voice, he delivers a seasoned collection of tunes on When the Vow Breaks. Honky tonk heartbreak is all over numbers like “Truly”, the title track, “Too Much to Dream” and “You Missed Out On Love” while on the flip side, tracks like “Paper Sack”, “Not Tonight (I’ve Got a Heartache)”, and “Heartache Time” are chock full of the kind of clever, wink and a smile word play all too often missing in modern country music. Donahue also does the honor of his late mentor Paycheck proud with a cover of his “Only Hell (My Mama Ever Raised)”. Based out of Austin and featuring a number of that town’s best musicians in supporting roles with ace guitarist Redd Volkaert, who also produced the record, leading the band, When the Vow Breaks is one of those records that is too country for country radio. In other words, if you dig the genuine article, this one satisfies time and again.
Everything about The Horton Brothers, from the sound to the songs to the spirit of their music, is throwback. Tempo for Two (Texas Jamboree Records Texjam0062) is the third release from brothers Billy and Bobby Horton and it is a crisp collection of cool sounds and two-part harmony singing rooted in the retroville styles of rockabilly and hillbilly. The album was recorded at their own Fort Horton Studio in Austin which like past releases adds a raw, echoey patina to the overall sound landing this record somewhere between the vintage sounds of Sun and Excello Records. The song mix is originals and covers with the latter including The Crickets’ “More Than I Can Say”, Ellie Greenwich’s “She Tells Me With Her Eyes” which is a showcase for the pleasing sibling harmony of the fellows, and Johnny Horton’s (no relation) “Shadows of the Old Bayou” which gets a groovy Western swing-styled makeover. Label Tempo For Two another winner from the boys and one of those way-below-the-radar albums completely worthy of attention. (Major Label Records and Ecco-Fonic Records, P.O. Box 304, Hollywood, CA 90078; Bucket-Lid Records, P.O. Box 29104, Los Angeles, CA 90029; Texas Jamboree Records, P.O. Box 161148, Austin, TX 78716; Country Mile Records, P.O. Box 684145, Austin, TX 78768 or www.countrymilerecords.com)
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3. He lives in Peace Dale and can be reached at [email protected].)