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Blond bomber strikes again

By Jon Johnson, March 1999

t's a sad fact of life that the country and rockabilly stars of the 1950s aren't exactly spring chickens anymore. Carl Perkins, "Groovey" Joe Poovey and Jackie Lee Cochran all passed away in the past year or so.

All the more reason to enjoy the genre's younger performers, such as the Collins Kids and Ronnie Dawson, teenagers during rockabilly's golden era of the late '50's and a good 5 or 10 years younger than their peers. Though now in their 50's, they're still capable of whipping an audience into a lather and putting out new music, like Dawson's March release of "More Bad Habits."

Dawson's original career was based largely on the reputation of two locally-released singles, "Action Packed" and "Rockin' Bones," not to mention a distinctive platinum blond flattop haircut that earned him the nickname "the Blond Bomber."

Neither single was heard much outside the Dallas area at the time and as time passed, Dawson moved along with it, doing session work (that's him playing drums on Paul and Paula's "Hey Paul") and playing mostly country music with the Light Crust Doughboys and his own groups before being tracked down in the Dallas area in the mid-'80's by British rockabilly fan Barney Koumis.

He released a compilation of Dawson's early sides on his No-Hit label and convinced Dawson to start recording and touring again as a rockabilly act.

"It was pretty weird. I had heard that there were several guys that I knew from this area - Mac Curtis, Johnny Carroll, Gene Summers - and they all had been there (Europe). I had talked to them about it, and I figured that sooner or later (European rockabilly fans) might find some of my stuff. But it was quite a surprise when it did happen, and I went over to Europe to actually play and do the shows. It was quite an experience."

In the intervening years, Dawson continued releasing new albums for various labels, becoming a kind of elder statesman for his generation of rock 'n' roll musicians. He also attracted some of the best talents of the younger generation to his band, including members of High Noon, King Memphis, the Planet Rockers and Austin drummer Lisa Pankratz.

"More Bad Habits," on the North Carolina-based Yep Roc label, was recorded at Track Farm Studio in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, the first sessions Dawson has recorded in an American studio in years.

Considering that Dawson could have picked any studio in the U.S. and Europe, why Maine, of all places?

"For what I'm doing, most of them don't have a clue. The main reason I chose to go up there is because (ex-High Noon/current Wayne Hancock guitarist) Sean Mencher moved up there from Austin several years ago. His brother (Marc) also lives up there, and he does my booking. From that we got to booking shows up there, and we got to know several of the members of King Memphis (a Portland-based rockabilly act who released a well-received album in 1997 and have backed Dawson live on occasion). I go by the way a place feels, and I had a good rapport with the musicians."

Though some listeners might never have noticed, Dawson's albums up until now have been recorded in mono, though the new album is in stereo, which Dawson chalks up to the differences between the European and American markets.

"Everything I had done up until now I had done overseas, basically for the European market. And for vinyl. This is the first album I've ever recorded in the States. There were some places that wouldn't play the last album because it (wasn't in stereo). College stations would play it, but a lot of stations leveled with me and said they just couldn't do it. We have to break out of the purist (fan base). I'm not looking to sell a million albums or even 50,000. I'd just like to get it up to around 10,000 or 15,000."

Dawson also approached the material slightly differently this time, partly due to his new attention to the U.S. market. In addition to traditional Dawson-sounding numbers like "Rockin' Calaveras" and "Party Slab," the album also features a couple of slower numbers like "Bad Habit or Two" and "Bayou Betty."

"'Bad Habit or Two' is a very different kind of thing for me. I've done ballads before. I did ballads when I did country. But the purist overseas crowd, they don't want to hear me do ballads. On the last album, we did 'Just Rockin' and Rollin'.' I cut a softer thing called 'Veronica.' I just wanted to test it and see what happened. Strangely enough, it became the most popular cut on the CD overseas!"

Dawson today counts himself as fortunate that he's had a second opportunity to perform for large audiences; something that many of his contemporaries never had a chance to do. Many artists of Dawson's era either gave up music after releasing one or two singles or moved on to country music.

"I'll tell you, man, cats did not really realize what they wanted to do. We were all trying to get hit records. It wasn't necessarily that we wanted to do rockabilly or rock 'n' roll or country. We just wanted hit records."