There were dozens, maybe hundreds, of talented rockabilly singers like Ronnie Dawson in the 1950s that never had a national hit. Even those that only saw and heard Dawson once, though, were unlikely to forget him. There was that unearthly appearance -- the shocking-white brush cut, the ghostly pale complexion. And an equally unearthly, high-pitched voice that made it difficult for radio listeners to tell if he was a man or a woman. The actual singles he managed to release were a mixed lot, but "Action Packed" -- with its ceaseless exhortations to "HEAR ME?" -- has to be one of the ten best obscure rockabilly treasures of all time. As Chris Dickinson observes in his liner notes to the Rockin' Bones reissue, "It's hard to argue with Ronnie's assertion that a car just ain't fast enough to get him where he's going."
Dawson was 19 when "Action Packed" was issued in 1958, but his appearance and voice led some to suspect that he was a good five years younger. Four decades later, no one was going to mistake Ronnie for a pre-teen. The brush cut was going grey, and the voice had lowered considerably -- in other words, he now sounded like a man in his twenties, instead of a man-child. But where fellow rockabilly oddities have remained the province of manic record collectors and European revival festivals, Dawson found a whole new audience in the indie/alternative crowd, most of whom weren't born when "Action Packed" was recorded. I talked to Dawson in early 1997.
When did you first start playing rockabilly?
First of all, rockabilly is a term that we never knew then, really. We heard it a little bit, but I didn't ever think it pertained to what I was doing at all. To me it was rock and roll, and it was my music. It was my era. I was a teenager when it started to happen, so I always kind of figured it was my music. And it's very similar to the Assembly of God kind of church music, and things that I had taken part in in church. Except it was better, 'cause you could do it and nobody would holler at you about if you got too carried away or anything.
I read once that Elvis Presley did a show with you at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas and told Johnny Hicks, the emcee, that he didn't want to go on too close to your slot.
We actually played with him at the Big Jamboree, where I was playing. They came through there, he and Scotty [Moore] and Bill [Black] I think, the first time. I don't think I was there. I was still doing the show, but I was away from there the next time he came through. But yeah, I remember seeing him there.
Well, I tell you what. John Hicks, he's a good man. But I don't think Elvis ever really was worried about anybody. That happened a few times, I kind of got that reputation, because I really looked young for my age, and it was a fiery kind of a show. It was a high-energy type of thing. Basically, the Big D Jamboree was a country show. It was a Grand Ole Opry format, or Louisiana Hayride type of format. That's where I really got started, in a talent show there. And I ended signing on with them. The fellow that started at the Big Jamboree was a guy named Ed McLemore. He ended up being my manager. He was also Gene Vincent's and Dale Hawkins's, and he had a stable of artists. So I was a part of that, so that's kind of how that came about.
I remember Webb Pierce was there once, and he got mad. Because I was practicing back in the rehearsal room. He got mad, and sent somebody to tell me to turn it down. I told him to go back and tell him [to] bug himself, that I had as much right to rehearse in there as he did. And he ended up leaving and didn't do his second part of the show. And there was a lawsuit over it, and I was a part of it, I was the cause of that. That's how that got started, I think. I'm not so sure Elvis ever said that, but that's nice of Johnny to say that.
Were you doing the songs from your records in your stage act by then?
To tell you the truth, I never did those songs much. "Action Packed" was a song that I never did live much until this kind of revival thing started happening with me in 1987 over in England. We did things like..."Johnny B. Goode" was a big song that we did. Chuck Berry was one of my heroes, along with T-Bone Walker and Louis Jordan and some of the real early guys like that. So I really did those songs more than I did my own! I can't tell you why that happened, except that they weren't hits. They weren't that popular at that time. I put 'em out, and they got some airplay.
But I don't really think that...I'm not so sure how known I was for my songs, you understand? I think that especially when the Swan [label] era came along, because I really couldn't perform those songs with a guitar band, 'cause it was all horn section. I don't even think it had a guitar on it. But later on, of course, I started doing it, and I definitely include them now. It's usually what I close with on my shows.
Were you happy or unhappy, in general, with how your early records came out?
At that time, I was just trying to do what everyone else wanted me to do. Which was a mistake, basically. Finally I got to the point where I said no, I'm not going to do that. If you've ever heard the Commonwealth Jones stuff [R&B-oriented material that Dawson did under that pseudonym], that's the kind of thing that I did under another name for whatever reason. It wasn't because I was under contract with another record company or anything. It's just something that I took on, and it seemed to help. It just seemed, when I took on that persona, it helped make to get a little bit further into it. I can't explain why that is, but...Snake Monroe was the name I was gonna use for my real R&B stuff, the real heavy R&B stuff.
I wanted a guitar sound, because I play guitar myself. Basically, that's what I wanted. I would have been happy to have some horns on it, but I still wanted it to be guitar-dominated. Finally I got tired of doing that, and I just started doing what I wanted to do. I'd kind of exhausted everything and said, well now I did everything everybody told me to do, and I completely got away from it for a while and then I did some of the Commonwealth Jones type of things, and they probably did as well as anything. I mean, it took us about 45 minutes to cut all four songs. [Delbert McClinton] was on the second session.
Was it decisions by the labels that were interfering with you recording the kind of music you wanted?
I'm not sure how much we were trying to get on major labels at that time. I think we were -- if I remember rightly, my management was trying to find the hottest indie label going, like Swan was definitely hot at the time. They signed myself and Scotty McKay from this area. He was heavily Gene Vincent-influenced, 'cause he was with him. So Scotty and Frank Slay Jr. and Bob Crewe, who was the production team, songwriting team, that were doing a lot of this stuff -- they came and saw us somewhere, I don't know where. They told us that if they could get the sound that we were getting onstage, they thought they could get some hit records. But lo and behold, when we did sign with Swan Records and got there, they didn't want me to use the guitar at all. They put me in there, and then you hear the result.
How did you end up playing with the Light Crust Doughboys, a country band, after the early rockabilly sides?
I was their teenage star when I went with the Doughboys, because they played a lot of schools and things like this. So they wanted me to go on for the young people, because at that time country music was way dead. Fiddle bands were way dead (laughs). These guys hated to go in schools. But they were one of the few bands that were allowed to do that. They could go in schools, so they got me to go on with them. So that record was actually the Doughboys, with a few added people. So we did that just to sell that record on the road.
You did do a cool record in 1962, a version of "Riders in the Sky" that was kind of a mix of bluegrass and rockabilly.
[That] was [done by] a band that we got together later called the Levee Singers. Actually one of the Doughboys came out of that band, and myself, so two of the Doughboys were in the Levee Singers. But we weren't a recording band, as you can tell. We were a banjo band. We were -- as a matter of fact, that's what we called ourselves first, a banjo band. We had a club here in town, and we were very successful with this club, people coming in and singing along with the banjo band, right? So we were a successful club band that went in the studio and just recorded something to sell, and that's what that was: "Everybody Clap Your Hands" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky." We started off just as a singalong band, and then it kind of evolved into a singing, happy-time group. But it wasn't like a rock'n'roll thing.
Did you ever totally give up playing rock'n'roll?
I never really did let it go, to think of it. I always included it in whatever I did. If I did do it with the Levee Singers at the club we had here -- I did rock and roll songs, I always did those. We might not have had the instrumentation. But I always did that kind of thing. Even when I was doing country, it had a beat to it. I had a band during the '70s here called Steel Rail, and we like to think that [we] were one of the first bands to merge country and rock together. And basically that's what rockabilly is, isn't it? With some blues added in with it. Country-rock and rockabilly, I think it's pretty close. Even though the tempos might be a little different or something like that. 'Cause I know with the Steel Rail band, we stretched out more than, say, I do now. I try to keep it pretty basic right now. But with that band, we'd stretch the boundaries quite a bit. I still like to do that, but you can't do it too much these days, because you've got to pretty much do rock and roll, or psychobilly here -- it's pretty much gotten to be where you can categorize it, as bad as I hate to say that. But to sell records, I feel like you probably have to do that some. So I've pretty much always been a rocker first of all.
Did you have any idea your records were being discovered in Europe, before you started recording solo again in the mid-1980s?
I had started to get that even before I got the call from Barney Koomis to do this first record. Someone had told me that he'd seen my picture, or a listing in a discography magazine somewhere. So I had heard those things. Of course there were guys around here -- Mac Curtis, Johnny Carroll, and guys around this area that I knew and grew up playing with. Mac Curtis I think had gone over in the late '70s. He was one of the first guys to go overseas. I'd heard about those guys doing it, and in the back of my mind I said, well, you know, I did have some records. I started to have an idea about it. Then when it happened, it really didn't surprise me that much.
What surprised was when I got overseas for the first time and saw what happened. It was misconceiving in a way, because at first I thought, my god, everybody over here's gone crazy. Everybody over here is really into this stuff. As I went more and more and more, I discovered that it was a fairly small crowd. It's not a real big scene. Sometimes it's bigger than it is others. I've finally dropped out of it now over the last two or three years, I haven't gone over there and done much. For a while I was going over there three times a year.
It just blew me away. And actually, I had never quit performing. So a lot of these guys had quit performing, and hadn't performed in years. They went over there and they discovered, man, they got all this interest. But they really couldn't muster up a show. Maybe they could do four or five of their songs. But when you don't do it for a while, man, you lose a little of your fire. And I never did lose any of my fire. I had kept pretty much staying in front of an audience. So when I got over there, man, and saw all of it, that just ignited me even more. A lot of guys too, to be honest with you, were afraid. When you get to be a grandpaw, you go over there and all of a sudden you meet people with blue hair and spiked hair -- well, not exactly too much spiked hair in the rock and roll crowd, but when you start seeing these things, man, it could scare you a little bit. But it didn't. It just happened at a right time for me. I embraced it and thought it was wonderful, and it was really an experience, I can't tell you what it was like.
What did you think of the Cramps doing "Rockin' Bones"?
A friend of mine brought it over and played it to me. That was actually before anything started, and I started going overseas. Of course, I didn't even know who Cramps was. I never heard of Cramps. He said, well, they're a big kind of a punkish kind of a group, and said, they've done your song. He played it to me. Actually, they did Elroy Dietzel's version. That's what they did. But they gave me a lot of credit, and since then I've gotten to know them. They're very nice people, and I played with them over in London once. And every time they come to town, I usually go see 'em. They treat me very well. They're very respectful, and I really like them. Their show was a little weird, but I...whatever. I think that they do some good material. They think about what they're going to do. I do like them very much as people.
When you started to record again regularly in the 1980s, did you want to bring a different approach to the studio than you had used in your early career?
I wasn't going to try to repeat anything, and I don't think you can do that. I just tried to think about, how did we get this live, the kind of spontaneous kind of thing we used to get? And then I'd come up with the notion that we should do it live. Which I had gotten completely away from, I'm sorry to say. Some music, I guess you have to do that way. You have to go track it and lay the rhythm section down and add the sweetening to it, and come back and add the vocals, and that's the pattern that I had gotten into with other bands.
But with [his first comeback record], we just found us a little hole in the wall studio in London. And we just went in there and started playing, and basically that's what it was. When I started hooking [up] with some of these young cats over there, man, it was like we'd done it before. It was just like we had done it in another life or something. I thought that I knew 'em, 'cause they knew most of my stuff. As a result, that created a hell of a spark, man. And the first record we did -- I'm telling you , we did it in three days. We did the whole album. We recorded almost 20 songs in three days. And at the end of that three days, man, I was actually looking for more stuff to do. That's how good it went. I couldn't believe it. I said, man, you know, this is the way to do this. I just hope that everyone else thought so too, and I think they did. I've had a lot of people tell me that, man, you guys just sounded like you were having a ball when you did this. And I said, well, I'm glad that came across, because we were. I think that's the main ingredient in this kind of music.
What was it like recording with Boz Boorer, who's played guitar with Morrissey?
He was delightful. He was one of the main ones I'm talking about when I say that. When he and I met and locked eyeballs, man, it was like -- I know I've known this guy before somewhere. 'Cause we hit it off really well. And also the drummer too. The drummer in the first sessions didn't really have that much studio experience, but I had used him over there playing my gigs. And he's just so emotional, man, it was really good. I've had drummers that have gotten better sounds and stuff like that, and had more experience. But this guy, as far as the rawness and that kind of thing, it brought all that out in me at the end, you see. Of course, when the record came out and people started telling me that, I said, well, maybe this is the way. So I did the next album like that. Usually I do a couple of albums and we'll kind of change the philosophy, or maybe change studios or something. But nothing major, because like I said, you gotta keep this music kind of simple.
What kind of material are you looking to do now, both in terms of originals and covers?
I never have really been a real productive songwriter. I'm a tune writer and arranger more than I am a lyric writer at this point. Back then I did write a few of those things. But nowadays, when I started doing these things again, I kind of had to get some help from some younger cats. There was a local fella here in town in Dallas. He was a fan and a collector, and he loved that kind of music. So I just talked to him about it. I said man, why don't you write me some lyrics down? Just write me something about motorcycles, graveyards, hot rods, shit like that. So we did. He'd come back with "Rockin' in the Cemetery," and then he came back with "Knockdown Dragout," and a few others that have become standards with the new stuff. I kind of started doing that with several other people. Also Barney Koomis and I started to write a few things together. He's a good lyric writer. He does most of the lyric writing, and I'll tell him. I'll throw something out here, and he'll put it into a verse and then actually, I'll put the tune to it and arrange it. That's the way I really like to do it.
Of course the first album, there was mostly obscure things [covers] which Barney helped me find. He said, I know enough obscure songs. He said, we can get enough songs to where only just the real hardcore people are gonna recognize 'em. So that's what we did at first. And as we went along, we started putting more and more original things in there, whether they were written by us or they were people that I was meeting all the time. A fellow from San Francisco, Greg Carmichael, has contributed a lot of songs to me on the last two or three albums. People like him and a few things that we write. So I put 'em all together, and then the last one, nearly everything was original except for two songs. That's the way I like to keep it, even though new stuff is just harder to come by, it seems like, all the time.
Do you find it strange or ironic that you had to go to Europe to get rediscovered and use that success to re-launch your career in the States?
It's great. If that's what you gotta do, that's fine. People ask me that a lot. They say, why do you think that that happens? Well, it probably happens the other way around too. It probably happens that people over there have to come here and get in doors before they're really anything there. I can't give you any examples of that, but I don't know. I think that plus, I've really done a lot of touring in the last two years. I really work hard on making the shows as good as I can make 'em. And I try to make each gig better than the one before. I just think that people appreciate that after a while. So all of that mixed together, and maybe a little bit of luck -- I don't know, I think you create a lot of your luck yourself. It hasn't happened to me just sitting here. We've gone out and beat the bushes, and played in every state in the Union in the last two years. That's wonderful, obviously. And a great time in my life to be doing it. I have a lot of fun.
I think that in my case, it was like me
being unknown was one of the reasons that I was known, that I've gotten
to be known. That's why Barney Koomis came looking for me in the
first place, because I was unknown. Everybody knew about a lot of
these other people. But he wanted to find me. I was more
than Mac Curtis and Johnny Carroll, that were unknowns. I'm
an unknown. I was .
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