Don Dixon’s NC rock trip
He picks up the phone and his voice comes across the wire with friendly warmth, gravel smoothed by the battering force of familial love and occasional adversity. He’s hanging around the house today, stringing guitars and taking care of the odd chore in these last days of December. The muted sound of a child’s voice occasionally rises like a soothing chorus in the background.
In seven days Don Dixon will be in North Carolina to play a string of dates with his longtime backing band, which has only recently been dubbed the Jump Rabbits.
“I love North Carolina and still have a couple daughters down there and still come through to see them mostly,” he says. “In a lot of the rest of the country they think of me as a producer first, but in North Carolina they still think of me as a singer first.”
Dixon’s storied music career has mutated through several stages, at least two of them integral to the development of North Carolina rock. Most people familiar with Dixon know him for co-producing REM’s first full-length effort, Murmur, with Mitch Easter in Charlotte back in 1983. Later in that decade Dixon would gain notice for producing a critically acclaimed string of folk-pop recordings for his wife, Marti Jones. Dixon has released eight albums of his own and his songs have been recorded by the likes of Joe Cocker, Counting Crows, Ronnie Spector and Marshall Crenshaw.
But for those who keep track of the evolution of North Carolina independent rock going back to the primordial swamp before punk, everything in Dixon’s CV pales in significance to his role as cofounder of a band called Arrogance.
As a student at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1969, South Carolina native Dixon met Winston-Salem’s Robert Kirkland on his dorm hall and the two began writing songs together. The band’s music was loud, talented and original, by all accounts. Most significantly, they proved that you didn’t have to play covers or leave North Carolina to succeed.
“The time that we were coming was the dawn of the DIY [do-it-yourself] stuff,” Dixon says today. “It certainly helped forge a sense of potential. The things that were coming out of North Carolina up until then was a lot of Southern R&B and some gospel. There weren’t venues for rock bands.”
The founding document, according to scene chronicler Sam Hicks, was Arrogance’s first 45, “An Estimation” backed with “Black Death.”
“Its impact cannot be overestimated,” Hicks writes. “Since no one had heard of Black Sabbath, much less Sabbath mixed with Sgt. Pepper into a Mountain-esque stew, the first Arrogance 45 was important to many NC musicians and tops the list for early influential NC vinyl.”
Dixon says “Black Death” was the intended lead single, but it was inadvertently switched with the longer and more experimental “Estimation.”
“That session was in Greensboro at Crescent City Studios,” he says. “That studio should be mentioned because all of the Winston-Salem bands recorded there. There was a fertile high school music scene in Winston-Salem. And they were all coming over to record at Crescent City Studios. Captain Speed & the Funji Electric Mothers. Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple’s band recorded there. Mitch Easter’s band, Rittenhouse Square, did too. The Winston-Salem scene did spawn a lot of people that stayed in it. It was mostly because of the coffeehouses and the concerts that were sponsored by the city parks system.”
The music scene in the Carolinas during Dixon’s high school and college years was dominated by the sometimes clashing forces of psychedelic rock emanating from the West Coast and the soul music produced by Memphis’ Stax Records and other Southern labels.
“When I was in high school I promoted a show that brought together soul and psychedelia,” Dixon recalls. “It was called ‘Psych Meets Soul Dance & Show.’ My band was called Papa’s Night Life. We covered Cream and Hendrix, whatever was heavy. It was loud psychedelic rock playing against loud soul music. My buddy’s band was your classic horns soul band.”
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then.
In 2001, the year after the release of his CD The Invisible Man, Dixon suffered a heart attack at home in Canton, and was forced to undergo quadruple bypass surgery. Though the 56-year-old musician describes himself as “an old man,” the health scare hasn’t changed his routine. He still makes records and goes on the road to play the songs for his fans.
“I immediately felt pretty good,” he says of his recovery. “I just haven’t felt weird at all. I was playing before it happened. It hasn’t really affected me much. Go back and look at a record like The Invisible Man; it’s about mortality but it was written and recorded long before this happened. Maybe it was a premonition.”
Last summer Dixon released his first collection of new compositions since his recovery. The songs that make up The Entire Combustible World In One Small Room are each about different kinds of rooms, including a sunlit hotel suite on the Pacific coast of Mexico, a women’s university dorm and an intensive care unit. Many of the songs recall Elvis Costello in both their gruff soulful inflections and sardonic lyrical observations, while the closing track, a cover of Let’s Active’s “Room With A View,” shows off the 1980s jangle pop that helped Dixon establish his reputation.
He says his next album – already titled The Nu Look – will have a more “bar friendly” sound to showcase the full force of his band, which features guitarist Jamie Hoover and drummer Jim Brock. Hoover also plays with the Charlotte band the Spongetones. Dixon says the Jump Rabbits’ North Carolina dates were scheduled to take advantage of a hole in Brock’s touring schedule with country singer Kathy Mattea.
Turnout for the Combustible World tour was something of a disappointment but Dixon seems to take it in stride.
“September was an awesomely bad time,” he says. “I think things have gotten a little better now. For some reason it was just a tough, tough fall. A friend of mine who works at the Hard Rock [CafÃ©] in Cleveland said they lost money on twenty-eight consecutive shows.”
He says he appreciates his fans’ support, especially considering that his kind of introspective songwriting doesn’t necessarily translate to commercial success, and audience attention is being claimed by an ever-widening array of entertainments.
“Music has become sort of devalued by a lot of competition,” he says. “It’s easier to get the stuff to make something available. It’s easier to make a recording. Whether it’s a good recording or not is subjective. When the emperor of Austria tells Mozart he’s making too many notes that’s like some guy from Arbitron telling an artist he doesn’t like the snare drum sound.”
Some four decades after he promoted his high-school psychedelic rock and soul show, Dixon reveals that he still adheres to a DIY ethos.
“I still think word of mouth is the most important way to reach people,” he says. “If someone plays your record at a party for his friends, that’s more important than getting on the radio.”
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