A few months ago, Adrienne and I saw Don Dixon at Imbibe in Chapel Hill (tinyurl.com/zubimbibe). Don was playing songs from this new project with novelist John Bare (from that review):
This was not a typical show for Don Dixon, the North Carolina rock legend, voice of Arrogance, and fine solo artist. Seated on stools coffeehouse style, were Don, guitar in hand, alongside novelist John Bare, who read from his book manuscript, ‘Fair-Skinned Brunette with the Porcelain Shine.’ The protagonist in the book is one Lasssiter “Lassie” James, and the story is set around and about the town of Chapel Hill and the UNC campus. The travails of Mr. James and his adventures with the title character, a fair skinned brunette named Fats, were the thread of the songs and readings.
Bare’s novel is not published as of this date. The novelist wrote the lyrics to the songs that Don played, with Dixon providing the melodies and music. Don told me after the show how much he loved working this way, kind of a Brill-Building old school approach to songwriting. So with John Bare sitting by his side providing the set-ups, readings, and commentary, Don Dixon played for the first time from the ‘Lassie James Songbook.’
The Lassie James Songbook, Vol.1 is recorded and now available on Spotify and other streaming sites. The recording features a murderer’s row of North Carolina talent, including:
Jeffery Dean Foster – vocals
Jim Brock – drums
Beth McKee - piano and accordion
Matt Smith - pedal steel and dobro
Robert Kirkland - acoustic guitar
Mitch Easter - electric guitar
Don Dixon - bass, backing vocals
Marti Jones - backing vocal on ‘I Fell in Love with Emmylou’
The whole thing was recorded at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium Studio (tinyurl.com/zubactive) by Mitch and Tammy White and produced by the man himself, Don Dixon. To say that this recording sounds great is a major understatement. The playing, arrangements, performances and especially Dixon’s songs (with John Bare’s lyrics) are all top-notch.
My only quibble, and it’s a minor one, is that Don Dixon doesn’t sing lead. Jeffery Dean Foster (a contemporary of The Beef People) handles the vocals, and he is stellar. Having heard Dixon sing these songs first, I miss the ultra-soulfulness of his delivery. Indeed the R&B stylings of Dixon have been turned instead into a kind of super-Americana approach (and Dixon is the producer, mind you). ‘Would You Like To Slow Dance’ has a Cajun-style accordion. ‘Redhead From Detroit’ almost has a Western swing, with plenty of steel guitar and real piano. It’s great to hear the incomparable Marti Jones on the soaked-in-country shuffle ‘I Fell In Love With Emmylou.’
‘The Displaced Man’ even crosses into Elvis Costello (King Of America-era) territory. It’s a real heart wrencher. ‘How Do You Like Your Eggs’ is a boogie barnburner, with Mitch tearing it up on the guitar. ‘She’s A Baptist And A Communist’ (“she’s the femminist I want to kiss”) keeps a little of that Dixon soul smoke. It’s a great song, as is ‘No Songs About Mamas Or Trains,’ a bit of a thinking man's take on Waylon Jennings with a killer melody. ‘Fair Skinned Brunette With The Porcelain Shine’ is a classic, classic country-style ballad. Simple and effective chords with nothing wasted.
By the time they get to the end with the bouncy ‘Whiskey Kisses,’ I realize this is one of the strongest collections of songs I’ve heard in a long, long time. I'm not big on the Americana, but Bare and Dixon and their all star cast are showing why they got where they did. It’s a satisfying and amazingly good listen.