Dixie Dregs Answer the Question: “What If?”
Atlanta (by way of Augusta and Miami) band the Dixie Dregs were among the most boundary-pushing acts of the 1970s. Deftly blending styles from hard rock to jazz-fusion to country, the instrumental quintet released an impressive string of albums on Macon-based Capricorn Records. In later years, the band would flirt with different directions – even adding vocalists – and endured a number of lineup changes. Though the Dregs never actually broke up, they would release only one studio album after 1982’s Industry Standard LP. But in 2018, the group has reassembled with the lineup that made 1977’s Free Fall, its first major-label release. And for the first time in more than 40 years, that celebrated lineup takes to the road. Drummer Rod Morgenstein brings things up to date.
How difficult was it to reassemble the 1975-era members for a tour?
“The tricky part was contacting Steve Davidowski, who was the keyboard player from the 1975 version of the band. But [bassist] Andy West was able to locate him, and he expressed interest. Everything, really, has come together very smoothly. I live in Rhode Island, but 30 weeks a year, I make the trek up to Boston from my home. I’ve been teaching at Berklee College of Music for these 20 years. When I’m up there, for two nights, I live with Frank Solomon, who is the manager of the Dixie Dregs. And invariably, our conversations all these years are about music. We’ve always talked about, ‘Wouldn’t it be unbelievable if the original version of the band was able to get together to do something?’
“And so, in January of last year, the five guys decided to convene at [guitarist] Steve Morse’s house for a couple of days, just to see what it felt like playing music together, hanging together as old friends and people who worked together four decades ago. We ended up having a wonderful time together, and everyone’s still playing really well.”
You’ve been busy playing with Kip Winger…
“Right. I’ve been a full time musician my entire life, as has Steve [Morse], and also Steve Davidowski. Andy and Allen [Sloan, violin] went on to other professional careers. Allen is a doctor: a bonafide pain medicine doctor. He owns a huge practice in North Augusta, South Carolina. Andy went into IT and has been a computer guy for the last 30 years, but he has also always kept up with doing music.”
What were the rehearsals like? Did everybody remember how to play the songs?
“What we did was agree to just learn five or six songs to play through them, and we didn’t even set up in a stage concert setting. We just did it very low-key, playing at relatively quiet levels, just to see if everybody could remember all these involved parts, and play in time, and play in tune. And it was way beyond; everybody in the band is so talented on the instrument that they play.
“In December, Andy and Steve Davidowski traveled to Allen Sloan’s home to spend four days in rehearsal, running through all of the songs between the three of them. And then, in January, I had some shows with my band, Winger, and our last show ends in Scottsdale, Arizona. That’s where Andy lives, so I stayed an extra day to do a rhythm section rehearsal with him, and run through everything. And then, about a week or so before the tour began, we had a full-on rehearsal for several days to run through everything, working out the kinks as far as the music, the gear, and our road crew.
“In fact, the crew is the three main guys from back then. When they heard that this thing was brewing, all of them got on the horn and said, ‘I’m in.’ ‘I’m in.’ ‘I’m in.’
“Jeff Burkhart is going to be our tour manager and lighting person. In our early years, there was a really cool rock club in Blowing Rock, North Carolina called P.B. Scott’s. It was a geodesic dome. One of the times that we played there, Jeff expressed an interest in going on the road. So, we said, ‘We’ll hire you for $75 a week.’ That’s all that we could afford. So he took an interest in lighting and became such a good lighting designer. After he left the Dregs, he went on to do acts like Journey and Shania Twain. He became one of the best in the business, one of the most sought-after lighting people.”
For the tour, will you be focusing exclusively on material from the Capricorn era – Free Fall through Night of the Living Dregs – or will you be drawing from later releases like the three early ’80s Arista albums as well?
“There will definitely be music from all six of the albums that came out every year from 1977 through 1982. But there will definitely be a concentration on those earlier albums, and certainly Free Fall, which is the only album that Steve Davidowski was keyboardist on.
“There was a period in the ’80s where the band members kind of went their separate ways, and then got back together in different versions. But the two guys who were always in it were me and Steve Morse. With there being so many different versions of the band, when we were talking about songs that we might want to do, it was like, ‘You know what? Let’s go through all these albums and see what songs haven’t been done in ages,’ or ‘Are there any songs that we don’t even remember having ever played live?’ So, it’ll be a very interesting mix.”
In the early ’80s, the band made the decision to add vocals. With the benefit of hindsight, was that a mistake?
“I don’t know that any of us gave it a whole lot of thought. In retrospect, the Dixie Dregs were an immensely successful band as far as being a group of musicians who bucked the system. We came out in the disco era when the thinking was, ‘If you don’t have a [mimics repetitive disco beat], you don’t have a chance in hell of making a living. And then, on top of that, you’re not gonna sing? Are you out of your mind? Oh, and you’re gonna play music that is uncategorizable because you go from a rock tune to something more jazzy to something classical-sounding to something country? What the hell are you guys? We don’t even know where to put you in the bins in the music shop!’
“We’ve always felt strongly about the uniqueness of the band, and the beauty of Steve Morse’s writing. It was like, ‘Hey, you know what? We don’t care that every door is slamming in our faces. We’re just gonna carry on and bring the message to the people one by one.’ And then it got to a point where, every album was selling better than the previous one. Certainly, we were not getting massive amounts of airplay. And as well as the records were selling, they certainly weren’t selling in the range of Michael Jackson, or of albums that have vocals.
“At that time [leading up to 1982’s Industry Standard] we were on Arista Records. Maybe the vocal thing came about with a meeting with Clive Davis or people on the business side saying, ‘Guys, what if you maybe get a guest vocalist or two? That might give us a chance that when we shop radio, we could get a few bites and maybe get some airplay, which could open up the band to a larger market, and people will come see the band.’
“Eddy Offord – who engineered and produced Industry Standard – said, ‘Hey, I know Alex Ligertwood, the singer.’ Alex was singing with Santana at the time, and he was totally into it. And a year or so back we had done some touring with Doobie Brothers and became very friendly with some of the guys in that band, so we said, ‘Let’s contact Patrick Simmons. See if he’d maybe like to sing.’ So in the moment, it seemed like the right thing to do. It seemed very exciting, and I can’t remember thinking like, ‘Oh, my God. This is gonna shoot ourselves in the foot and we’re gonna lose our fanbase.’
“And I don’t think we lost fans. There might’ve been a handful of them that said, ‘Guys, you don’t need a vocalist.’ We were an instrumental band not because we hate singing, but just because none of us happened to be a really great singer. And the instrumental approach was something that Steve had been doing since he was a teenager writing music. We thought the music was interesting enough that it spoke for itself and could stand on its own.”
One way of describing the Dixie Dregs sound is to say, “Think of Weather Report if they had more of a rock sensibility.” Do you think that’s a fair characterization?
“To a degree. The thing, to me, that makes the band so special is that I don’t think you really can adequately describe it other than saying, ‘You really have to go see it and decide for yourself,’ because it is unlike anything out there. I know that we were branded with the word fusion way back when. And fusion, by definition, means drawing from a lot of different sources.
“But when I think of fusion music, I don’t think at all in terms of highly-arranged, melodic music that develops as it goes. When I think of fusion, I think of the quick head of a song like they use the term in jazz. And after you play that head a couple of times, everybody just solos until you decide to play the head one more time and call it a day.
“[Our music] has much more deeply thought-out and planned arrangements. There’s soloing that goes on, but there’s always consideration for the audience. It isn’t just for the musicians to get off doing their thing. We say, ‘We’re playing music for an audience that is coming to be entertained. So let’s try to keep it interesting.’
“Someone who’s a musician, obviously, will find so much to sink their teeth into, but for the casual music lover, I think there’s plenty for them to be absorbed into and not lose interest. Most of the time, we’re not playing in crazy time signatures. There might be some weird things, but it’s not for the sake of the crazy time signature. There’s so much music to be able to tap your feet to, and there’s so much melody happening. There’s something for everybody.”
Is it too soon to ask what might be in store after the tour?
“Yeah, way too soon. Because we don’t know.
“Part of being a musician is that you don’t really grow up. There’s a child inside you, even though you’ve lived certainly more than half your life and nobody makes it through unscathed. I have these moments of, ‘In the heyday of this band, most of us were in our 20s.’ The only thing that mattered was making the band happen, breaking it. Nothing else, and it was tough in the very beginning. Because nobody pays a musician anything to play their original music. So, the financial part of it was ridiculously difficult. But still, it was a group of young guys on a mission.
“Then, in the next breath I think, ‘Oh, my God. We’re talking about 40 years ago.’ And everybody is now in this other part of life. I have a chuckle at how there are lots of people at this age that have thrown in the towel, retired, sitting on the rocking chair on the porch, just sort of looking back on how things went. And here we are, about to start it up all over again.”