Steve Dawson

Deeper Roots
SteveDawson: Laura E. Partain.

Calling Steve Dawson a “roots” artist seems a disservice to a musician so eclectic and wildly talented. On Eyes Closed, Dreaming, he effortlessly mixes earthy rock and roll, soul, Hawaiian, country, and blues highlighted by dextrous slide and superior acoustic fingerpicking.

When he’s not recording and touring, Dawson hosts a podcast called “Music Makers and Soul Shakers” featuring guests like Bill Frisell, Duane Eddy, and the late David Lindley.

We sat with Dawson to discuss his compelling approach to rootsy music, vintage gear, and using the internet to fuel a career.

There are cool bottleneck licks on “Long Time to Get Old” and “Small Town Talk.” Who are your slide influences?
Of course I love Ry Cooder, Duane Allman, and Lowell George, but I’ve also spent a lot of time studying Hawaiian players from the early 20th century, like Sol Hoopii and King Bennie Nawahi. Also early blues players like Elmore James, Son House, and Robert Johnson. I put a glass slide on my pinky and use quite a few tunings; the one I use the most is dropping the two E strings down to D. When I play live, I’m in that tuning 90 percent of the time. It gives me four strings to finger normal chords and all the best parts of open G and D tunings, all in one.

“A Gift” and “House Carpenter” reveal your fingerpicking chops.
That one is definitely inspired by players like Doc and Merle Watson, maybe some Leo Kottke, and a bit of Mississippi John Hurt. I’ve gone down all of those rabbit holes many times and find a lot of inspiration there. “House Carpenter” is on the Weissenborn, and David Lindley is a big influence there. I don’t play like him, but at one time I spent a lot of time trying to. On that song, I’m tuned to C-G-C-G-Bb-D.

“Waikiki Stonewall Rag” is a slide tour de force. Tell us about your Weissenborn.
The Weissenborn, by definition, has a hollow neck and is played lap-style. It came about in the 1920s and was meant for Hawaiian music, but failed because it couldn’t keep up with the volume that was needed, which ultimately led to National resonators being invented to solve that problem. When David Lindley and Ben Harper started collecting and electrifying them, they became popular again. Mine was built for me by a luthier in Victoria, Canada, about 25 years ago. For the Hawaiian stuff I play, I almost always tune to open G.

Which guitars and amps did you use on the album?
For most of the acoustic stuff, a ’53 J-50 that I love. I also have a Martin Jeff Tweedy 00-DB for some of the fingerstyle stuff. Then I have a National Tricone, as well as an old Style O from 1930. For electrics I use a Strat with the sort of typical Coodercaster concept – gold-foil lap-steel pickups instead of regular single-coils. There’s an Asher Electro Hawaiian on a few things for the electric-lap-steel stuff, and for the straight-up electric stuff it’s usually an Airline Tuxedo, Epiphone Casino, Tele, or an SG.

For amps, I have a ’53 tweed Deluxe that I love, and a Flot-a-Tone I use a lot; it’s a ’50s accordion amp from Wisconsin. I use a blackface Princeton, as well. Between all of them, I always find something interesting.

What about pedals?
I keep it pretty simple. The Greer Lightspeed is my only overdrive, and I use it a lot. Then, a Strymon Flint gives all my weird, old amps the same reverb, which I like since most of them don’t have reverb. Other than that, I like different delays, but usually end up using my TC Electronic because it’s the best delay I’ve ever owned. I also use fuzz sometimes – either a Union Tube & Transistor or Vemuram Jan Ray.

You’re very internet-savvy, using web and social-media outlets for your music, podcast, teaching, and playing. How does having an online presence amplify your music and career?
It’s essential these days. I’m not an expert, but I try to stay current on all that stuff; I do some videos that are produced and I’ve spent time on them to get them looking and sounding right. And then I do a lot of video shorts of me sitting around playing. It’s a good way to stay in touch and get your music in front of new people, especially if you’re going on tour or trying to promote a new record. You kind of have to engage in that way now. I enjoy doing it, so it’s easy – and doesn’t require much aside from a smartphone.

This article originally appeared in VG’s August 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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