Dixie Dregs is an American band formed in the early 1970s by guitarist Steve Morse and bassist Andy West. Their music is almost exclusively instrumental, fusing rock, country, and a bit of jazz into a potent brew that is designed to showcase each band member’s virtuosity. Their core compositions were typically rooted in traditional country & western music, most frequently upbeat and exciting. Their live shows were absolutely fantastic. One of their signature and most entertaining feats in concert was a game of “musical chairs” where each musician would trade off soloing in round-robin fashion, taking leads for ever decreasing measures until each would play just one or so notes, passing from one to the next at lightning speed in an amazing display of talent. Musicians came and went from the Dixie Dregs, all of them exceptional, and founder Steve Morse has always been at the helm.
After two early albums, the band was signed to Capricorn Records and released their most progressive album What If(1978), produced by Ken Scott, featuring Morse and West joined by Rod Morgenstein (drums), Mark Parrish (keyboards), and Allen Sloan (violin). After completing their first tour that year, they combined a few of the live recordings and several new pieces to create their most popular Grammy nominated album, 1979’s Night of the Living Dregs. The opening track “Punk Sandwich,” is a perfect introduction to the band for any fan or casual listener. Rapid-fire guitar and violin leads backed by electric organ bridge the tuneful melody. The second track “Country House Shuffle” leads off with a drum solo that demonstrates Morgenstein’s apt skills. The second half of the record is punctuated by the live track “The Bash” which demonstrates one of the country-western jams that featured their signature round-robin solos. I caught the band live on this tour at some small venue in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles and it was a spectacular show from the first note to the last.
The band signed with Arista at the end of the 70s, and released an excellent follow up album, Dregs of the Earth(1980) with the talented T. Lavitz replacing departed Mark Parrish on keys. I was fortunate to see this tour as well at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles, and recall being surprised that Lavitz was able to meet the challenge set by their former keys wizard. It was another exceptional concert experience.
Widespread success eluded the Dixie Dregs, though they managed to build a core following of eager admirers. As the eighties wore on, the group hoped to expand their audience by changing their name to The Dregs, after which they released Unsung Heroes(1981) and Industry Standard(1982) the latter with guest vocalists. Soon after they disbanded but have continued to stage concerts sporadically to this day. Steve Morse plied his axe during a short solo career, and also took on lead guitar duties in years since with Kansas and then Deep Purple.
So it was with only mild surprise that I saw an ad for the Dixie Dregs reunion, which we attended in Agoura California, at the Canyon Club last month. The show featured a new keyboard and saxophone player, Steve Davidowski, who joined original members Steve, Andy, Allen and Rod. The show was fantastic in every way. Morse had his hand wrapped in what looked like an injury support brace, but nothing was taken off the top of his incredible range and dexterity. Everyone played at the top of their game.
During the run up to these shows, I heard from guys who still live in their mother’s basement, you know them, the ones who complain like “why are these old dudes out on the road again with no new material?” As if to prove any naysayers wrong, Morse and co. came to the stage on fire, nailing their leads with aplomb, showing one and all that there was and IS an instrumental band so adept at their chosen instruments, that they simply stun, even if their music was never heard before by the listener.
To top off the experience for me, I was able to hand Steve a copy of my book, Rockin’ the City of Angels, which has a chapter on the Dixie Dregs, released last year. And while I was thanking him, I got a big surprise, one that made me burst into tears. Someone behind me exclaimed “Doug Harr?” as if they knew me. It was my long lost childhood buddy Marcus Ryle, the one in our neighborhood with the cool dad, the engineer, the cool siblings, and some real keyboards. Marcus’ dad introduced us to Moog synth music before Keith Emerson, regaling us with Wendy (then Walter) Carlos’s classical synth albums, and in particular the legendary Dick Hyman and his fanciful synth pop. Marcus was the first in our neighborhood to get his own synth and as it turns out, as I learned, went on to design them, and eventually same for guitars, sporting the Line 6 guitars at Yamaha. I will finally see him, now back from Japan, next week. Good times. Rock on.