the Jazz Record Mart's many mail-order customers, the voice over the
telephone of Steve Dawson is quite familiar. There is another group
of people who are also familiar with Steve's voice via his longtime
musical collaboration with his wife Diane Christiansen and their band
Born in California, Steve was brought up listening to his father's huge record collection which consisted "of rock like the Stones and the Beatles and a lot of jazz.
"When I was 12, we moved to Idaho and I got a guitar," Steve explains going on to state that "I'd always loved music. I'd pretended to play along with records and stuff, like sing-a-long and play air guitar. I took to the guitar immediately and spent tons of time learning to play it. I was in a tiny little town and the band program was pretty dorky. There weren't a lot of other musicians. So, it was me basically just sitting in a room with songbooks or records just trying to play along. I started writing songs right away. I did have a high school band, but again the talent pool was pretty slim and I didn't really know what I was doing. I was in a number of crappy bands! "
After graduating high school, Steve attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston to study jazz guitar stimulated by a teacher he had in his senior year. "He was showing me fancy jazz chords and reharmonization. Kenny Burrell was my guy! I loved Kenny Burrell and I was into George Benson, his instrumental stuff, and Wes Montgomery to a certain degree."
"The Beatles were always my band. I still love the Beatles. Country music (in Idaho) was just always around me, but it was considered really dorky. All of the kids really hated it, but it was everywhere like if you went to some kind of public function in the park there was always a country band playing and it was always a pretty good one. I remember watching these guys out of the corner of my eyes and thinking ´Wow, that's cool,' but not saying it because at that age you can't be a geek, y'know! There was a radio station that just played country...talk and country! I used to set the radio to wakeup to it every morning, so it must have subliminally sunk in! This was the late 70s and early 80s and country music was Mickey Gilley and Kenny Rogers, but they were playing Johnny Cash and George Jones mixed in with all of the `Urban Cowboy' stuff. I remember hearing Bob Dylan, so they must have had some pretty hip DJs slipping this stuff in."
While in college, Steve realized that studying to become a jazz guitarist "wasn't what I was meant to do. After practicing for hours I would just relax and sing a song and it just felt like home. I realized that I should just be singing and writing songs. When I was in Idaho, I was also listening to a lot of those singer/songwriter kind of guys like Jackson Browne and Neil Young and there's a little country in those guys." He began to jam and play out a bit with other musicians as well as performing as a solo act. "In Boston there's a pretty healthy folk music scene and I was into that. I had stopped going to Berkley and knew that I had to get out of Boston because it was so expensive to live there. This friend called me up and said that Chicago's really affordable and that there're a lot of gigs to be had, so I just moved out here."
Steve's relationship with the Jazz Record Mart began soon after his move since "I was a customer from almost when I first moved to Chicago. I used to go in there and buy blues records. I was always a fan of gospel and soul music...it was sort of an offshoot of learning jazz. I was sort of looking for other forms of black music and also listening to blue-eyed soul singers' like Van Morrison," Steve recalls, going on to explain that "I came to the decision after playing a bunch of really crappy gigs, mostly as a solo, in places where I would end up playing requests of cover songs for people that were either drunk or completely indifferent and I started losing my faith in playing music. Music has always been like an almost spiritual thing to me. I didn't want it to become me sitting in a bar singing cover songs. I decided that I wasn't going to make that the way that I was going to make my living. If I was going to make it my living, I was going to do it as doing my own songs and on my own terms. In coming to that understanding I decided that I had to have a job! I started out waiting tables, but could easily be billed as 7he World's Worst All-Time Waiter'! It was a disaster! I used to go over to the [Jazz] Record Mart and say to Ron [Bierma, JRM's manager] if you ever have an opening, I'd love to work here' and he'd say `Yeah, yeah! Great, great' and I did this about three times and on about my 4th time of saying this he said `I need to talk to you!' So he sat me down and we talked and he hired me. That was in 1990 and I've been working there ever since full-time!"
Immediately gigging in Chicago regularly at the Charleston Tavern with fiddle player Tom Murray performing country music also helped introduce Steve to his future wife, Diane. Diane began singing with Steve and Tom who eventually added a bass player. And when a drummer joined up "the Charleston basically told us to get the Hell out! You guys are too big and too loud for this! We started to try and eventually get real gigs at real clubs and eventually named the band Stump the Host."
After adding an electric guitar player, Stump the Host became what Steve jokingly describes "An organic progression from he [Tom] and I standing in a window sill for a couple of years singing folk songs to a country rock band."
Since Stump the Host was what Steve calls a ragtag bunch of guys, trying to tour eventually led to the band's breakup. Being a buzz band in Chicago worked as a catch-22 with offers and recognition being a little more than the band members were prepared for. The band released only one vinyl 45 RPM record on Minty Fresh before calling it quits in 1993.
"Diane and I were always freaked out being called `country musicians'. I guess that when people hear that two part harmony, they think `Oh, that's country.' I know that the guitar player in that band [Stump the Host] was super country, so that had a lot to do with it. We kind of kicked things around for about a year and in 95 , the guys that are in Dolly Varden now started showing up. We've had the same ensemble ever since!" Steve says going on to acknowledge that "We've really gotten pretty tight. It's like a little extended family now!"
Dolly Varden's first CD (Mouthful of Lies on the band's own Mid-Fl label) came out in 1995 resulting in positive reviews and touring. Major labels began sniffing around during what Steve illustrates as the "Last round of that whole Chicago thing when the major labels were looking for another Smashing Pumpkins" and the band was soon signed to it's present label Evil Teen releasing The Thrill of Gravity. The Dumbest Magnets was released in 2000 to glowing reviews as well as an international deal with Flying Sparks in England.
The last two weeks of May, Steve and Diane toured Europe as a duo promoting The Dumbest Magnets with a full-throttle band tour slated there later this fall. With plans for a fourth Dolly Varden CD in the works, the musical future looks bright indeed and Steve points out that [JRM owner] Bob Koester is "really supportive. In truth, my job is kind of the perfect job for me because I can totally leave it behind when I leave there and come home and concentrate on writing songs and the career of Dolly Varden and my life with Diane and Eva (our daughter). It's flexible. I can take time off to tour and record. I think in a way that Bob feels the same way about music...that music is a high art, y'know, it's really an important thing. My job at the Mart has been a great thing...it really has."
- George Hansen
For information or to contact Steve regarding Dolly Varden, you can log onto their web site at http://www.dollvvarden.com, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or utilize snail mail via PO Box 577084.
Despite genre classifications, Dolly Varden's CDs: Mouthful of Lies, The Thrill of Gravity, and The Dumbest Magnets are available at the Jazz Record Mart for $15.99 each.