On February 28th, Clearwater, Florida, will be hosting a rocking show at their Capitol Theatre, as that’s the night the reunited original Dixie Dregs will hit the stage for the first time in forty years. The band that recorded 1977’s Free Fall – Steve Morse, Andy West, Rod Morgenstein, Steve Davidowski and Allen Sloan – have been hearing fans asking for something, anything, the band could give them. “This tour is the result of the overwhelming requests we’ve received from a loyal audience of diehard Dregheads, and new fans who have never seen us perform live but discovered the band for the first time through Steve’s membership in Deep Purple, or Rod as the drummer for Winger,” said bass player Andy West.
With Morse’s full schedule with Deep Purple, it hasn’t really allowed for much time to revisit his old Dixie Dregs days. However, when a chunk of time opened up in the Purple schedule, what they’d thought about doing over the years was now ripe to become a reality.
The Dregs got started after Morse moved to Georgia from Michigan and met West. “At the time I was an outsider with a foreign accent being a northerner,” Morse recollected to me during a 2012 interview for Glide. “My hair was over my ears and it was not cool to do that where I had moved to (laughs). I had a real culture shock there. It was hard to make friends being the new guy and all that stuff so it was weird. Music was the one thing that I sort of just put all my energy into.”
Morse and West put together a precursor to the Dixie Dregs that would later, following Morse’s return from the University Of Miami, gain national attention. “It was hard work and there was not much reward for it but we never gave up. We just kept on and kept on and we ended up putting out six albums and being able to tour all around the United States,” continued Morse.
Now that the Dregs are about to embark on their new Dawn Of The Dregs tour, fans are hoping more might come out of the musicians time together. Glide spoke with West recently about what can happen next, the upcoming tour and the genesis of the Dixie Dregs music.
What ignited this idea to do a Dixie Dregs reunion tour in 2018?
Most of us have been in touch with each other off and on through the years. We stayed in touch and it just so happened that 2017, in May actually, was the 40th anniversary of the release of Free Fall. People like round numbers and that’s a big round number (laughs). So we were just chatting about it and, you know, we’ve had a couple of departures from the band – T Lavitz left us a couple of years ago and Mark Parrish the same way. So this band, this Free Fall band, is special for a lot of reasons but mainly because we’re here (laughs), we’re still all here, and we still all play and are friends. Steve Davidowski, who is the keyboard player on the very first album, he lives in North Carolina and it’s just one of those things where we just sort of started chatting on email and listening to the music and everyone was kind of like, “Wouldn’t it be kind of fun to hang out again.” And Steve said, “Why don’t we get together and jam a little bit and see how it sounds.” So we did that earlier in the year and it was really great, really cool to get back together and hang out. And basically that kind of was the genesis of it.
Then the other thing is we have a longtime friend/manager and it’s been his dream to see us play together again. He didn’t ever actually see this particular band play. So Steve had an opportunity in terms of his calendar. He does a relentless amount of touring so it was very special for him to say, “Okay, there’s a hole in the Deep Purple calendar, let’s see what we can put together.” And that’s how this whole thing came about.
It’s a bit of an emotional attachment because when you listen to the music, or when I do, I just have all these really good feelings about it. But what’s really interesting to me is just as a musician when I listen to this music, I really appreciate it. Playing it again is challenging of course but just getting into the music and hearing it and kind of thinking about it with this much distance on it now, it makes it feel really unique. I mean, Steve’s compositional style, if you will, is something that no one has really duplicated, in my estimation. So when you hear this music, it’s like it gives you a kind of feeling that you don’t get from other kinds of things. I don’t know how else to describe it. There is a lot of power in there, there is a lot of beauty in there, there is a lot of humor, there’s all kinds of stuff.
We were one of the first sort of instrumental rock bands, if you will. We all came from a rock background, not really Jazz, although Davidowski has more of a Jazz background than any of us at the time and sort of brought a lot of that into it. But nevertheless, I think the core roots of the music are very rock and classical; there are a lot of flavors in there. It’s open to interpretation but a lot of people respond to it in this similar kind of way. Everyone gets something different from it intellectually but I think emotionally it’s a common sort of theme.
These songs are not stereotypical pop songs by any means so how easy was it to fall back into them to play live again?
Well, I think there is something in your brain, when you play this stuff as much as we did, it’s in there. So for me personally, some of these songs I haven’t touched since then but to kind of go back and visit them, yes, they were there in my head, the songs themselves, so being able to play them or to remember them wasn’t that difficult in some cases. In other cases, it’s like, what is it we actually did there? (laughs) Then I have to go in and take it off the album. The good news is there’s a lot of software now you can use to slow things down without changing the pitch. So we all sort of have done that, have revisited these songs and gone in and said, okay, what were the notes we’re playing and relearned them. There is a lot of time involved in that.
The other thing is, when we played this stuff forty years ago, we were really pushing the edge, in terms of speed. Now, you can go on YouTube and be completely dumbfounded by the level of technique that is, I guess, common almost in many ways. I mean, it still takes a lot of energy and effort to get that type of technique but it just seems more prevalent now than it was then. But for us, going back, yeah, it’s a challenge. You have to be able to play this stuff with a level of facility that is very fluid and easy to get that energy out in the music. So we’re all practicing our asses off (laughs).
Do you think some of the songs will change any from when you played them in the past?
A lot of what Steve writes or has written, and certainly the Dregs music, was highly composed. The parts are the parts. Now every song had solo sections and this type of thing but many of them, they’re parts, it’s like you don’t change the words on a song, you know (laughs). They’re made to go together. Now, it’s going to be a different kind of energy just simply because the time has passed. Whether you believe this stuff or not, I’ll just say it: For me, playing IS an emotional thing and music IS alive. So the fact that we’re doing this and the fact that we’re at this point in our lives and can still stand above ground and all that kind of stuff, and I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but there is a lot of experience here, a lot of life experience, so for me, I tend to feel that and I tend to think it gets conveyed somehow.
The same thing is true for the fans. They’re going to be hearing this stuff and hopefully there will be some people that have never been exposed to this live and that kind of energy is going to be new to them. A lot of people are going to be sort of revisiting it. But it’s not about making it exactly as it was. It’s now 2018 and it’s going to be like it is now, you know. That’s a long-winded answer of saying the notes are the same but the energy is going to be slightly different (laughs). But we think it’s going to be super cool.
What we did was we first kind of leaned towards the songs on Free Fall. We thought about just doing Free Fall but the canon of music that the Dregs have is pretty cool and we all have our favorites and we didn’t want to just do Free Fall. Plus, when Steve was in the band, we had built up a lot of the tunes that were on the next set of albums that I played on, the six albums that I played on from that era, if you will, and he also played on. But some of this stuff is new to him, a lot of it is new to him, so he’s the one who’s got the biggest burden cause he’s playing a lot of music that he’s never played before.
But we all picked through the songs and we tended towards the stuff on Free Fall that Davidowski had played on and then we picked some stuff from each of the other albums that we all loved. So I don’t know if it’s more obscure. I think that the selection was to have a rounded set of music, so we have a handful of genres, or Steve does, that he kind of wrote for the band, which were the heavy rock things, the “Cruise Control,” “Bloodsucking Leeches,” “Take It Off The Top,” that kind of stuff. We’re doing all those songs, for example, but we could do a whole hour’s worth of music that was just that style. And then we sort of go towards the long orchestral pieces – the “Night Meets White,” “Hereafter,” “Long Slow Distance.” They are beautiful and most of us in the band consider that the pinnacle of Steve’s compositional stuff. And again, we could do a whole set of music that was just that. That might be kind of interesting sometime but not for this.
But Steve actually picked this song called “Day 444.” “Day 444” is a reference to the day that hostages in Iran were released back in the seventies or eighties; I forget the exact date but it was 444 days they were in there before they got out [from November 04, 1979-January 20, 1981]. You know, back then you got information from the radio, so that was on the radio when we were coming into the studio and Steve said, “Let’s call it that,” cause it didn’t have a title. But that song is really, really cool and it’s something that we didn’t ever play live. If we did play it live, none of us could remember playing it in concert. We may have done it once or twice but it was more of a studio song – a lot of production and this kind of thing. So we’re doing that which is probably the least-played of all of the ones that we are doing.
Has there been any talk that maybe some new music will come out of this?
Yeah, we talked about that at the beginning but honestly just to get the hundred minutes or so of music that we wanted to do together, it was basically, okay, let’s pick the songs and learn them (laughs). You know, Steve has always got new compositions but that’s the kind of thing where you really want to be spending time together and thinking it through so I think we might develop some of that while we’re out playing but not for this. This is going to be all things that people mostly heard.
Has your gear changed much over the years or will you fall back onto something older to bring back that particular sound?
That’s an interesting question. Because technology is so much better now than it was, I mean, there was nothing digital back then really. Synthesizers had just sort of sprung on the scene and everything now is new, so for me personally, my approach is the same. I like a very hi-fi bass sound, a very full-range, hi-fidelity sound and I’m able to get that pretty easily with the equipment today. Steve has been developing his sound forever and he’s got his rig that he plays but it’s basically the same he’s been using for a while.
And the tour starts in February
Yes, February 28th is the first date in Florida and then it goes through sort of the end of April. We have two legs with a big break in-between. There are still a couple of slots that we’re trying to fill in there so we’ll see what happens.
How would you describe you and Steve at the time you guys started playing music together?
(laughs) Well, we were young and we were interested. When we met in high school, we had high school bands together, and it was always about kind of exploring music and very much in the mind of, what can we do. It was always that kind of experimental thing and we were always trying to put together different things. You know, Steve just took off as a composer and a musician then and, honestly, I kind of went along for the ride and followed as best I could, which was interesting and challenging. But I guess the main thing to kind of frame an answer to your question is, I just remember that time as being full of exploration and discovery and musical creativity. We were normal people living but there was that side of it which was really the cool part.
With the experimentation you guys were doing so young, did you pull from the Jazz world first and then incorporate rock or vice versa?
It was definitely vice versa. The stuff we were pulling from was rock and even classical to some degree. We all listened to a lot of different music but not Jazz, certainly not for Steve and myself, until he moved to Miami to go to the University Of Miami and he moved there to study classical guitar. The University Of Miami was a big Jazz school and that’s where we met people like Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius and all of these guys, players that were just amazing, and that was my first exposure to really intense Jazz. I didn’t know about it, honestly. The Jazz I knew about was what I might have heard on the radio or the TV. It was nothing about things like Miles Davis or Coltrane or Charlie Parker or any of that kind of stuff which we all learned about down there.
Were you studio nerds from the very beginning?
We were music technology nerds, if that makes any sense. Back then, being in a studio, getting into a studio, cost a lot of money. It’s not like it is today where everyone has the capability of making equivalent sounding recordings in their bedrooms. I mean, literally, you can still go into a dedicated recording studio with top of the line gear and everything else but honestly if you develop your skills, you can do it all. But we had to learn about it and we got in a couple of times to studios and started to learn the technology and this kind of stuff. We were always into new sounds and how do you get this sound and how do you do that, using tape recorders and all this kind of stuff.
Free Fall came after you had signed with Capricorn Records, whose biggest artist was the Allman Brothers. Were you nervous about trying to record your type of music for them or were you very comfortable going in?
We were really excited to do it. We didn’t know anything. We had been in studios and stuff but again, that was on the cusp of the big change in the music business. It was pre-video, and basically when a record company signed you, you just did what they said. They said, “Okay, we’re going to send you to California, we got this producer guy;” and we were like, “Hey, can you get Ken Scott?” Because Ken Scott was the guy who produced the first two Mahavishnu albums. We didn’t know about all his deep rock history. He’s got a great book [Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust], a memoir of his recording career, and it’s really fascinating and has all kinds of people in it – David Bowie, Supertramp; he was an engineer on The Beatles White Album and how he got into that. It’s really fascinating.
But we had just heard these records that he produced and loved what he did and said, “Can we get Ken Scott?” And they called him up and he said no (laughs). So they had this other guy but Ken Scott actually ended up producing the next two albums that we did, What If and Night Of The Living Dregs, so eventually he did say yes and that was great. But you might have noticed the goofy album cover. That wasn’t our idea. That was the record company’s idea. We were like hicks from Georgia, you know. We showed up in LA and they’re like, “Oh, we got to get you guys some clothes!” (laughs) It was ridiculous, completely ridiculous. Honestly, I don’t know what they were thinking cause you know Capricorn was a label that had the Marshall Tucker Band and the Allman Brothers and I guess they were thinking, well, these guys are not like that, let’s make them something else. But we actually were more like that in many ways.
But it’s a good strong album for a so-called first record
You know, again, playing that music live, I mean, the record to us didn’t quite have the power that we felt we had live. But listening to it now, you know when we started talking about this and we said, let’s relearn some of these old songs and play some of these old songs, I went back and listened to it and I was like, yeah, the drums aren’t super heavy and all this but the music is great.
“Northern Lights,” which ends the record, is this really pretty classical piece amidst all this other spirited music. Is that part of that slight classical influence you had going on and where that song came from?
Yeah, definitely. Allen [Sloan] was a classical violinist and was trained as a classical violinist but he loved Jazz and rock and fusion and the whole thing so he got into this. But that was where Steve had really developed a lot of knowledge and technique and he had this whole side of him that loved playing classical guitar so he started writing music for it.
Who did you tour with the most back in the day?
That’s a good question. I would say, well, we actually didn’t tour a lot with a lot of people. We kind of beat around the south ourselves, just playing in bars and the same thing after we had a record deal; we still played in clubs and just kind of developed our own following. We did have some opening act slots for bands like the Doobie Brothers and ZZ Top. We did a tour once with Stanley Clarke that was really amazing, from my point of view. And we had lots of bands that we did one-time opening acts for. But it was really us, just playing in clubs that would have us and growing our following.
How did that go over because your music seems bigger than a club?
Well, in a good scenario, we’d be playing places that would hold like 500-700 people. And that was a really incredible sort of way to see us because it was kind of more intimate so the power, you could feel it in a lot of ways.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
That’s a good question. When we were recording Free Fall, actually recording this song called “Moe Down,” which we’re doing on this tour, I look in the control room and there’s Ringo. Somehow he and the producer guy were friends and he said, “Come on down to the studio.” So there he was. Ringo. I mean, good grief (laughs). That was kind of fun. We got to talk a few minutes and that was that. This was 1976, I guess, and he was doing some recording or hanging out in LA. It was pretty cool.
To you, what was your first big I can’t believe I’m here moment?
The so-called rise of the band was very gradual but I do remember playing in Los Angeles at this place called the Roxy and a lot of our heroes kind of came down to see us play – people like John McLaughlin, Stanley Clarke; I think even at that same little gig it seems like Joni Mitchell showed up once. You know, a lot of people kind of popped in to see the band and it was like, wow, this is really interesting and cool. I was just a bass player playing the music I loved with a band that I loved to be in, so the whole experience was kind of like that the whole way.
Were you the kind of band that people would come and sit in with you?
Not really. The music is so complicated. I mean, we could do like other tunes and have people play with us but it didn’t really happen a lot.
Not even with someone like Stanley Clarke?
No but there is some tape on the internet somewhere of Jaco Pastorius playing with us when we played in Florida. I think he played on “The Bash,” which is a version of the “Wabash Canonball” that we did real fast. Of course, his technique was incredible. But stuff like that, literally, we didn’t have a lot of songs that you could just sit in on. The songs are very complex. Even though they’re relatively easy to listen to they are hard to play.
What was Jaco like?
As a matter of fact, on my wall here I have a poster of when we played with the Word Of Mouth band at Tulane in 1982 and that was really fun. We had met Jaco prior to his rise and he was very friendly and a nice guy.
What was the first song you obsessed over as a kid trying to learn to play?
That would probably be “Can’t Buy Me Love” by The Beatles. I was like ten years old or something and I remember having it on a 45 and just kind of playing it over and over and over, trying to learn the lines.
In the style of music that the Dregs are known for, who were your heroes?
Cream was always at the top of the list for me because Jack Bruce as a bass player was just incredible. Then it’s all the standard kind of rock icons, including Led Zeppelin. I didn’t really get into things like Black Sabbath and stuff like that, that was kind of after and by then we were off on a different path. But those early bands – Jethro Tull, Jefferson Airplane, you could go on and on, right – that was what kind of kicked it all off. Now through the years there are hundreds of musicians I could site but I think those were the earliest influences. We knew a lot of Zeppelin tunes (laughs). Then after Steve went to Miami and came back to Augusta and we started playing again, and then I moved down to Miami, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was the big thing so the soundbite for me was that we were like a Mahavishnu cover band at some point. We played all their stuff.
I do remember during that kind of growth time where we were learning new songs that Steve would write and trying to have enough songs to play a setlist, you know, and in the very early days people didn’t know what to make of us. We’d come out there and start playing this stuff and probably half the crowd would leave. But the other half would be like, what’s going on here? What is this? This is interesting. You do that enough times and eventually you’ve self-selected an audience and it’s cool and that’s how it all happened.
If you look at pictures of you guys then, you look like long-haired country boys that would play southern rock.
It was interesting and strange but you know what we did learn then was we learned how to play to an audience. We learned how to build a set. We learned what people liked and what they didn’t like. It wasn’t always exactly what we liked. It’s not like we were pandering to the audience but as a musician you want people to appreciate what you’re doing so we naturally gravitated towards things that worked. So the more weird kind of stuff, which we definitely did a lot of odd kind of things that didn’t really work with an audience, they again kind of self-selected themselves out of the picture and we ended up with what we ended up with.
Would you consider that part of the true legacy of the Dixie Dregs? That you changed and evolved but still kept your core.
Yeah, I think that’s a great thing to be able to play complex, challenging music and have quote/unquote normal people like it. That’s amazing. How many musicians get to do that?