Searching for their rainbow, Atlanta's Dixie Dregs have aged into a band that may finally make the Big Time.
Steve Morse is working at the Axis Sound Studios in northwest Atlanta as he has almost every day for two months. Besides being guitarist and composer for the Dixie Dregs, he is the producer of the group's album in progress. The Dregs have been together for nearly six years. They have toured the country and have three other albums to their credit. They pack Manhattan's lustrous Bottom Line when they play the room and landed a gig two years ago at Switzerland's lofty Montreaux Jazz Festival. Yet a hefty share of their fellow Atlantans have never heard of them. Steve hopes the new album will put the unknown Dixie Dregs into orbit.
In the control room, planted at a console that looks like it could run the world, Steve eyes the bank of buttons and dials, confers with George Pappas, the studio engineer, and monitors the man behind the glass - T Lavitz, quarantined with his keyboards in the banquet-room-size studio.
Call this the layer-cake phenomenon in record production: for maximum control each portion of the music is executed in turn, channeled into the husky twenty-four-track recorder and onto its two-inch wide tape. In sessions held several days earlier, Rod Morgenstein's drums and Andy West's bass had been laid down. T Lavitz was next in the process. Allen Sloan's violin and Steve's guitar would follow.
When the tape rolls and T joins in on organ, he's accompanying history, playing along with absentees. And he's thinking how this is going down for the ages, how every little part he plays is down forever; how when he's fifty he can listen again and it's gonna be the same thing he's playing today. At least, once he plays it so it satisfies Steve, who so far isn't buying.
"Sounds weird," Steve reports through T's headphones, as the tape urrps to a halt and shuttles back to zero. "It should be dee-dat-dee-dat, duh, duh, duh." Then: "That's a C sharp before the G." Then: "Do you want to listen back and see it it's really the effect you want? Then: "I think you're real close. Think fried chicken. Think greasy keys."
"Yeah," T echoes cheerfully. "We should have food for each kind of song we're recording. For this blues song, fried chicken. For the rock, tins of tuna and Egg McMuffins. Why don't we have any gefilte fish songs?"
Sporting a lavish shag and an eager, impulsive manner, T is the group's easy comic, and he pleasantly endures Steve's flow of judgments.
A stickler for musical detail, Steve listens and rejects, listens and rejects. The routine goes on and the time evaporates; the meter is running at more than two cents a second in studio costs - $1,000 a day. The end of January looms unyieldingly two weeks away - after that, the studio is booked and the album is scheduled for a hurry-up release. For Steve, fatigue is setting in.
"If I could just get a good night's sleep...."
But you are on schedule?
"It's not ahead of schedule."
But you're in the home stretch?
"We're in the home stretch timewise."
But it will be finished by the end of the month?
"We'll stop at the end of the month."
Steve has blond hair to his shoulder blades, a greyhound's physique, and a face with the sharp features of a comic-book character. He is implicitly the first-among-equals in the group, not only a motile, barreling guitarist and the music fountainhead, but now, for this two-month grind, an architect.
Steve is a perfectionist. While he works, his blue eyes seem plagued, his face clenched in a half-smile of solid concentration. Even as he airs ideas, he is in many ways a closed system. Private, absorbed, controlling his very sweat, it seems, he remains outwardly cool, as unwilling as asbestos to conduct the heat. Producing this, his first album, is the most intense work he's ever done. And he loves it. It's where he's always wanted to be, at the controls and calling the shots, having the final say on the songs he writes.
As for the nature of Steve's music, no single term can pin it down. Some of it is rooted in the frontier between progressive rock and fusion jazz; some of it isn't. Rock, country, blues, jazz, reggae, and baroque sounds can be found on the new album.
"I don't know," says T, thinking of posterity and hoping Steve is right when he finally approves a take. "It seems like it went too easy."
"It didn't go too easy," Steve says.
Whimsy plus pluck makes the Big Gee-Whiz, and the Big Gee-Whiz pervades the Dixie Dregs. It's what keeps the group going after six prickly years and makes heroic, not just headstrong, the band's lone-wolf vision and against-the-grain push.
Over the years the band has rounded up critics' acclaim, peers' respect, fair sales for its three albums, and even a Grammy nomination (Best Rock Instrumental Performance for last year's Night of the Living Dregs). The group's members share a blue-chip background (studies at the University of Miami School of Music), an Atlanta home base, and a mulish devotion to what they do.
But so far the Dregs remain not only special but stuck on the fringe, an unbefitting spot for a band that could, with discovery, dig a new channel up the music mainstream.
So the Big Gee-Whiz sustains this group with the funny name, enables five deadly serious musicians to make music that smiles. They smile themselves, forgetting the sting of popular neglect, when they play for fevered listeners. At a Birmingham music, hall for instance. The Dregs have lined up a few shows to make some money while the album's underway, and on a chilly Saturday afternoon they make a quick run to Birmingham, three hours drive from Atlanta.
"It's been too long since we played Alabama!" Andy crows after the first couple of songs. He serves as the group's barker, stroking the audience, and he's feeling good, in control, at ease. Banished from the stage are the nuisances of elsewhere - the talking on the phone and paying bills and keeping the group in order. All that, too, is his charge, but now it's dismissed from his thoughts. Here he just plays, what he most likes to do.
The more rowdy in the audience clap and shout, but even among the most demure, feet are pumping like oil rigs. From song to song, or even within a given number, the Dregs' style may be frenzied or delicate, celestial or cornball. Many songs the fans know and ask for by name. And likely as not, the name is a doozie - Dregs songs bear brazen titles like "Punk Sandwich" and "Wages of Weirdness" and "I'm Freaking Out" and "Gina Lola Breakdown."
"Play 'Refried Funky Chicken'!" wails a fan, and they do.
Full of beans and cheek and themselves, the Dregs are playing with manic precision, in orchestrated fits and starts, with bounce and brains. While many rock bands rely on debauched vaudeville to offset musical deficiencies, the Dregs are showy without being show-offs, giving the music the spotlight. There may be a few slight concessions to show-biz: an explosion blindingly climaxes the driving "Cruise Control," and the group affects the bargain-basement chorus line for the "Disco Dregs" lampoon. But mostly when the Dregs play, the music prevails, while its source, the band, conveys an image of controlled and complex sorcery.
Steve, rail-thin and flaxen-maned, is dizzying on guitar, whether firing rock salvos or spooning out ambrosia. Rod is a drummer of tantrums and caresses, of dynamite and feather dusters. A percussion section all by himself. Allen is jaunty as he lathers away on his five string violin, making it shriek and sing. His left arm cobra-like around his fiddle's neck, he can conjure up a gypsy camp or a barnyard or a drawing room. T razzes his keyboards, jetting back and forth across the keys. And Andy, bald and bearded and soft-eyed, looking like a cross between an analyst and a rookie Santa Claus, makes his bass chuckle with a vengeance.
Steve and his four partners infuse the band with zeal and surprises, with resistance to the notion of playing it safe. They talk unblushingly of furthering art through what they do. Of doing what it takes to please themselves.
The Dregs' repertoire is stretched to cover each partner's tastes: Steve likes country, T and Rod are jazz devotees, Allen has a classical background, and Andy loves rock-and-roll.
But in his role as composer, Steve is the crucible for the disparate ingredients. Not that the other four don't compose. They do - but so far, only on their own. "Just because someone is a member of the band doesn't mean his songs should be played," Rod says. "If it doesn't feel Dregs, it shouldn't be there." And all agree Steve has the final say on what feels Dregs.
But for all its diverse elements, the music comes about in a simple way. "You just sit in a quiet place and play something," Steve explains. "You try to play it enough to where you can hear what you want to hear without having an instrument in front of you. Then, you take the instrument and play over what you hear in your head. It's a lot easier to make changes than if you use a tape recorder. And it always turns out that the best tunes are made when you hear it naturally. If you can hear it in your head, it's more balanced than if you stick it together."
When Steve can hear it and play it and likes it, he runs through each part for Allen, T, and Andy. The melody stays put, but a collaborative process begins as the arrangement is worked out. Meanwhile, Rod devises a corresponding percussion part, taking his cues from the song's emerging character.
Whatever the song, it's uncluttered by words. But by no means are the Dregs stricken with aphasia; they have chosen to go singer-less. Steve bristles with tautologies when asked why. "We're a band that plays," he replies. "None of us a re singers, we're all players. If we had come across somebody who was a pure musician singer, I'm sure we would have used him. But if we had vocals it would be part of the music, not something to put over the music. The music is more important than the singer or the words.
"This group is not an economical feasible thing," he concedes, spelling out the band's dim prospects. "You know how Nature takes care of herself? Say, around here pine trees tend to grow, 'cause it's the easiest kind of tree for this area? In the same way, quickly arranged jazz-rock bands grow where instrumental music is desired. Basic rock-and-roll or disco grows everywhere else. The tendencies that people have, that the music industry has, are not conductive to a band like us.
"But we were able to get by because we said, 'Well, hell, we're gonna put away thoughts of making money and we're gonna do this weird band.' That was the main thing that allowed us to stay together - thinking of clever ways to stay alive on cents instead of dollars, ways to keep the band on the road for pennies a mile. From the very beginning, people were offering us jobs if we'd change something about ourselves. And we didn't. And that's very hard. That's probably the hardest thing a band can do, is not change for anything."
The Dixie Dregs have had many requests to change the group's name; it is a request that they refuse to consider. So what, if none of them was born in Dixie, really hails from Dixie; if all but Miami-native Allen are Yankee transplants? Besides the fact they happen to like the name, it is deliciously perverse that the handle 'Dixie Dregs' is so plainly inappropriate, invoking an outlaw band with dual drummers and a steel git-tar and a lead singer in tight dungarees who smokes joints onstage while he rides the mike-stand. Sure, the name and its degenerate image threw potential audiences off the track, but in this and all things the band stubbornly awaited - and awaits - discovery on its own terms. And the name is part of the terms.
And part of the legacy: once there was this Augusta band called Dixie Grit, a typical teen ensemble complete with singer. And when the band hit the dust, Steve and Andy, two high school students who had first met in French class, formed a new group they dubbed the Dixie Dregs.
But soon Steve had enrolled at the University of Miami. There he met roomies Rod and Allen, and a band evolved. Later, Andy, tired of Georgia State, went south to join them. The new Dixie Dregs was a going concern.
Meanwhile, T, a freshman, adopted them as heroes after hearing them in class: from the first note on, he was hooked.
With graduation in 1975, Steve, Rod, Allen and Andy moved to Augusta, which seemed to offer few distractions as they got on with the business of establishing themselves. They stayed in Augusta for a year and a half, dividing their time between rehearsals, a few gigs, and lots of phoning for gigs.
Then Atlanta became home. By then the Dregs' commitment, style and personnel had jelled, with one distressing exception: the keyboard player. By late 1978, the group was parting company with its second and looking for a third.
But Rod had kept tabs on T, still in school in Miami, and acted as liaison in arranging an audition. That December, two weeks after flying up for a tryout, and after two weeks of being on pins and needles while he waited for an answer, T was accepted and Atlanta-bound for good. Just one semester shy of graduation, he packed his car and rocketed up Interstate 95, leaving behind his furniture, bewildered friends, and diploma.
Ecstatic at having been chosen, T practiced from morning until night catching up. A month later he stepped out as a member of the group. "It was a beer joint in Columbia, South Carolina," he recalled later, "and the audience was so drunk they didn't even know I was new. I think that was the night someone went to the bathroom on Allen's leg. I was freaked out. I didn't know they played places like that."
But for years the band had taken its lumps, had heard more than its share of "Play 'Proud Mary'" and "Please turn your amps down and play something we can dance to" and "Come back when you've got a singer." They might drive hundreds of miles for a gig and there'd be thirty in the room when they started and ten when they were done. Still, the ten who stayed liked the music, which had to be a good sign that when the Dregs came back, ten people would be there to greet them.
Of course, they didn't always get asked back; they played a lot of places once. Today they play in the $2,500-a-concert neighborhood. Then, they dwelled in the $100-a-night ghetto.
But through it all, hope persevered. It swelled in the summer four years ago, when they landed their first date in New York City. This was it! First-class exposure! A sure-fire record deal! The Big Apple awaited them with entree to the Big Time!
Hope filled every square inch of Steve's Travelall, crammed with seven hopeful passengers. The destination: a then-obscure club called CBGB's where the stage was so small it might have been transistorized and the drums were on a riser so the cymbals hit the ceiling. For two nights they made $13. No on e came waving contracts. Then, before they took off, Andy's wallet disappeared. No money, no deal. Sometimes, it took a lot of hope to fill the void luck could leave.
Then last summer, the possibility of another break. They drove all night from Tucson to Los Angeles to be on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert; they arrived at the TV studio to find another group had been taping all day and into the night, pulling foolishness like, "All right, cut! Cut! It's too hot up here, man. I ain't wearing this jacket no more." Then a voice like God's came over the speaker, "Please put you coat back on. We have to continue taping, there are other people waiting."
"Man, you come up here and you put this coat on!"
The Dregs had been promised four tunes and as much time as they needed to get them right. Around midnight they got started and knocked off three songs, bang, bang, bang. Then, as they launched into their fourth, a man with a clipboard cut them off. They said, "Why? We were doing so good!"
"Sorry, the crew's going into overtime, we gotta cut. But we'll put those three on, don't worry." The group just stood there for a minute: "Ya mean it's over?"
So that was their life. Life in the truck, climbing through the mole-hole from the cab to the bunks. Or riding the bus with no heat through New York. Or succumbing to white knuckles on a bouncing chartered plane. Or hunting down Econo-Mee motels and hoping for a bed that didn't squish. Or picking at the thousandth deli tray and rummaging through the Rubbermaid tub of iced beer for a coke backstage. Or scrabbling for a pen and a scrap of paper to draw up a playing-list with eleventh-hour nonchalance and stepping out to meet the audience. Then, after finishing the concert, just milling around in the dressing room, the audience having left without a trace.
And bitterness, that sticky residue that sometimes clings to the night when you got through a gig and the people went crazy and you made a few bucks but the big break just won't come.
The Birmingham gig is the Dregs' first engagement since greeting the Eighties at the Fox. Headlining the theater was a long-awaited treat, but just as welcome was the close of a stormy year.
In 1979, the losses were heavy. Recruiting T was a windfall, but changing players was hard. So was firing a manager and an agent, and going through two sound men.
And there was more. A nice thick schedule of concerts had been lined up for last April, but the first day out the truck wrecked, with most of the group on board (no one was hurt - except by expenses). Then in Mississippi in October, the flashpot that ignites during "Cruise Control" blew up, disintegrating like a grenade, and fractured Allen's leg (his first thought: "I'm gonna miss fall skiing." And he did).
And it was during the summer of 1979 that Capricorn Records, at the time the Dregs' label, disconnected its phones. There had long been problems between the Dregs and Capricorn. Although riding high with the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker bands in its heyday, Capricorn was always buffaloed by the enigmatic Dregs. It had shown ample courage in signing them in the first place - no other label was beating a path - but then it didn't seem to know what to do next. The Dregs' initial gratitude was eroded by frustration: they felt their albums weren't being promoted.
Sales had grown from 50,000 copies of Free Fall (1977) to 90,000 for What If (1978) to something like 125,000 for last year's Night of the Living Dregs. The direction was right but the boost wasn't fast enough. The group was still impatient for a bigger marketing push. Then, with little warning, the company went belly-up just as the Dregs were wondering why no word had been received about recording their next album.
No record label, no records - the Dregs were disenfranchised.
But Arista Records president Clive Davis looked sweet and sharp in the front row of Manhattan's Bottom Line, which the Dregs sold out in October. The flamboyant ex-president of Columbia Records, he moved to Arista five years ago. Since then he has gathered a formidable and varied collection of performers, including Melissa Manchester, Barry Manilow, the Outlaws, the Kinks, Patti Smith, and the Grateful Dead. After hearing the Dregs, Davis made them an offer. And in December, blessed with complete control for the first time, they commenced recording Dregs of the Earth.
By now the goal, the It in Making It, must seem in reach: album sales at a level they can live on, freeing them to tour at will. That's what they seek. No more marathon tours to keep themselves fed. No more cheap motels and beer halls. A good living from their albums, and concerts they can pick and choose. That's the dream. Anything more would be gravy.
Two weeks more and the new album will be finished, with an April release date planned. Maybe the album will detonate the charge they planted when they first got together. Maybe that will trigger the blast.
In any event, the Dregs are a blast in Birmingham. After two hours and three encores, Allen and the others leave the stage looking almost shamefully refreshed. An hour later, at the wheel of a rental car headed for Atlanta, Allen still feels good.
"I'm not a completely miserable human being," he says, "although I do suffer from anxiety attacks several times a day. But when I'm playing I feel like I haven't got a care in the world. I never have a better time or feel better than when I play. I'm with my closest friends. Every time I play, it's like a dream fulfilling itself."
There was a time, early on, when Allen was having second thoughts, thoughts of leaving the group and going back to school to study medicine. "It looked kind of precarious, like maybe we were going to be left behind because no one would know about us. But we've survived and grown . . . we all see the same rainbow."
The talk drifts on, but the night is late and spirits droop.
"I'll never forget that guy who came up to me once, in Iowa I think, and said, 'Oh, man, I just envy you guys so much,'" Andy says. "I thought, 'Okay, that's cool, he envies us 'cause we can play and we're making a living doing what we want to do, and that's great. But then he says, 'Yeah, you get to go everywhere. And what about the parties, man!' And I said, 'You don't seem to understand. Every day of my life goes like this: I get up at 11 a.m. and I eat breakfast. I get in a bus and ride for five or six hours. I check into a hotel or go to a sound check, come back and watch TV for a little while, get cleaned up, and go to do a gig for four or five hours. And then after the gig, if I'm lucky, I get to meet some people and relax.' And the guy said, 'Yeah, but what about all the parties, man!' And I just thought, wow, okay, sure. Whatever you want."
From the back seat, Rod pipes up. "Remember what Twiggs said," he reminds Andy, "enjoy it now. When it gets better on the surface, it won't be as much fun."
Less than three months before, Twiggs Lyndon had died.
While he worked for the Dregs, Twiggs' official job was bus driver. But really no title was right, except maybe Sixth Member. At thirty-seven, a decade older than the oldest in the group, he was the big brother. He kept up the bus and kept up the books. He built the bunks in the truck and had a hand in swinging the Capricorn contract. He filled in all the cracks. You needed something invented, he'd invent it. Maybe he was sorry this wasn't a party band like the Allman Brothers, where he'd worked before, but he could flat get down to business when the time came; he was a real hardnose when it counted, a Mr. Spock. Even dead, he lodges in the present tense; they still can't quite let go. And every time they see his younger brother, who has just started as the group's sound man, those thoughts of Twiggs come rushing back.
Around Thanksgiving they were touring upstate New York, with the next gig that night in a town called Cortland. Twiggs liked to skydive and he had marked down Duanesburg as a place along the way with a drop zone. Efficient as always, he figured they could stop for lunch and while the others ate he could make his jump. In the middle of the little town was the airfield, and he made his arrangements. It was cold and windy, but all five of them stepped outside the restaurant to watch the plane put out the jumpers, specks in the sky. The skydivers linked up in formation. Then broke away. All the chutes opened. But when Twiggs' yellow Dixie Dregs chute blossomed, no one was attached.
Wow, T was thinking, Twiggs cut away. But where's the reserve? Did he make a mistake? Twiggs never makes mistakes.
Then they could see a little figure tumbling, but they really did not know what they were seeing. They didn't want to believe it.
The police were called, and a search party formed.
Later it would somehow ease the pain to learn Twiggs suffered a heart attack on the way down - odds are he was gone before he hit. But that day in Duanesburg, the band members were in tears and in shock. They didn't know what was going on. Except one thing: they were going to make the gig, come what may. In Twiggs' honor. Twiggs taught them that the show must go on.
Since they were going to be late, the Dregs phoned the group they were scheduled to open for and asked to switch places. But no. "Sorry man, we can't let you headline. You've got until 10 p.m. to show up, and then we go on."
So the Dregs figured there was nothing to do but race there and, even if there was only time for one song, to play it like they'd never played before. Blow the other band right off the stage. For Twiggs.
Tearing through New York in the unheated bus, they arrived at twenty after ten. The other group was already out. They missed the gig.
Another day, and life in the studio is more intense than ever. Steve is producing himself.
With him, as always, is the engineer. The two, alone, sit side-by-side at the console, thinking, plotting, cloaked in concentration as if playing a tandem game of chess against unseen opponents.
Then the moment, quiet as an empty church, is blasted apart with the roll of the tape and Steve propelling the electric guitar in his lap.
Meanwhile, out in the world, Dregs confederates are working. Downtown are the all-important lawyers, there for duties like guiding their five clients through the contract that coupled them with Arista.
And in New York City is Arista, waiting for the finished master disc's delivery in less than a month.
And in Los Angeles is the booking agency. And also the Dregs' manager, who calls himself their biggest fan and talks bullishly about the new album and confides, with a laugh, that he suggested naming it Laryngitis. He is asked how far the Dregs can go. "Would it be a cliche to say, all the way?"
It's a long way already from those cents-instead-of-dollars/pennies-a-mile days in Augusta, when they drove Steve's Travelall and lined up their own gigs. But they're still not quite there, wherever there is.
At the studio, Steve works into the night, his eyes fixed on that rainbow Allen talks about.