Englishman Julian Dawson Has Found His Nashville Niche
Julian Dawson was originally an integral part of the British folk music scene. He’s performed with Richard Thompson, played in the band Plainsong with Iain Matthews, and appeared at the annual Fairport Convention reunion festival in Cropredy, which is where yours truly first caught him. But Dawson also has firm ties to Nashville, having first recorded there in the early ’90s.
In the years since, he’s collaborated with Lucinda Williams, ex-Byrd Gene Parsons, Jules Shear, the Roches, Willie Nile, and Steuart Smith, whose most recent accomplishment includes Covered, the new album by Shawn Colvin. In 1996, Dawson further ingrained himself in the Americana firmament by producing a comeback album by Charlie Louvin titled The Longest Train.
Still, despite more than 20 albums to his credit, Dawson has yet to achieve the fame he so rightfully deserves. All that may change with the release of his new album, the aptly titled Living Good. A mostly low-lit endeavor due to its intimate execution, it reunites him with songwriter and producer Dan Penn, whom he met during his earlier excursions to Music City.
“I’ve known Dan Penn since my second album recording in Nashville, back in the early ’90s,” Dawson recalls. “I first heard of Dan through reading Peter Guralnick’s excellent book Sweet Soul Music and I happened to arrive in town the night that Dan and Spooner Oldham were giving one of their very first live performances in the famous Bluebird Cafe. I got talking to Dan and his wife after the show and was bold enough to ask if he’d allow a fan to hear some of his legendary song demos. After inviting me to his house, he popped a cassette in my front pocket with a dozen then-unreleased tracks from his days in Muscle Shoals. He was then gracious enough to come in and sing a harmony on a song I’d written with Vince Gill on my album Headlines.”
Dawson and Penn stayed friends over the years and the two co-wrote several songs, in addition to Dawson’s guest appearance as a harp player on a couple of Penn’s own albums. Consequently, Penn returned the favor and produced Dawson and his namesake band’s Deep Rain album in 2008. “His studio is full of fantastic vintage gear and he still has all the smarts that made him such a player in ’60s,” Dawson recalls, obviously still amazed. “Last year he suggested we record a solo album.”
The new album was recorded straight to analog quarter-inch tape, featuring little more than guitar and vocals. However, Dawson also couldn’t resist calling on a few friends to assist in its creation. “I’d built up a group of fantastic Nashville-based friends over the years,” he says, “and [I] invited a few guests to add color to certain tracks. A-list bass-player Michael Rhodes, husband and wife team Barry and Holly Tashian, multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke, keyboard man Billy Livsey, guitar wizard Michael Henderson and the producer himself, with spontaneous vocal parts and harmonies. Nevertheless, it’s my first ‘solo’ album after many band albums I’ve made over the years.”
In some regards, Dawson is a renaissance man, In addition to his multitude of musical projects, he wrote a biography of famed session pianist Nicky Hopkins that received glowing reviews.
Nevertheless, he admits that he’s become somewhat disenchanted with multitude of same-sounding music offerings that pop up everywhere these days, and that it’s starting to affect his own productivity.
“I find that my response to the incredible overload of music in the Spotify and iTunes internet era is to write less than I used to,” he admits, “and then mostly when I’m moved by something personal in my own life. I also determined, as a reaction to all the gloomy, melodramatic CDs appearing everywhere from the current generation of singer-songwriters, to make my statement as positive as possible. This is not a helpful thing to do when looking for column inches from journalists, as the music media seems to focus more on extravagant backstories and well-trodden dramatic life stories than on the actual music.”
That’s not to say that Dawson has any doubts about his own efforts and intents. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“I’ve been doing this job now for a long time and feel pretty comfortable in my own skin,” he insists. “At this point in time, I feel I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I love music just as much as I ever did, and have so far succeeded in maintaining a place in the new music landscape we find ourselves in.”
We can all be happy he has.