Woody Guthrie, Joe Friday, Fur Dixon and Steve Werner
On a hot dusty day, standing by the edge of Mulholland Drive, one can look out over all 260 square miles of the San Fernando Valley and see ghosts dancing on their toes as the hot asphalt cooks their feet. The strip centers serve up cheap greasy food and sell goods and services to the millions who live and work here. Hollywood is the myth; The Valley is the real heart of Los Angeles. It’s where Sgt. Joe Friday and his partner would drive to, in order to investigate a complaint from an old woman about noisy parties at the apartment across he hall. It’s where Jack Nicholson got his face sliced open in Chinatown while getting a lesson in water and power. It’s where kids cruised up and down Van Nuys Boulevard in a scene that later mirrored George Lucas’ memories of Modesto. It’s where the adult film industry is based, and now dying a slow death because of free and easy internet access. There’s dozens of cities and neighborhoods in The Valley, and Van Nuys might once have been the shining star of post-WW2 suburban growth with it’s huge GM plant that cranked out cars and parts, the pre-fab homes with pretty lawns and the town where Robert Redford and Marilyn Monroe grew up and went to school. Nikki Sixx too, for what it’s worth.
Van Nuys, California…the folk music capital of the world…so says Fur Dixon.
She, the formerly mohawk-ed red haired touring bass player for psychobilly pioneers The Cramps in 1986, who was previously in the Screaming Sirens for a heartbeat and later the legendary Hollywood Hillbilies, who would come on stage with live chickens, an outhouse and day-glo regalia. She, the partner of Steve Werner since 2003, who has his own long, pedigreed resume as rockabilly guitarist and band leader for the likes of Glen Glenn, Johnny Legend, Tony “Wildman” Conn, Ray Campi, Sonny Burgess, Jimmy Angel, Tommy Sands and Jewel Akins. He, with his day job as the art director for Biker magazine, with those beautiful photos of chrome and steel usually draped with pretty models who have been enhanced in one way or another (Fur says, “I hose him off when he gets home from work, before I let him in the house.”) who in 2001 released Biker Campfire, an acoustic album of biker folk songs. Together, these two residents of Van Nuys have in eight years put out three albums of California gold dust country and folk twang that you probably have never heard. (And if I can get this widget thing down below to work, I’ll help you out with that.)
I discovered these two a year ago after reading about them in a blog post from a guy in either Japan or Europe. I think it may have been the Cramps-connection that interested him but for myself, it was the name of the album he wrote about that caught my eye: The Pearl and the Swine. It grabbed my attention because I was a fan of Tom Rapp’s old band Pearls Before Swine and I thought the post was about him, or them. But I found the quotes from their webpage a bit interesting, and did a download from CD Baby, where all their stuff lives. Two-part cowboy-style yodeling…songwriting visions of life, travel and the American West…and from singer Susie Glaze, the Voice of Southern California Bluegrass: “Real treasures of modern Americana music.”
Van Nuys, California…the folk music capital of the world.
Well, just a few miles east where the Armenian community has come to set up their residences and businesses these days, once upon a time it was where Woody Guthrie lived. This was during the period in the thirties where he was broadcasting daily on KFVD radio with his partner Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman. Together they brought Los Angeles their commercial hillbilly music, mixed with traditional, which is what I think is pretty close to what Fur and Steve do. And there is a line from Woody to artists all along the I-5 freeway…be it Buck Owens in Bakersfield or Chris Hillman down in San Diego. It’s that California country music thing, so different and unique to the other forty-nine states. And it sometimes feels like a big secret…like only we know about it. Played in small clubs, summer music festivals in small towns, maybe out in the desert or up in the hills. Shhh….the ghosts are listening.
So there’s this new album just released. It’s called Songs of The Open Road , Volume One and unlike the previous two releases, this one features the music by others that Fur and Steve love. Cover songs from Doc and Merle Watson, Woody Guthrie, Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons”, Mary McCaslin, Dan Janish, Jim Ringer, Randall Lamb and a few traditional tunes. While I love their own songwriting, I must admit that they have come up with an amazing set of music and they’ll be holding a new release party and show at the famous McCabes Guitar Shop in Santa Monica on July 15th, a date I’ll sadly miss but you should make if you can. And maybe we’ll let the secret out.
Fur and Steve don’t do it all by themselves. Two of their albums, including this latest one, have been produced, engineered and mixed by the very talented Dennis Moody. He mixed the other one. The band of musicians on their records is an amazing lineup that starts with bassist Paul Marshall, solo artist himself and member of I See Hawks in LA. Legendary? He was the friggin’ lead singer for the Strawberry Alarm Clock and has played or written music for Hank Thompson, Johnny Tillotson, George Highfill, Mary Kay Place, Patty Loveless, Juice Newton, Highway 101, Jill Sobule, and Boy Howdy.
There’s more. John McDuffie (Rita Coolidge’s bandleader) has been the steel and dobro man on all the records. Brantley Kearns (Dwight Yoakam, David Bromberg, Billy Joe Shaver and “our adopted son”) on fiddle for the last two records. Otoño Lujan played accordion on the new one and he has a really kickass band called Conjuntos Los Pochos. Cliff Wagner played banjo on the first two records but sat out this latest, and so Steve picks it himself when they needed it.
So I’m hoping that this widget thing from their Reverbnation page works, ’cause I sure would like you to hear some of their music. Might as well give you their website link too so you can buy their stuff. What the hell…their Myspace page that seems out of date to me but has even more music. They also have a bunch of You Tube videos up, but in my humble opinion they are a little lo-fi, although the interview by Susie Glaze is worth seeking out, as well as some of the gigs from the Topanga Canyon festivals.
As you can tell, I’ve not taken the reviewer approach here today. Like Joe Friday, I carry a badge. Just the facts, just the facts ma’am.
Over and out from Van Nuys, California…the folk music capital of the world.