Courtesy of MSO PR
The Dixie Dregs, back in the day.
When guitarist Steve Morse and bassist Andy West formed Dixie Grit, a jazz/prog band that would morph into the Dixie Dregs, back in 1970, they had modest aspirations.
“My brother [Dave Morse] and I always had some kind of band,” says Morse in a recent phone interview. Currently in the midst of a reunion tour, the Dixie Dregs perform at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 23, at the Kent Stage
. “He was a few years older than me. But once I met Andy, he had a lot of energy for making music. We started making our own music. The only gigs were functions like weddings. We put together cover tunes and tried to pretend like we were a cover band even though we would slip in original music. It didn’t go great. We weren’t a dance band.”
Morse and West might not have been well-suited to playing weddings, but they noticed that people responded favorably when they played their original tunes. That group would splinter, however, leaving Morse and West wondering what their next move would be.
After Morse enrolled at University of Miami's School of Music in 1971, he and West put together the Dixie Dregs, a group that naturally evolved from Dixie Grit.
“The marketing test for names for us was that if one of us laughed — and especially if both of us laughed — it was a done deal,” Morse says with a laugh. “We had no idea how unsuitable that name would be for a band in terms of what it projected to people.”
The band played what Morse describes as “experimental stuff.”
“It was wonderful reception,” he says. “These are kids that didn’t necessarily like jazz. They just wanted to listen. We had our first rehearsal for the album, and [guitarist] Hiram Bullock, one of the musicians down there who later played in the David Letterman band, told me to check [Rod Morgenstein] out. I said, ‘The Rod who plays keyboards in my improv class?’ He said, ‘He plays drums too.’ This guy [violinist] Allen Sloan came to a rehearsal, and we were doing a Mahavishu Orchestra cover tune. He knew it and wanted to play with us. He came in and he could read music. We were playing gigs right away — not paying gigs, but we were out doing it. It was a fertile area at the time.”
In 1976, the band made its debut with The Great Spectacular
, a heady instrumental album that instantly won over a cult following with tracks such as the lurching “Refried Funky Chicken,” a tune distinguished by Southern rock-inspired guitar solos, fierce violin and snappy bass riffs. Thanks to Morse’s persistence, the band remained a musical oddity even after signing a deal with Capricorn Records that same year.
“On the first three albums, I tried to exert as much artistic control as possible, to the point of making myself annoying,” says Morse. “I just can’t help it. I wrote almost every note, and I had a bunch of ideas and I would produce the demos. They often didn’t sound great, but I did sort of push myself into it.”
Morse would eventually take over production duties with 1980’s Dregs of the Earth
and 1981’s Unsung Heroes
“Up until those albums, I had been there for every note of every album,” says Morse. “[Producer] Ken Scott [who worked on 1978’s What If
and 1979’s Night of the Living Dregs
] was generous with his knowledge and showing me his techniques. He spent so much time with me, and he gave me some advice. He just told me to get a good engineer. He really mentally helped me, and I labored over every note on those albums. The other guys were out having a good time, and I was doing [the production] for no money. I just wanted to see the project through and have my vision fulfilled exactly as I wanted. It was very satisfying.”
After a number of lineup changes throughout the past decades, the original members along with keyboardist Steve Davidowski have teamed up for the Dawn of the Dregs U.S. Tour. The performances will mark the first time in 40 years that this lineup has shared the stage.
A fan poll helped the group determine the bulk of the set list and Morse says that having Davidowski with the group means they’ll play a few selections from 1977's Free Fall
, an album he recorded with the band.
Morse says the band’s unwillingness to compromise has helped ensure a loyal fanbase.
“I think people know there’s no pretentiousness,” he says. “We’re just a bunch of guys who like to play music. I think people can relate to that. They’re just like us. They do the best they can. I think we have not been able to make it big, but we have been able to do something that matters. That’s just like our fans and their jobs. And I think audiophiles naturally gravitate to a band like this that doesn’t try to fit into the mold.”