Dixie Dregs Answer the Question, “What If?” (Part Two)

Continued from Part One

In the early ’80s, the band made the decision to add vocals. With the benefit of hindsight, was that a mistake?

I don’t know that any of us gave it a whole lot of thought. In retrospect, the Dixie Dregs were an immensely successful band as far as being a group of musicians who bucked the system. We came out in the disco era when the thinking was, “If you don’t have a [mimicks repetitive disco beat], you don’t have a chance in hell of making a living. And then, on top of that, you’re not gonna sing? Are you out of your mind? Oh, and you’re gonna play music that is uncategorizable because you go from a rock tune to something more jazzy to something classical-sounding to something country? What the hell are you guys? We don’t even know where to put you in the bins in the music shop!”

We’ve always felt strongly about the uniqueness of the band, and the beauty of Steve Morse’s writing. It was like, “Hey, you know what? We don’t care that every door is slamming in our faces. We’re just gonna carry on and bring the message to the people one by one.” And then it got to a point where, every album was selling better than the previous one. Certainly, we were not getting massive amounts of airplay. And as well as the records were selling, they certainly weren’t selling in the range of Michael Jackson, or of albums that have vocals.

At that time [leading up to 1982’s Industry Standard] we we were on Arista Records. Maybe the vocal thing came about with a meeting with Clive Davis or people on the business side saying, “Guys, what if you maybe get a guest vocalist or two? That might give us a chance that when we shop radio, we could get a few bites and maybe get some airplay, which could open up the band to a larger market, and people will come see the band.”

Eddy Offord — who engineered and produced Industry Standard — said, “Hey, I know Alex Ligertwood, the singer.” Alex was singing with Santana at the time, and he was totally into it. And a year or so back we had done some touring with Doobie Brothers and became very friendly with some of the guys in that band, so we said, “Let’s contact Patrick Simmons. See if he’d maybe like to sing.” So in the moment, it seemed like the right thing to do. It seemed very exciting, and I can’t remember thinking like, “Oh, my God. This is gonna shoot ourselves in the foot and we’re gonna lose our fanbase.”

And I don’t think we lost fans. There might’ve been a handful of them that said, “Guys, you don’t need a vocalist.” We were an instrumental band not because we hate singing, but just because none of us happened to be a really great singer. And the instrumental approach was something that Steve had been doing since he was a teenager writing music. We thought the music was interesting enough that it spoke for itself and could stand on its own.

One way of Describing the Dixie Dregs sound is to say, “Think of Weather Report if they had more of a rock sensibility.” Do you think that’s a fair characterization?

To a degree. The thing, to me, that makes the band so special is that I don’t think you really can adequately describe it other than saying, “You really have to go see it and decide for yourself,” because it is unlike anything out there. I know that we were branded with the word fusion way back when. And fusion, by definition, means drawing from a lot of different sources.

But when I think of fusion music, I don’t think at all in terms of highly-arranged, melodic music that develops as it goes. When I think of fusion, I think of the quick head of a song like they use the term in jazz. And after you play that head a couple of times, everybody just solos until you decide to play the head one more time and call it a day.

[Our music] has much more deeply thought-out and planned arrangements. There’s soloing that goes on, but there’s always consideration for the audience. It isn’t just for the musicians to get off doing their thing. We say, “We’re playing music for an audience that is coming to be entertained. So let’s try to keep it interesting.”

Someone who’s a musician, obviously, will find so much to sink their teeth into, but for the casual music lover, I think there’s plenty for them to be absorbed into and not lose interest. Most of the time, we’re not playing in crazy time signatures. There might be some weird things, but it’s not for the sake of the crazy time signature. There’s so much music to be able to tap your feet to, and there’s so much melody happening. There’s something for everybody.

Is it too soon to ask what might be in store after the tour?

Yeah, way too soon. Because we don’t know.

Part of being a musician is that you don’t really grow up. There’s a child inside you, even though you’ve lived certainly more than half your life and nobody makes it through unscathed. I have these moments of, “In the heyday of this band, most of us were in our 20s.” The only thing that mattered was making the band happen, breaking it. Nothing else, and it was tough in the very beginning. Because nobody pays a musician anything to play their original music. So, the financial part of it was ridiculously difficult. But still, it was a group of young guys on a mission.

Then, in the next breath I think, “Oh, my God. We’re talking about 40 years ago.” And everybody is now in this other part of life. I have a chuckle at how there are lots of people at this age that have thrown in the towel, retired, sitting on the rocking chair on the porch, just sort of looking back on how things went. And here we are, about to start it up all over again.