Honky-Tonk Angles

Western swing musician Johnny Dilks plays scholar to California's country music past and suggests its future, if Charlie Louvin has anything to say about it

"What Nashville managed to do [to country music] is ruin it," says Haslam. "Around 1960, once Nashville got control of the music, their rejection of rockabilly lost it its youth audience. ... They spent a lot of energy trying to justify that. When you don't get Buck Owens into the Country Music Hall of Fame until 1996, something's wrong. Rose Maddox still isn't in the Hall of Fame."

In the Bay Area -- particularly in Richmond, Oakland, and at DeMarco's -- country music was doing brisk business after World War II, drawing audiences made up mainly of veterans; in 1943, Bob Wills moved his Texas Playboys to California, and through 1956 would make regular runs up and down the state. Growing up in Oildale, Haslam still remembers seeing Wills perform, watching the country legend "just trottin' around, singing with a high-pitched cackle."

Creatively, the challenge to California country came not from Nashville, but from Hank Williams, whose songs of loss, emotional desolation, and displacement were resonating with much of America, but not necessarily with California strongholds that were enjoying postwar boom times. Still, albeit centered around Southern California and Bakersfield in particular, the music persisted. "The best shit in the world came out of California," Dilks enthuses. "Spade Cooley, Tex Williams, Smokey Rogers, Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant -- that's a pretty big list."

In the midst of his obsession with local country music, Dilks was surprised to find that he was getting attention from, of all places, Nashville. In 1997, Dilks received a call at work -- in one of those perfect ironies, Dilks' day job is antique restoration -- from Michael James, president of American Legends, which handles book-ing and management for Americana musicians. James had only heard about Dilks secondhand, from a friend, and began quizzing Dilks: Do you do harmony singing? Who are your favorite harmony singers? Dilks name-checked the Stanley Brothers and the Louvin Brothers. That was the right answer: Charlie Louvin was looking for a harmony singer for his stint at Yoshi's in Oakland.

Dilks and Godchaux flew out to Nashville to meet with Louvin, watched him play at the Grand Ole Opry, and ran into idols Dilks knew only on record. "Meeting Ray Price and Jim Dickens and all my heroes -- it was like a bad dream," he says. "They were all walking around there, all old and stuff. It was pretty bizarre."

Louvin, speaking from his home just outside Nashville, is now in his 70s and still comes across as the humble, God-fearing man who sang close-harmony cautionary tales like "The Christian Life" and "Are You Afraid to Die" with his late brother Ira in the '50s and '60s. "There's still a lot of people that can do country music," he says. "But the biggies, they'll do anything for money. It sometimes bothers me that a man would prostitute his own beliefs to make money." Dilks, however, "impressed me to the point that he really cared about what he was going to sound like."

Dilks is a bit more direct about his experience with Louvin. "Louvin, man, he busted my balls to no end -- he busted everybody's balls. We played five nights, and I think every night he busted somebody else's balls, but it was great. You can't argue with a guy like Charlie Louvin." The two plan to team up again later this year.

By Dilks' reckoning, he's written about 120 songs, and while Louvin notes that "there's nothing like having an artist who can write and sing his own songs," Dilks has little interest in selling himself as a songwriter-for-hire. "I've got a book -- actually, I've got a couple of books -- of all the songs I've written. ... I'll go back and read them, and they're about little segments of my life." "The Check's in the Mail," for example, is about his personal hatred of the IRS ("Bunch of cocksuckers," he says), and "California," which jokingly presents the state as a land full of flying fish and barely dressed women, is his response to stereotypes he got tired of hearing. "Songwriting, to me, is a real personal thing. If I was going to try to write a song and sell it to somebody, I'd feel like I was selling part of my soul."

Dilks pulls his pickup into DeMarco's parking lot and goes to get dressed; meanwhile, Leonard Iniguez leads the heretofore patient Hobby up the steps into the club and stops him in the middle of the dance floor. They've laid carpet samples on the floor to prevent any, er, accidents, but after a few minutes of posing for pictures, Hobby's getting anxious and winds up relieving himself on the spot. Iniguez goes to get a broom. "Thanks, Johnny," calls out a bartender.

Johnny Dilks & His Visitacion Valley Boys perform Sunday, July 4, at 1 p.m. at 330 Ritch, 330 Ritch (at Townsend), S.F. The Rounders, Rockin' Lloyd Trip, and the Zip Guns are also on the bill. Tickets are $5; call 541-9574. And Saturday, July 10, at DeMarco's 23 Club, 23 Visitacion (at Old County), Brisbane. Call 467-7717 for time and price.

Workin' Man Blues, by Gerald W. Haslam with Alexandra Haslam Russell and Richard Chon, 384 pgs., $29.95, University of California Press.

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