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

Johnny Dilks strides into DeMarco's 23 Club hurriedly, wearing a dusty pair of overalls. He's here to see a man about a horse. See, Dilks is a country singer, DeMarco's is a Brisbane honky-tonk, and Dilks' friend Leonard Iniguez has a horse named Hobby who's willing to be photographed with Dilks -- it all works out. Dilks is running late; he just got back from getting the front end of his pickup truck realigned.

DeMarco's, which sits at the foot of the main drag in sleepy Brisbane, in the shadow of the Cow Palace, is the country bar that time forgot. Opened in 1941 by John DeMarco, it became a popular place with Hunters Point shipyard workers, as well as collegiate types looking to slum for the evening. DeMarco's, guitarist and trumpeter Jimmie Rivers once said, was where "the dancing starts at 9 and the fights start at 10."

That's a quote Dilks, 27, has instant recall on, which is consistent with his recall of country music history; he's laying claim to a tradition that doesn't get around much anymore. Which is to say, country tradition itself. Barring the Bakersfield-soaked likes of Dwight Yoakam and a handful of others, country is often a laughingstock from a critical standpoint; it's splintered into either airbrushed Shania Twainery or rock 'n' roll hybrids whose ties to actual country history are often tenuous. Dilks has diligently -- and unapologetically -- staked out a middle ground, walking in the footsteps of western swing musicians from the postwar era: folks like Rivers, Bob Wills, and Tex Williams, all country singers and, it's worth noting, Californians.

A scholar of California's country music traditions, Dilks has been performing western swing ever since he decided to retire from the punk scene in which he spent his teen years. With his latest band, the Visitacion Valley Boys -- guitarist Paul Wooton, bassist Brendan Ryan, fiddle and mandolin player Brian Godchaux, steel guitar player Billy Wilson, and drummer Pat Campbell -- he recorded his first album, Acres of Heartache, designed to showcase his remarkable versatility as a singer and songwriter: the barroom-brawl swing of "Comin' on Thru," the high-speed and -pitched yodeling of "Yodel Till I Turn Blue," and the high-lonesome honky-tonk of "Acres of Heartache." The album was recorded earlier this year at San Francisco's Brilliant Studios, using vintage mikes, resulting in sonic similarities to postwar country songs that are downright uncanny: Dilks' vocals sound like they've been dipped in shellac.

Dilks is anxious to look the part if he's going to be posing with a horse, and at this moment the overalls aren't going to do. Hobby's just going to have to wait in DeMarco's parking lot while Dilks drives to his house to pick up the proper attire. "It'll just take 10 minutes," he assures everyone as he heads over to his rust-colored pickup truck and clears off the passenger seat, moving a double-barreled shotgun out of the way. (Dilks shoots in tournaments, and claims to be a "fair, not great" shot. "I'm not fast, but I can hit the targets.") Then it's off to Burlingame, where he happily talks about California country's rural traditions in the middle of a not-very-rural patch of rush hour traffic.

Dilks grew up in San Mateo, and spent his summers with his father around Sutter Creek, near Calaveras County. When he was 12, he started working at a sign shop, where he was introduced to country music through his best friend's father. "I got Hank Williams and Patsy Cline beat into my head at a young age," he says. "I didn't really like it back then, but I heard the songs, knew them, and liked some of them -- I remember I liked 'Kaw-Liga.' " But that's where his interest in country music ended, at least for a while -- punk came calling, and Dilks spent his weekends hanging out at Berkeley's 924 Gilman club, playing in bands, and "getting into all kinds of trouble, fistfights and everything."

But when Dilks was 15, his aunt gave him her record collection of around 600 old 45rpm rock 'n' roll singles. Dilks liked a few of the songs -- Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, mainly -- but he proceeded to do what most enterprising teenagers would do in his situation: look into selling the records off, or at least trading them in for something else.

At Jack's Record Cellar in San Francisco, he collided with racks and racks of antique country history and steered himself toward the staff suggestions: Billy Jack Wills, Moon Mulligan, Jimmie Rivers, Brisbane Bob. "And that was it, man. I was hooked. I spent all my money on records for, God, four or five years."

At 19, Dilks became a student of guitarist Jim Campilongo, and tried his hand at songwriting. "I think he brought 150 records to the first lesson," says Campilongo. "He practiced like crazy. Every week he'd have a new song that he wrote that was a great song." The two would play together off and on in a variety of groups, including a show with Rivers last year. Eventually, Dilks asked Campilongo how he might go about starting a western swing band. Campilongo's advice was simple: Look for good musicians and call them up.

One of them was fiddler Brian Godchaux. "He was trying to start a band and he called me on the phone," Godchaux recalls. "He sent me a tape, and I was surprised because it was just a tape of things he wanted to play," not Dilks' own songs. But, Godchaux says, "I dug the music. At least I dug what his idea of the music was."

Guitar playing and songwriting Dilks had down; getting his yodel down was another matter. While he eventually did take lessons, mainly he "just jumped in and did it." In groups of various sizes -- up to 13 musicians at one point -- Dilks fronted his band as the Rhythm Wranglers, Rhythm Rustlers, and eventually the Visitacion Valley Boys. "Visitacion Valley's a district [in San Francisco]," Dilks points out, "but that whole valley [around Brisbane] is originally Visitacion Valley. Brisbane used to be called Town of Visitacion."

Dilks landed regular gigs at the now-defunct Julie Ring's Heart and Soul, and in San Francisco was running into people who found a person obsessed with country music a little strange. "You can have your hair dyed green and piercings hanging out of your face, and when you walk down the street nobody will look twice at you," he says. "The second you put on a cowboy hat, everybody wants to fight you. ... When I first moved to the city, I wore a hat all the time, and people would talk shit or start trouble. I had more than one fistfight over the way I looked."

Dilks' pickup is threatening to run out of gas on the highway. He mentions turning on the radio earlier in the day and hearing one of his songs -- "Stalin Kicked the Bucket," actually a cover of a kitschy, obscure tune by Ray Anderson about Cold War anxiety ("Though he was a man of power/ He was scared of Eisenhower"), that he first heard on an old 78. "I heard it on the radio today, and I cringed," Dilks says. "I've heard those songs so many times, I couldn't tell you if it's good or bad anymore."

That song's in the great tradition of Cold War country tunes like the Louvin Brothers' "The Great Atomic Power," right? Dilks tut-tuts the notion. "That's more about [the biblical] Revelations, I think. That's about the bomb dropping and are you going to heaven or hell?" "Stalin Kicked the Bucket" -- that's just a silly song about a dead dictator.

He pulls into the driveway of his house, whose contents, strictly in terms of records, are a punk-meets-country affair. Misfits CDs mingle with bluegrass compilations on one table; on another, a 7 Seconds LP lies next to a Robert Mitchum album Dilks is pleased to show off, and vinyl copies of Acres of Heartache. After he picks up his clothes, he drives to a gas station, jumping a curb ("You wonder why my front end was out of alignment?"), and as he fills the tank he's still pondering the country radio issue. "In country music now, the radio's so bad that something's gotta happen sooner or later," he says. "There's definitely an interest in classic country as far as just being away from the mainstream. Nashville's got their heads so far up their ass," he says, and trails off. Finish that metaphor however you choose. Lots of people have.

There's a scene in The Blues Brothers where Jake and Elwood stroll into a middle-of-nowhere honky-tonk called Bob's Country Bunker and ask the bartender what kind of music they play. "Oh, we got both kinds," she responds perkily. "Country and western." It's one of the movie's great lines, but along comes Gerald Haslam to point out that the guileless bartender was actually on solid academic footing. One of the numerous revelations to come out of his book Workin' Man Blues is that California has had a strong roots music tradition practically since the turn of the century; that contradicts the conventional wisdom that argues California as a musical desert until the Okie migration of the 1930s.

Workin' Man Blues is the latest in a string of fiction and nonfiction books that Haslam, a Sonoma County resident and San Francisco State graduate, has written on California over the years: "All my nonfiction books have tried to sort of extend and correct the stereotype and image of California." The result is a thoroughly researched academic tome (it's published by University of California Press), but also a readable one and, perhaps more importantly, an open-minded work. There are commentaries about the usual suspects in California country -- Gene Autry, Rose Maddox, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard -- but the latter half of his chronology leaves room for Gram Parsons, X, the Blasters, and even the Eagles, if only to point out what a horrid, sappy mess country mutated into during the '70s.

Haslam argues that California was actually a leader in country music's mainstream until the '50s, when Nashville started to contest its primacy, mainly for publicity reasons. In 1958, the Nashville-based Country Music Association, Haslam writes, "performed the paradoxical feat of creating the impression that country was more southern than was true."

"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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