The longtime band will play The Grand in Wilmington on Thursday, March 8
It wasn’t common for an instrumental band to have a long career in the 1970s. Now in 2018, not much has changed.
But the Dixie Dregs, formed a long time ago (1970) in a galaxy far, far away (Augusta, Ga.), have managed to cut through the noise and build a formidable career.
Some of their major highlights include six Grammy nominations.
For the first time in 40 years, original members of the Dregs have reunited for a new tour. The band will play The Grand on Thursday.
On Feb. 28, hours before opening night of the tour launched in Florida, Dixie Dregs guitarist Steve Morse dished on a unique challenge he’s experiencing these days,how his perspective traveling on the road has changed, and whether new music is in store for the band.
Is there one song that’s the most challenging for you to play now?
There’s different parts in several tunes, because I changed my picking style. According to the way my wrist works (or doesn’t work) I’ve adopted a different picking style. I wrote stuff when I was holding my pick at a funny angle, while muting-the-strings kind of approach. It worked great and was fantastic for control and everything. But over the course of playing millions and millions of notes over four decades, it wore down that wrist. So I had to change my style a little, so it’s been a unique challenge.
How has your perspective changed touring now, compared to the early days?
We didn’t discover that we could’ve gone around the world until we had been long broken up. I went around the world with Deep Purple and talked to bands and promoters everywhere. They said, “All man, you guys could come [abroad] here.” At the time, our our booking was saying “No, no, it’s all record sales. They’re not going to book you unless you have a big record. Well, you guys are stuck.”
So we basically burnt out our tour circuit. Being an instrumental band, there was no place in the music industry for us. But we kept getting great feedback from the people in the audience. That was the thing. [The fans are] what grew us. It wasn’t promotion that grew us.
Where’s a place you’d love to bring the band abroad?
Pretty much anywhere. One thing I learned from being in Deep Purple is music fans are wonderful everywhere. It’s really an international language. When we went to India, I didn’t know what to expect. When we went to China, I didn’t know what to expect. When I went to South America for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect. When you’re playing music and there’s people in the audience, you still can’t tell where you are. You just have another great gig and there’s positive energy.
In the past, did record labels ever push for you to add a vocalist to the group?
Different managers in the late ‘70s were saying, “Look, we need to increase the record sales. Try to stick with vocals. I know you don’t want to do it. But if you try it, and you don’t like it, we’ll write you out of our management contract if it doesn’t increase the sales.” We asked, “how much vocals?” And they said, “two songs.” So we got two of our friends to sing and it was a great experiment.
We had fun doing it and the songs were pretty intricate, compared to a normal rock song of that era. But you can’t suddenly put two tracks on an album and expect the world to think you’re different. It was just something we did to get out of the contract. But it turned into a writing a challenge. It was like something you’d do in your last year of college: “Here’s a difficult assignment, but I know you can do it if you work hard enough. Make vocals that sounds like your band that isn’t a sellout.”
How was it decided that the Dregs would be an instrumental band?
The writing is definitely more of a challenge and it changes the band from a backing section to being able to have intricate and multiple melodies at the same time, much more so than a song format. A vocalist is more than likely going to see the band as backing them up for the majority of a song, and they’ll be less receptive to intricate counterpoint parts.
There’s a joke about vocalists: how many vocalists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is it takes one: they just hold the light bulb while the word turns beneath them. There’s a weird musician joke for every position, and we all rib each other.
What were those two songs?
“Crank It Up” is one; and “Ridin' High.”
Have you guys discussed making new music?
It’d be nice if it comes together. It’s sort of like the Flying Colors group, where we know we can do some good things, but we have to line everyone’s schedule up to be able to continue. It’s a difficult thing to find big holes in [the schedule] that everyone knows in advance.
If you could play with any vocalist ever, who would it be?
I’d like to write a really cool, spacey ballad with Jimi Hendrix. He had beautiful sense of melody and a great voice. He was also a super-gifted musician. He could think outside the cliches.