Don Dixon is a take-charge guy. When he discovers his publicists have not responded to a writer’s pleas for help, he takes care of the problem. “Well, we’ll just have ’em killed,” he cracks.
Dixon has always had the confidence of his convictions, evident even with his teenage band, appropriately called Arrogance. “We actually would refer to ourselves as Arrogance: The Band Killers,” Dixon says. “We felt like we could go and blow anybody’s shit away, and we often did.”
Dixon was just as formidable behind the glass in a studio, co-producing R.E.M.’s 1983 debut, Murmur, with Mitch Easter, as well as 1984’s Reckoning. Other credits include Marshall Crenshaw’s 1987 release, Mary Jane and Nine Others, and former member of The dB’s Chris Stamey’s It’s a Wonderful Life. He did three for The Smithereens and seven for his wife, Marti Jones.
Jones finds that, aside from Dixon’s talents as a musician, one of the main things that makes him a good producer is his ability to listen. “We agree on almost everything, and when we disagree, we’re really good about listening to each other’s opinions,” she says. “We come to some sort of common ground.”
“That’s been my job. That’s been my biggest talent as producer, that I really listen to what people say,” Dixon replies. Befitting his role as a take-charge guy, he’s not afraid of making decisions. “Lots of times, that’s one of the big killers that a band or artist will run into because they can’t decide what to do.”
Red Clay Rambler and UNC-Chapel Hill creative writing program Director Bland Simpson first met Dixon as a freshmen at UNC in 1966: “He’s said many times, ‘It’s my job to figure out what an artist or an ensemble is trying to do and help ’em do that.’ He really is not trying, as he says, to make a lot of Dixonic clones. He’s really trying to get the best version of the artist or artists in front of him.”
Simpson is not only a Dixon collaborator with musical playwriting partner Jim Wann, but he is probably Dixon’s biggest fan. “He’s at the top of his form not only on his main instrument, the bass, but he can pick up a guitar and teach a part to somebody or cover that part or sit at the piano or organ,” Simpson says. “So, to have his level of skill on a number of instruments, and to have his organizational skill above that as a conductor, plus the technical skill with the machinery of a modern recording studio, is a pretty remarkable combination of technical and musical sophistication in one person.”
Dixon has had time to get that good. He’s never had a job, as he’s been doing session work since 15, learning his craft by playing in financially successful cover bands in high school. He played in a blues band in college, picking up jazz gigs along the way. The move to production work was natural. He spent collegiate summer breaks hanging around studios, eventually recording the bands he befriended.
“You can’t really go to school to be a producer,” Dixon explains. “You go to school to learn things about engineering. Being a producer has more to do with faith in people’s competence, in what you do, and that’s based on how you particularly impact with them, and how you help ’em sound.”
Despite Dixon’s competence, playing original music and doing DIY records was rough in the early days. In 1969, when Arrogance was just starting out, there wasn’t much of a scene. More often than not, Dixon and Arrogance writing partner Robert Kirkland played in Chapel Hill at a Franklin Street coffeehouse called the New Establishment, just passing the hat. That’s where they developed the trademark Arrogance vocal style of folk-pop with hard-edged rock bristling about the edges.
They teetered on the edge of the big time, once opening for Three Dog Night, though the remuneration wasn’t so hot. “About $137.50 was what we got before our agent’s commission,” Dixon remembers.
But the local scene gradually began to get better and more receptive: The Pier in Raleigh’s Cameron Village and the Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill opened. Dixon says his success wasn’t dependent on the surroundings as much as it was the performers, though: “The Arrogance thing, we definitely weren’t afraid to say people will come to see somebody play original songs, but you got to have faith in it, you gotta stick to your guns.”
Arrogance ran for 14 years before Dixon went solo. His debut, 1985’s Most Of The Girls Like To Dance But Only Some Of The Boys Like To, spawned the hit single “Praying Mantis.” The record was Dixon’s ode to ’60s pop and R&B, culled from three years of demos, some with Arrogance and some done at his home 4-track studio. He shows off his soulman side as well with a cover of Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman.” “I’ve always been connected to that kind of stuff,” Dixon says of the Sledge cover. “I just don’t write those kinds of songs.”
1987’s Romeo At Juilliard revealed the singer’s more rocking side and displayed his sardonic sense of humor, with a series of songs bidding a not-so-fond farewell to a former loved one in the spirit of Marvin Gaye’s “Here My Dear.” “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)” made it onto the soundtrack of the movie Heathers. He contributed the single “I Can Hear the River” to a platinum Joe Cocker album and co-wrote “Time and Time Again” with Counting Crows. He also found time to play bass on Mary Chapin Carpenter’s hit “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”
He made five more records, but–after 2000’s The Invisible Man and 2001’s Note Pad #38–he shut down. Even though five years is his usual time between records, he hadn’t been writing songs at all. “I was sick of it,” he says. “I was writing words but I was writing essays, crap like that, no songs.”
But, last year, daughter Sidney asked him to write something for her school dance class. “When I had to write songs, this idea of writing about rooms came to me.”
His other solo records started out being built around paintings serving as cover art and tads of inspiration. But the record that came from Sidney’s request, The Entire Combustible World in One Small Room, was inspired by using rooms as central characters, with Dixon peeking into 11 different rooms, like a musical version of Jim Jarmusch’s film Night on Earth. He says he wrote this one in only a year, which is fast for him.
That turnaround time is especially fast considering Dixon has also been collaborating with Simpson and Wann on several plays. Simpson approached Dixon in 1984 when he and Wann decided they needed more than a duo to sing the play they were working on, King Mackerel and the Blues Are Running, a series of tales about the North Carolina coast. “And he said, ‘What would my job be?’ And I remember saying, ‘Your job would be to steal the show.’ He laughed, but that’s exactly what’s happened,” says Simpson. “He’s well qualified to do that.”
Simpson says that he and Wann never dreamed that the show would have such longevity, but it’s been performed somewhere in the state every year for most of the past two decades: “Years and years after we started it, I meet students who say, ‘I know every lyric in that show.’ That’s a really sweet thing.”
Recently, Simpson thought it would be a good idea to pull out a piece of the show and perform it on evenings when they didn’t feel like putting the whole theater piece together. “We play this fake band called Coastal Cohorts,” Dixon explains. “We have this new record called Wild Ponies coming out, and that’s why we’re playing at The ArtsCenter for two nights.”
The record is best described as intellectual beach music. “Wild Ponies” has Dixon sounding like a Van Morrison-Randy Newman hybrid extolling the virtues of being as free as the four-legged creatures who run the beaches of Ocracoke. “Low Country Cookin’” is a Buffett-like cracker ode to down-home cooking. “Catfish” is a love song for the ingestion of Carolina’s bewhiskered farm-raised treasures. Dixon, of course, produced it, and it features drummer Jim Brock, along with three-way harmonies from Wann, Simpson and Dixon.
“He’s the best there is,” Simpson says, “and that’s a universally held opinion. He’s totally committed. He’s helped so many hundreds and hundreds of musicians over the years, and anybody can call upon him. If Don says ‘go,’ I’ll go. That’s the sign of a great leader.”
Dixon says he can still hold his own with most of the people out there playing. “I’m not insane like I was in the ’70s when, if I didn’t pass out, I felt like I’d done a bad show. I’ve definitely outgrown that, but I can still rock pretty well.”
But now, he sees his job as making some sort of connection in somebody’s life, to give them something to think about: “Nobody’s going to die if I suck one night. I understand how incredibly unimportant what I do is in the big picture, but I do think that people need for you to talk to them every once in awhile, to say things that they may not be thinking about. I don’t have a lot of control over it sometimes, but it’s what I do.”
The Coastal Cohorts: Don Dixon, Bland Simpson, Jim Wann and Jim Brock play The ArtsCenter in Carrboro on Sept. 8 and 9 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $16. For more, see www.artscenterlive.org.