Because he’s so good on the guitar, the Missouri native’s million other hats are often overlooked in the shuffle: writer, archivist, collector of weird albums, vintage automobiles and musical equipment (including a quadruple-necked guitar), preservationist, biographer, and on and on. Most recently, Deke Dickerson was honored as the Ameripolitan Musician of the Year for his contributions to American roots music.
To call Deke Dickerson a musician only begins to scratch the surface of who, or what, he is. Deke is a guitarist and singer, to be sure, but he is also a prolific writer, a musical anthropologist, a one-man rockabilly rescue unit, a walking encyclopedia of American roots music, collaborator extraordinaire and, most importantly, an occasional contributor to PKM.
We caught up with the peripatetic picker between gigs to talk about all this.
PKM: We were all excited as hell that you won the Ameripolitan award for Musician of the Year. I’m sure you are in with some stellar company, deservedly so. It was also a nice pairing to see that Larry Collins won the Keeper of the Key award. Was that pairing your idea or just a happy coincidence?
Deke Dickerson: Thank you! It was exciting for me as well. The Larry Collins “Keeper of the Key” award was a completely coincidental thing, but of course I’m always happy for Larry for receive any and all recognition.
PKM: These awards, as I understand it, began in 2014 as part of an effort to preserve American roots music that was formerly covered by the catch-all term “country” and, before that, “country western.” Is that right?
Deke Dickerson: Yes. It’s nice for “our music” to have some sort of awards ceremony now. For years, there were awards for blues, commercial country, folk, bluegrass, you name it, but not any kind of roots music. Kudos to Dale Watson and Celine Lee for putting it together!
PKM: The text on the Ameripolitan website is so well written and un-boilerplate, I suspected that you must have written it. They mention their desire to leave “the hopelessly compromised word ‘country’ behind.” This kind of answers my question: What do all the grizzled roots people think of “new country,” that elevator muzak for the suburban cowboy?
Deke Dickerson: I didn’t write it, but yes, I agree with you. Dale’s been on a long crusade against commercial country. Remember his song “Nashville Rash” from back in the 90’s? The funniest thing about your “grizzled roots people” comment is that the biggest group of people who seem to be into all this roots stuff with lots of 40’s, 50’s and 60’s influence seems to be young kids. Young, fresh-faced kids. It’s refreshing. And to answer your question, it’s nice to see people who are drawn to the “real” stuff and don’t care about the music marketed as “country” by the establishment, which of course as you allude to is less and less like real country music with each passing year.
PKM: I noticed that there were also Ameripolitan awards for the categories “outlaw male”, “outlaw female”, and “outlaw group”. “Outlaw” is the kind of term that, like “country,” could mean anything. Punk could be called “outlaw,” couldn’t it? What is “outlaw,” in your view?
Deke Dickerson: Outlaw Country has come to mean that specific period of music that existed in the 70’s and has its own fashion and sensibilities that define it now. The people who are really into it can tell you the parameters more than I can, but it’s funny because it’s become similar to rockabilly music. The people that like it can tell you about what defines it much more than I can. I like it—don’t get me wrong, it’s just not my main bag.
PKM: Forgive my ignorance, but could you give a short, concise definition of what we mean when we say “roots music”? I ask because one could make a case for gospel and R&B as being indigenous American roots music. The same could be said for eccentrics like Charles Ives or Sun Ra, who got his start playing boogie woogie piano on the first singles cut by Wynonie Harris.
Deke Dickerson: Well, you scratch the surface on something that would take a week to get any kind of definition of. Really, roots music is a catch-all term that can mean a LOT of things. For me, I remember the reggae guys in the 1980’s using the term “roots” first, so that’s what I always think of when people use that term. Ha! Now, it seems to mean anything that has roots in the postwar music of America from the 40’s through the 70’s. Rockabilly, country, rhythm and blues, soul, it all sort of fits under that umbrella, depending on how you personally want to define it. I guess from an existential viewpoint, we all sort of know what it MEANS, you know what I’m getting at?
PKM: You are among the musicians who have kept roots music alive before things like these awards. What/who else has helped keep the authentic American sound and voice on life support over the years?
Deke Dickerson: It’s always been there, it’s just been at such a ground level that a lot of people miss out on the fun. People like James Intveld and the Blasters and Big Sandy have been grinding it out, night after night, since the 80’s. In Texas, which has always been a roots music paradise, you have acts like the Reverend Horton Heat and the LeRoi Brothers and the Tailgators and Ted Roddy who have been doing it since the 80’s. Then there are all the folks that have been at it for even longer than I have, people like Dale Watson and Rosie Flores and Webb Wilder and Mojo Nixon. There’s always something good going on in your local clubs, if you pay attention, it’s just not on “The Voice” or “Dancing With The Stars” or whatever mass-media source that most people pay attention to.
PKM: Were you always drawn to roots music, even as a kid? Did you ever go through a “prog rock” or heavy metal phase?
Deke Dickerson: Well, when I was 5 or 6 years old, I became obsessed with 50’s rock & roll, and was the little outcast singing Elvis and Bill Haley songs, completely withdrawn from whatever was popular at the time. When I started playing guitar, my very first couple of bands were awkward—the 50’s rock kid with the guitar joining up with 80’s heavy metal kids. Remember, I lived in the country, so there wasn’t a whole lot of people to choose from. I had a couple “metal” bands where I was sadly trying to learn how to play a batch of 80’s Top 40 songs and failing, and I was asking the other guys in the band if we could do “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly. It was comically bad, but luckily by the time I was 15, I had my first rockabilly bands, and never looked back.
PKM: What was the first time you became smitten with something beyond the scope of Top 40 as a kid? Was there a Road to Damascus moment for Deke Dickerson? It must have come early, because you were already playing rockabilly as a teenager in Untamed Youth, right?
Deke Dickerson: Yes, absolutely. I lived in a college town in Missouri and we had two pretty decent record stores in town. They would order these European compilations of 50’s rockabilly, and I would buy them and devour them like a starving man with a piece of bread. When I bought some of those compilations, they featured artists I had never heard of, who were absolutely fantastic. From there I just went down a deep, deep rabbit hole, and I’ve gotten to play with many of those obscure heroes and know them as friends.
PKM: You are a prodigious collaborator, working with a who’s who of American roots music. Who haven’t you played with that you’d love to track down? Who do you most regret not getting a chance to play with?
Deke Dickerson: The three big ones for me that I never got to play with were Chuck Berry, who’s deceased now—Little Richard, who is no longer performing—and Jerry Lee Lewis. All three played with their own house bands the last couple decades of their lives, and I tried and tried and tried but could never get on stage with any of them. There are still a few of the obscure legends out there that I would love to get out to do a show before it’s too late. “The Lonesome Drifter,” for example. He cut one brilliant rockabilly record called “Eager Boy,” and he’s still alive down in Louisiana. But he’s converted to Jesus and won’t sing the old material.
PKM: How do you keep up with both the writing and the playing at the same time? Is it sort of like playing that quadruple-necked guitar you own?
Deke Dickerson: When you choose low-paying careers like playing music or writing, you choose to fill in all the holes in your waking moments just to pay the bills. I don’t remember having an hour to “relax” and do nothing in the last 25 years. Ask any self-employed person.
PKM: What are you working on at the moment, music wise?
Deke Dickerson: I just got back from a month-long tour over in Spain, which was great. I love Spain, such a fantastic rock & roll country! Now I’m home for a few weeks and am hard at work writing. My current writing project is the Merle Travis biography. It’s an exciting subject but also a huge task—will be over a year’s work by the time it’s done.
PKM: Do you think your Link Wray story for PKM will keep you out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Deke Dickerson: Well, I had a good relationship with Terry Stewart, who was the CEO there at the RRHOF for many years, but he’s gone now. My Link Wray piece was more an attack on how they induct artists into the Hall, which is a popularity contest, than it was an attack on the Hall itself. I think the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a necessary thing, and a good thing, ultimately. But the fact that they never inducted Link Wray when they should have, and now expect 20- and 30-year-old kids to induct him when they’ve never heard of him? That’s an internal mistake and the RRHOF should correct that.