The dinosaurs are having a field day. The comeback trail is bulging with rock acts of old who are shaking off the dust and cashing in on the nostalgia boom. With Traffic, the Eagles, Meatloaf, Steely Dan, et al, back on the scene, it's deja vu all over again.
But that's not exactly the story with the Dixie Dregs, who are back with their first studio album in a dozen years and a tour that brings them to the Ventura Theatre on Tuesday.
These back porch whizzes, led by guitarist-composer Steve Morse, have concocted a private reserve of dazzling instrumental music. From the beginning, the group's steamy fusion of rock, country, baroque, and bluegrass has appealed to a select and devoted audience.
Their cottage industry is one of the more inspiring American musical success stories. The Dregs fit nowhere except in their own niche. There's no inherent jazz connection or rhythmic feel that would align them to the fusion field. Radio airplay eludes them, except when their music is used as pads under commercials.
"Full Circle," the new album, is more than aptly titled. Coming after a successful reunion tour two years ago. Morse has returned to the very stomping grounds where the Dregs formed, at the University of Miami. These days, Morse lives just outside of Gainesville with his family.
The guitarist's twisting path took him from guiding the Dregs in the late '70s and early '80s to working in the farming industry in Georgia, to playing with Kansas, those heartland rockers, to working briefly as a commercial airline pilot, and working with the Steve Morse Band.
When the prospect of doing a new Dregs studio album came up, Morse worked up a set of original pieces with his usual prodigiousness. The one cover song is a dazzling version of the old Yardbirds tune "Shapes of Things," retooled into an exhilarating instrumental with the Dregs stamp all over it.
Morse, who has a habit of repeatedly winning best guitarist polls, also writes a column for the Practicing Musician, which he believes is "one of the most important things I do, because it's my chance to influence more people in a positive direction than anything I do. Even younger readers read that, and that's a perfect time to catch them."
One of the few guitarists who could bear up under the tag of rock virtuoso, Morse seems like a humble, focused nonconformist who has found his way outside the system. He's not kidding when he says, "My whole thing is, people should do what they love, period."
Did you have a sense back in the early days that the Dregs would take off the way they did?
I figured everything would be the way it was, that styles would change and people's taste would change, but that we would always be able to sneak in and make a living. That's the way I see it being right now. Maybe for a few seconds, playing instrumental music may have been trendy, like when Joe Satriani first came out.
The only thing that keeps me in the business is the fact that I like to make music, I like to play, and I like the interaction with people who are really enjoying it. Anything that gets me too far away from that will push me out of the business.
You do a unique version of 'Shapes of Things' on the new album. You're not in the habit of doing cover tunes. What brought that on?
It was suggested. We were just throwing out ideas. I had to actually write some new parts for it to add enough energy to make it a Dregs tune. I didn't know if that would be considered heresy or not. We just did it anyway.
Do we hear some distinctly Jeff Beck-ish guitar playing on that tune?
I've always been a fan. Every guitarist I admire has something about them. Jeff Beck was always a very powerful, sometimes economical player. I think of him and Eric Johnson in kind of the same way. You just never hear either one of them have a bad night. I like Jeff, too, because he's semi-dropped out, too. I really identify with that.
Who listens to the Dixie Dregs? Do you have a sense of the psychological profile of your audience?
Sure. It's a comfortably wide age margin. We see people in their 40s and young kids who can't get into clubs. There's a word-of-mouth thing going. I talk to young kids who say they listened to us when they were really young and their parents played our records (laughs).
Some kids just inherently like things that are underground. There's no question about the fact that we're underground. Obviously, we're not as Angst -ridden as some of the current bands that are underground. But still, these kids know that we're not normal, so it's OK with them.
Does everyone in the band seem older and wiser now?
They don't seem older, but they are. Wiser? Yes and no. Wiser in terms of, yeah, we know if we've got an eight-hour drive from one city to another, we're not going to make sound check. There's no use in even trying. We accept realities.
But, at the same time, there's a certain crazed aspect that doesn't seem to have gotten any different or any better. I guess inner turmoil is a requirement for a musician.
It seems that you've always had a very devoted following, haven't you?
It's true: I've always been able to work. I'm very thankful for it, too. I've not been able to work to the point where I didn't have to work (laughs). But I've been able to work, and bring home enough to support my family. That's the most you can get out of your job, to do what you want and be able to provide.
I'm somewhat cynical about the whole prospect of the business. But I like all the people that I get to work with.
The people in the audience are what's saving me. Every time we finish a gig and talk to people backstage or the people outside the back door, it's so invigorating that it matters to people.
* WHAT: Dixie Dregs
* WHERE: Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura
* WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday
* COST: $17.50
* FYI: Call 648-1888