February 27, 2003

Haulin' Garbage Blues

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It seems strangely fitting that my trip to interview the “black sheep” of the Ithaca music scene, the wonderful Johnny Dowd, included a blizzard, a flooded bridge, a few wrong turns, and a bit of fortunate intuition. A mere nine miles outside of town, the location of Johnny’s studio felt as different from familiar Ithaca as Johnny’s emotional country blues feel from the plethora of local bands content to simply jam, without emotion or lasting impact. Johnny’s music is more difficult to access, but leaves a much deeper mark. What follows are my favorite fragments of a pleasant conversation with Mr. Johnny Dowd.

daze: Since I’m about forty minutes late, you won’t be surprised that I try to wing this without prepared questions. So let’s start at the beginning. You were born in Texas and now you’re 57, living in Ithaca, co-owner of a moving company and a musician that’s released five albums. What happened in between?

Johnny Dowd: I was born in Texas, but I really grew up in Oklahoma. We left Texas when I was two or three. I went to high school in Memphis. My family then came up here for a year or so. I got drafted and was in the army a couple years. When I got out of that we moved to Georgia. From Georgia to California. I lived near L.A. for quite a while. Then West Virginia and then here. I’ve been here 28 or 29 years.

daze: Why Ithaca, in particular?

JD: My mom was living out here so I came out to visit, me and Dave [business partner] had a ’49 Ford pick-up truck. We ran out of money and started hauling trash just to get some money to get out. Then we started hauling a little bit of furniture, since it was an easy way to make money. Bought a bigger truck, borrowed a bunch of money and have been trying to pay that off ever since. [chuckles sarcastically]

daze: And where in all this history was music? More specifically, your first record came out when you were 49, how did that come about?

JD: I was always a big music fan, obviously. And then at some point, I was about 30 and in the music scene in Ithaca there was nothing playin’ that I liked. I was reaching an age where I could look into the future and realize that a lot of the things that I had been doing that were enjoyable when I was young, I probably wouldn’t be able to do. Or they just weren’t as much fun — drugs, chasing girls, all that kind of stuff. I wanted to have something I could do that was going to be enjoyable. And I liked to listen to music. So Dave and I went down to the local store. He bought a guitar and I bought a bass. My sister bought a set of drums and we set them up in my mom’s attic. Same thing as every band, except that we were in our thirties instead of being 17. We just started way late.

daze: You’ve unknowingly segued into the one question that I had to ask, namely, how has the local music scene and generally living in Ithaca affected your music? Especially given that what you do is very much at odds with most of the music going on in Ithaca?

JD: I never had much of an audience in Ithaca … Especially when I started, there was nothing happening that I could relate to or that I especially liked. I’m friends with a lot of musicians around here, but I feel that my take on music, partially because I’m older, is coming from a different place than a lot of the younger bands. It was kind of discouraging for awhile. By the time I did the first record, I began to think that people weren’t interested in my music because it wasn’t that interesting. Then I managed to get a little success so it bolstered my confidence. What I’ve been doing is different from anything in Ithaca. But I guess it’s also pretty different from what anybody’s been doing. It’s been hard to find a niche. I’m not alt-country and I’m not exactly rock’n’roll.

daze: You are often compared to Tom Waits and Jim White, but to me your records differ because they have this simple darkness in the delivery that is akin to a lot of the Delta Blues musicians.

JD: I think they’re both much more subtle. Both those guys are really musical and I’m not really that musical. I focus on the overall emotional effect of the song. My songs just present me in a particular emotion. A lot of times people will really dislike my records because they’re not as artful. In some sense I try to do what those guys do, but I get in the way of it.

daze: I think part of the comparison stems from your use of percussion usually not associated with traditional country and blues songwriting? How did you move towards emphasizing percussion more?

JD: I think people like Waits and White direct their bands a lot more than I do. I just try to find people that have ideas of their own. I just like people to surprise me. I want them to bring something to the party. I like how the songs change when you take one of the musicians out or add one. When I play with just Brian [percussionist extraordinaire] the songs sound a lot different and that’s fun.

daze: Out of music being made today, what do you listen to?

JD: Mostly what the guys bring on the road. For the last few years, I’ve been hearing more heavy metal and more rap. The guys in my band are in their twenties and I’ve been digging that stuff, especially the rap stuff. That’s storytelling of an extremely high fucking level. The production and music in it is very inspiring. I don’t listen to much singer-songwriter stuff. It’s hard for me to get a fresh feel for it.

daze: Who is the muse?

JD: My main influence and inspiration is my wife.

Archived article by Maxim Pozdorovkin