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About Recording...


It was the evening of the Big Snow—six feet worth fell overnight in Cascade Locks, Oregon, January 6, 1980—that the Dodson Drifters recorded “Valvoline,†the first song of mine that ever got played on the radio.

It was a fluke. We were partying in the studio, which was in Portland, and sound engineer Craig Imm was experimenting with the equipment, and had got things arranged so when you recorded you heard lots of reverb through the headphones, but none of it ended up on tape—and Craig said, “Joe, sing something.†“Valvoline†was written on the spot, standing in front of the microphone—playing and singing very slowly, because of all that reverb I was hearing in the headphones.

It was the best recording that ever came out of our studio. It was very obviously live; you can hear “Big Bob†the bass player open the sound room door very quietly, walk across the room, pick up his washtub bass—all very quietly—and come in precisely on the downbeat of the second verse. We recorded the lead later; “Brother Bill†Howell, our lead singer, was doing the taxes for a sax player (in real life, Bill was a tax lawyer, a very good one), and got him to play lead on the song—not once but twice, so it sounded like Dueling Saxes.

A jazz station in Portland played it (we knew the DJ—you could do this, back then) and it became the Dodson Drifters’ first radio hit (of two in our entire career). Weird thing is, people still request the song now and then—and I have to remind them, “This hasn’t been played on the radio in 30 years!†Apparently people still remember it. It is, I guess, one of the Dodson Drifters’ most enduring legacies. A throwaway song, written and recorded on the fly, during a party, on a snowy night.

And it’s how I’d like everything I record to come out: simple, obviously live, note-perfect, and mixed perfectly, too. The sort of thing one can listen to over and over again, and not get tired of it. I’ve had a few recordings come out like that—Mike Simpson’s recording of Deathgrass doing “She Ain’t Starvin’ Herself†is one of those—but not many. That’s not a reflection on the sound engineers I’ve worked with—who have been very good—but rather on me as a perfectionist.

I got my recordings from the Influence Music Hall performance, and they’re okay. Sound engineer Skip was right: they’re crisp and clear (he even included a little of the applause at the end). Next time—yes, I think there will be a next time—I think I’ll ask for a little reverb on the vocal; I have, as I’ve often told folks, a voice made for silent movies. Really, the only faults I have are with my own performance (perfectionist, as noted above). I used my Audacity program to speed up “Talkin’ Overpriced Coffee and Gasoline Blues,†and it’s better for it; I may do the same for “Selling Off My Body Parts.†Tempting to add more instrumentation, but I’ll leave it alone.

Jane has found a standup bass player who’s interested in playing with us (and he’s pretty good—I’ve heard him); I think we’re about to have another band. Possible to do it as a trio, but I’ll ask Ken if he’s interested in being lead guitarist. That’d give us both a “whiny lead†(fiddle) and a “non-whiny lead†(guitar), which in my opinion is ideal for both performing and recording. I’ll make him recordings of my stuff; thankfully, most of it is archived on Soundclick or ReverbNation (“Alice†the ‘puter’s hard drive is formally dead, I’m told—none of the seven years worth of files can be extracted). That takes care of my stuff---but it’d be nice if we could perform other stuff as well. The thing I’d like to hit for, though, is us doing all originals and traditionals (public domain, anyway), at least when we’re being paid. I realize most small-time performers (and most venues) pay no attention to copyright stuff, but as a writer, I like to do so on principle: “The laborer,†like the Bible said, “is worth his hire.†If you’re being paid to play stuff somebody else wrote, that writer is supposed to get paid, even if it’s just the 9.1 cents required by law. One of these days, I hope I’ll be paid, too.

From a recording standpoint, I’d like to drag the new band to the Influence Music Hall and record them. That might be ideal for the Song-a-Month Experiment. (Oh, and Cliff the bass player wants lyric sheets, too. Guess I better finish the New Joe Songbook.)



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