Earlier this year, the Dixie Dregs completed their highly successful Dawn of the Dregs tour, a return of the original lineup from their 1977 recording debut, Free Fall. The quintet, which covered a wide range of Dregs music during their two-month run, features guitarist Steve Morse, drummer Rod Morgenstern, violinist Allen Sloan, keyboardist Steve Davidowski, and the inimitable, incandescent Andy West. Knowing that fretless 6-string maven and Berklee Bass Department Chair Steve Bailey is a huge fan of West and the band, we asked him to check in with Andy for an inside look at the tour and the pioneering Southern fusion band’s initial launch. Take it away, Steve!
I remember exactly three “first listens” in my early days—and when I say remember, I mean that I can still recall the exact location, situation, and even the smell of that moment. One of those three, which included Led Zeppelin and Chick Corea, was during the early summer of 1977, just before I graduated from high school; I was preparing to go on the road with a show band, to see if the music business was right for me. A dear friend, mentor, and drummer, Curtis Richardson, said, “Check this out,” and he gave me a cassette. I put it on in my car as I was leaving his house, and this driving bass line jumped out and crushed me. The tape was not labeled, as he had copied it from vinyl. I listened to it repeatedly on my drive home and immediately called him and said, “Who is that?” What was that?” His calm and cool response, as was usual for him, was, “That is the Dixie Dregs, and the song is ‘Cruise Control.’” Instant Dregs fan!
So, exactly to the day 41 years after the release of Free Fall, I am particularly honored to be speaking with that bassist, from that day, who has been an inspiration for decades.
How did the Dregs get back together for this run?
It was basically a convergence of factors, such as professional timing, sentiment, and the inevitable march of time and its consequences. All of that coordinated in a “maybe it would be a good time to do this now” moment. We knew the opportunity to have the original lineup back together was something that shouldn’t be passed by. There was certainly a lot of detail, conversation, planning, and detective work that went into it, but that is the essence.
What material are you playing, and what are your personal faves?
We started with the idea of looking at what we could play, favoring songs from the early years, since that was the band that would be touring. But we all had our favorites, and listening to the first six albums, we ended up choosing songs from each one. I think we all fell in love again with the songs. I really enjoy “The Odyssey,” for its raw power and emotional content, “Divided We Stand,” for its super-cool melodic interplay—which includes hidden bass melodies and chords—and “Twiggs Approved,” for the groove and the guitar solos I got to listen to while I thumped along underneath.
How did you re-learn your parts?
I remembered a significant number of them, but many of the songs were a complete redo in terms of learning. Back when we first learned the songs, we didn’t use written music or recordings; instead we would all get in a room together, and Steve would show us the song section by section, part by part. It was a completely old-school rock approach, and it took days and sometimes weeks to get a song down. But by the time we could play it, we could really play it. So this time around, I decided to do the same thing, but on my own, of course. I went section by section and I picked out each note, and I played each part until I memorized that section, and then I went on to the next one.
Being able to play music slowly without changing pitch has changed everything. I used Logic, Reaper, and a program Steve told me about called Transcribe!, which I think has the best slowing algorithm of all of the programs I heard. Sometimes I needed to listen super slowly to hear what was happening. You can set up all of these programs to loop and replay, or control them with footswitches, which greatly speeds up the process.
Have you changed any of the bass lines?
Very little. A lot of the lines in Steve’s music are either counterpoint or necessary supporting figures, so they’re pretty set. Plus, I really like them! I did make some changes to the fingerings and picking, though. I started playing a 6-string bass in the mid ’80s, after the Dregs, and it is my preferred instrument. That enabled me to modify some stuff for ease of playing. I’ve also changed some of my picking techniques, which I was able to apply.
Have any of the songs evolved live?
Most of the songs are like the recorded versions, as that seemed more the point of bringing all of these songs back to the fore. If we had been playing consistently for the past 40 years, naturally there would have been a lot of evolution. But as I said, we all love these songs, and in addition it was a practical matter, having to relearn two hours of music.
Why do you set up on stage-right? Is it because of Rod’s left–handed hi-hat on that side?
In this case, it was the same way we set up back in the day. I think it evolved because the violin and guitar were the focal centers of the band, and having the drums in the middle made sense, and it was the rock thing to do. And standing next to Steve helped make sure I was actually playing with him.
What are the stylistic ingredients and the work ethic that made up the original Dregs sound?
Steve’s compositions are consistently and almost classically tonal, and he doesn’t use a lot of super-thick jazz or dissonant voicings or melodies. That’s not to say it is limiting; he manages to explore that realm and always comes out with some combination of power, beauty, and I think even happiness, or some other poignant emotional content. Rhythmically, we learned a lot from the fusion bands of the era, but we were really coming from a rock orientation, so that was always present. As for the ethic, it was built upon hard work and practice, as well as listening to the audience. We experimented a lot, but we never forced people to listen to weird or outside stuff, just because we might have liked it. It was always about delivering something we liked and that most of the people who showed up wanted.
How does the University of Miami play into Dregs history?
That’s where Rod and Allen met Steve, and then the four of us played together from that point. So it was huge. You’re aware that Jaco was around there then, and we knew him, Pat Metheny, Hiram Bullock, and many other great players. It was eye-opening.
What was your concept for the role of the bass in the Dregs, and how did you come up with your bass lines?
I always thought my role was simply to perform the songs. This involved a very rhythmic and busy picking style, and using melody from the compositions. It wasn’t really a “normal” role in the sense of exactly applying things you could get from listening to the bass greats of the day. These were architected songs to a large degree, and whenever I created a line, it fit in that architecture. Steve and I met in high school and started playing in bands together when we were teenagers. I kept up as best I could, but we both liked a lot of doubling for the power. When he started writing and showing me songs, I think I naturally played much more with a pick just trying to mimic him, and as he evolved his own picking style, I absorbed a lot of it. I think my ability to play in that way subtly influenced the composition, because he knew I could play a certain kind of thing in a certain way.
Who got better grades in high school, you or Steve?
Steve, definitely. Both of his parents were teachers, I believe, or at least had advanced degrees, and he is one of the most brilliant men I have ever met.
How have you grown as a player since the Dregs’ glory days?
I’ve written a lot of music since then. I enjoy composing and collaborating with other musicians in writing. I’m also always working on technique and expanding my harmonic knowledge, which is still pretty basic. I have a lot of fun randomly exploring music and continuing to learn and find people to play with. This tour had really amped up my practice schedule, and consequently, my technique. We’ll have to see if that sticks around!
Do you ever play with your fingers, and do you ever play fretless?
Yes to both. I love the feel of fingers—and for fretless it is fairly essential. But clearly, I love the pick, and live, it enables the listeners to actually hear an articulated note coming from the bass easier than with fingers. That isn’t always true, of course, but for a thickly orchestrated-sounding band like ours, it definitely works. With regard to fretless, yes, I love playing it; I have a 6- and a 5-string. Several Dregs songs feature fretless, although I didn’t use one on the tour.
What was your main bass on the tour?
My Geoff Gould GGi6; I had it made for the tour because I wanted the narrower spacing and 34" scale. It has two EMG soapbar pickups. The bridge pickup is larger, Music Man-style, but with a split-coil option. The controls are separate volume; one includes the split switch, stacked treble and bass boost/cut, and a stacked midrange control for frequency and boost/cut. I’ve played Geoff’s basses since the mid ’80s.
How has your gear and tone concept changed over the years?
I think it’s basically the same, but better! I started years ago with a simple bass preamp, a crossover, power amp, and bass bins. I also used some midrange cabinets with 2x12 speakers. I’ve always loved a full-range sound, and I never got into the sound of a particular amp, preferring instead to pull sound out of the bass itself and/or effects. I still approach it the same way, but the current technology makes it a lot easier.
You and Victor Wooten both owned and played a Univox ’Lectra “Beatle bass”—coincidence?
Definitely a coincidence! Ha! I wouldn’t have thought he was even old enough to have gotten into one of those. I loved that bass, though.
What is your practice routine, and how does it differ from your early days?
Still very basic stuff, but my routine used to be mainly doing scales and patterns. I was concerned with pure technique, speed, and being able to play the Dregs songs with fluency and articulation. Those still matter to me, but I’m attempting to fill in lots of gaps. I’m trying to learn more about chords and harmony and be fluent and confident across the fingerboard. Obviously, YouTube and the bass and music-theory content online is super helpful in finding useful areas to explore and work on.
Are there any plans for a new Dregs record or more touring?
“Never say never” is the trope, but there are no plans. This was a special and unique circumstance.
What about your current and future plans and goals outside of the Dregs?
I have several projects lined up, and I’ll always be doing eclectic bits of recording, and hopefully playing live. I have a ton of unfinished music I’m trying to get classified and into a master plan to see if any of it should emerge as a real effort. I feel incredibly lucky to have so many friends who are fabulous musicians that I can associate and work with. And, playing again at this level has really inspired me.
Andy West, Rama 1 [2002, Magna Carta]; Dixie Dregs, California Screamin’ [2000, Zebra], Industry Standard [1981, Wounded Bird], Night of the Living Dregs [1979, Capricorn], What If [Capricorn, 1978], Free Fall [1977, Capricorn]
Basses 2017 Geoff Gould GGi6 6-string, fretless Gould 5-string, early-2000s Gould 6-string, custom headless Gould 5-string
Strings La Bella Super Polished Pure Nickel (.029, .043, .063, .083, .103, .125)
Picks Dunlop Gator-Grip .71mm, Dunlop Big Stubby Nylon 2.0mm
Strap KLIQ AirCell AGS3
Live signal chain Line 6 Helix guitar processor, Eventide H9 Harmonizer, Tech 21 Q\Strip EQ/preamp, custom Electro-Voice-powered cabinets: two ETX15-SP powered subwoofers and two ETX12-P powered loudspeakers