The Dixie Dregs Are Back In Town
Classic Band's Original Free Fall line-up Returns to Revisit their Southern Rock Roots

By Lee Valentine Smith

The Dixie Dregs were a live performance
and radio staple in the late '70s, but the band actually dates back to small shows around Augusta in 1970. Founders Steve Morse and Andy West were the core of the band and now the two musicians have decided to revive the popular group for a look back on their substantial history.

The entire line-up of their definitive Free Fall album from 1977 - including guitarist Morse and bassist West will join Rod Morgenstein (drums), Allen Sloan (violin) and Steve Davidowski (keyboards) for a tour that begins in Florida and includes two shows at Atlanta's Center Stage theater. Like a kudzu-covered Booker T and the MG's, the band's instrumentals blended progressive jazz fusion with the southern rock roots of Macon's iconic Capricorn Records.
Taking some time off from his "day-job" in Deep Purple, Morse spoke with INsite as the band plotted their reunion tour route.

You are reviving the Dregs as you continue The Long Goodbye tour with Deep Purple. That must be such a different vibe than the reunion.

Yeah, it's a very comfortable group for me to play with and as the new guy, I've only been in for 24 years. But it's been 24 constant years without much of a break.

Tell us about the Purple tour. Is this the last thing you'll do - or is it a sort of 'lets stop and think about this for a while.'

I think it's the last one but there's always the possibility of getting together for a special show or an awards show or some charity thing, but this is definitely our last long tour.

With that in mind, what's the internal temperature of Deep Purple at this point? Are you in celebration mode?

It's all going very well because I think people give you an extra measure of respect knowing that you're coming close to wrapping it up. But there's a lot of denial. A lot of denial.

For a band with that much history, that's understandable.

When we have time off, they take off and do gigs, sometimes with splinter bands and sometimes solo projects. Like Don Airey does solo projects and Ian Paice does, well sometimes he plays with bands that do 'Purple things in other countries.

That's gotta be a mind-twister. 'Am I in the tribute band of the band that I'm in?'

(Laughs) Right, and the tribute band sounds like the recordings and the real band sounds like the live shows.

It must be a big creative shift to go from that mindset to the Dixie Dregs reunion.

It is really different. It's constant playing and changes. We're playing things we've never played live. I'd just kinda put my parts together right before we recorded it and now here we are doing it live. We are doing two songs live for the first time ever. Everybody's been working on those and we'll be ready for it - but it's so different from just saying, 'Oh, that's how that used to go, yeah,' and reminding yourself of a few little complicated bits. But everybody's really good at what they do and I'm really lucky. We did a trial sort of reunion together privately, and it went really well so that's what gave us the confidence to do this tour.

When you got back together and first started playing that material, it must have brought back a flood of intense feelings.

Definitely. It was surprising to me, I guess 43 years later, how similar everybody was - their playing styles, personality and everything. And how easily it all fell back into place.

I've heard from so many bands who reunite how similar everyone is to the younger version of the band from decades ago.

There's a bit more restraint now and a little bit more experience, but yeah I think it's the about the same.

The tour has been about a year in the making at this point.

Yeah but part of it was just finding the right span of time in order to flog the band to its fullest extent and the dates are just all over the place. We're doing a lot of shows in a very short amount of time.

How does it feel to revisit this material and take it on the road after being away from it for so long?

Musically it's exciting; we'll have lots of friends in the seats and that part is fun. But the travelling and not sleeping part is what worries me a little bit. Back in the day, we were flying to a lot of those shows. For this trip, I don't have a plane big enough to do that, so Andy and I are gonna be driving and most of the guys will be on the bus. I can't sleep on the bus so I'm driving.

I remember the Free Fall lineup so well but it's amazing that it's been over 40 years ago at this point. Everyone in the band is back together - which is a major feat in itself.

Yeah, everybody. And [late Capricorn Records rep] Twiggs Lyndon's younger brother is going to be working with us too. You know Twiggs was the guy on the back of the album, looking at his watch. And our same light man from back then is with us and we were going to have our same soundman [Dave Colvin], but believe it or not, just last week he died.

You mentioned Twiggs, he and [Allman Brothers and Rolling Stones keyboardist] Chuck Leavell really brought you guys into the Capricorn world.

Chuck is one of those people, like [Dregs drummer] Rod Morgenstein, who is just a generous warm, positive person. All the time - without putting on any act. He's just a natural musician, too. You never hear him play a bad solo, ever. They happened to be coming back from a tour and went out to a club and we happened to be playing there that night. They were kind enough to call Capricorn and told Phil Walden, 'There's something unusual here, you might want to look at it.' But like with most record companies, they'd received a demo from us and either trashed it or sent it back. So we had to send them another one.

They signed you soon after that show.

Yeah it wasn't too long. That night we'd played a song - nearly every title was based on a joke - and we'd played one the night they saw us called "We Want A Contract." I think that was the only time we'd ever played it.

That was the only time you needed to play it. That'd be a fun song to bring out for the tour.

I can't even remember all of it now, but I do remember basically what it was.

The late '70s was a great time to be a national recording act and Capricorn especially welcomed creativity and individuality in the roster.

Yeah back then bands were expected to be different and Atlanta was a big place to be. Macon, too. We had Lynyrd Skynyrd there all the time, and Kansas, Atlanta Rhythm Section, 38 Special and Mother's Finest. Everytime we played, we'd see some of them.

Every time I think of the Dregs, I think of the Great Speckled Bird newspaper. There'd always be an ad in there with Dixie Dregs listed at a club.

Oh yeah, I hadn't thought of that in a long time. We used to play a little club down there called The Bistro, down near where CNN was.

Yeah on West Peachtree. Not far from the Center Stage, actually.

Right, over by that tower. There was always all this RF radiation coming from there and you'd get a lot of buzz in the guitar cables.

A lot of cool people played that little place. Jimmy Buffet, Michael Nesmith, Chi Coltrane.

Yeah, I remember that's where Twiggs took us to see Great Southern. And that's where Dickie Betts came in one time when we were playing there. He was friends with Twiggs, of course, and that time, he was playing "Ramblin' Man" on his acoustic guitar as we were setting up our gear. He was real happy with it. We said, 'Now that's a hit.' And sure enough, it was!

You've played all over the world since then. What's the biggest change you've seen over the years?

Well now that everybody has a recorder in their hands, there's no way a band can just try something new. Anything you do can be published - and usually is. That puts a big damper on trying things on the spur of the moment. We used to always play tunes live before we recorded them. Now the record companies would be mad if we did that. But then I've always thought of music as a destination, not just background noise or a minute on a website.

The Dixie Dregs will play on March 3 & April 28 at Center Stage. For more information, please visit centerstage-atlanta.com.

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