[GTR] From the Dixie Dregs, to Kansas, to Deep Purple, you’ve had a storied career that includes numerous awards, Grammy nominations, and being part of the esteemed G3 clan. What does coming back to the original Free Fall Dixie lineup mean to you?
[Steve Morse] It’s a bucket list item. We’ve always wanted to have a reunion. After T Lavitz died Andy West, Rod Morgenstein, and Frank Solomon were working on this for a long time. We found out that Mark Parrish had also died. Then we got in touch with Steve Davidowski about a year ago, and it turns out he’s been playing, and has stayed very young at heart even though he’s a few years older than us, and he was up for doing it. So, we got together and had a few trial sessions playing some of the music from Free Fall, the album that all of the original people are from and it went very well. So, we made plans to do this but it takes time to find a window of opportunity and get everything booked.
Back to your original question, it means closing the circle. Coming back and finding that everybody does still love music, and they’re pretty much the exact same people that I remember from forty-three years ago!
[GTR] The Dixie Dregs’ signature sound was well established by the time you recorded Free Fall. What advice do you have for players and bands in terms of realizing and developing a trademark sound?
[Steve] In our case, we didn’t get very many paying gigs at first. When we played for free, sometimes it was in locations where people would be walking by, like playing outside. Watching the audience gave me a lot of clues. As a listener I knew that I could get bored easily with the same thing over and over in the same style, or with really long compositions. Even though I was a fan of the classical composers, and even studied them, I could see that most people couldn’t listen that long without some changes. Over the years I watched the evolution of music videos, and people watching music and getting used to two-second edits where the picture never stays the same for very long, as well as the music having a predictable beat. Put all that together, and I think that it requires keeping people’s interest. The audience needs to be kept in the loop. If you step out too far, you may lose them. It’s fun to jam, and we do quite a bit when we’re not on stage, but on stage I think it’s more effective to grab the audience and keep their attention through the whole show.
That relates to creating a signature sound in that it could be almost anything, as long as you give people enough energy, heartfelt commitment, and variety in presentation. If you listen to a Dreg’s tune you’ll hear it go out a little bit and come right back. If there’s a solo, it usually isn’t too long. There are a few songs where there are long, fade-out solos, but usually the solo is very compact and gets right back to some kind of theme. It doesn’t matter what the style of the piece is, that’s always an element of it. Firstly, is to play what you love. And in that, pick the things that hold the audience’s interest.
[GTR] Of the music you were listening to in the Free Fall era, what influenced you the most and why?
[Steve] I had a very eager young mind and I listened to many things. One thing that I learned in composition was to not repeat yourself. Or, if you do repeat yourself, do something different with it. Pay attention to the melody of each part. If you’re writing a bass line, try to make it melodic. Pay attention to how the part sounds by itself and how it phrases.
Writing for The Dregs, I wrote each part for the best range of each instrument, and also thinking of the skills and tendencies of the player. However, there are plenty of exceptions where, in order to make the tune complete, I would end up with two very busy parts on the keyboard, one for each hand. Those were challenging! But for the most part, I tried to think about what each person would be comfortable with as well. That’s also an element of arranging that I learned. You can write anything you want on the score, but if the people can’t naturally play it you won’t get the same emotion or impact. I think those are the two lessons that I use most often when I write.
[GTR] Do you have a favorite Dixie Dregs record, and if so, why?
[Steve] Each one is very memorable for different reasons. The two that I got to produce were the most fun. Unsung Heroes is one of my absolute favorites because of what I’d learned from Ken Scott, how he approached producing us. I was there for every note of every album. Ken taught me a lot. He let me punch in the solos and fixes and overdubs along the way. Over the years of doing that kind of thing, and having written the music, I always wanted to be the producer. It finally came to be the perfect time. We had a great engineer at the studio there in Atlanta. The band was based there, so they were always available if I needed them to come in. We even had one of our crew, who has unfortunately died since then, come pick me up on my farm and drive me to the studio so that I could sit in the back seat and practice. And that’s the only time that I could practice because we were putting in twelve hour days at the studio, day after day after day. But the results were great. We got the sound of the band, as I saw it. So, for that reason, I would say Unsung Heroes is my favorite album that I produced. I also really liked What If, produced by Ken Scott.
[GTR] Let’s talk about Rod Morgenstein’s vocalizations in the drum mics! How, as a producer, songwriter, and band member did you come to terms with that? Or did you just accept it as part of the flavor?
[Steve] You’re talking about the way Rod would vocalize sounds when he played?
[Steve] I just saw Ken Scott at the NAMM show, and he still vividly remembers how he tortured Rod by duct taping his mouth closed so he wouldn’t make as much noise into the overhead mics! It was really weird because we’d never had such a good drum sound before, and Ken even wanted to use distant mics on the drums in a really reflective room, and all of these cool techniques for getting a natural, delayed reverb through the mic’ing. So, his results were a little marred by Rod’s characteristic vocalizations. He would sort of moan when he was trying hard. I guess all of us do that sometimes when we’re playing loud. But the mics, when they were close to the drums, would pick it up. Poor Rod! Duct tape over your mouth, it’s like your being kidnapped or something (laughter). He must have suffered. Luckily, I don’t think he had a mustache or a beard back then!
[GTR] You quoted Steve Lukather as saying he never got hired to play lead, just rhythm. What did you do to develop your rhythm playing, and how bit a role did cover songs play in that?
[Steve] Being in a cover band is a huge help, especially when you’re doing songs where there’s more than one guitar part. You have to figure out a way to cover the solo and do the rhythm parts and the riffs, all with one guitar and amp. You have to figure out where changing the pickups and changing the sound will fit in. With The Dregs, I was actually playing parts and not doing a whole lot of rhythm stuff.
I actually think I developed my rhythm playing the most in Deep Purple, because all I did was support the vocals and some solos. Yes, there were riffs, but my whole reason for playing was just to add energy to the band and to support the song. In a sense, it is sort of, “Here’s how Richie, would have played it.” Or, “Here’s what I think would work best, even if it’s not exactly the same as the record.” Sometimes, that would be much to the consternation of the fans who didn’t like to see a replacement for Richie.
[GTR] You saw the Mahavishnu Orchestra while you were still attending the University of Miami. How did that impact you?
[Steve] It was great, such good timing! I had kind of gotten stuck in the Jazz department because I wasn’t really experienced enough to be a Classical guitar major. The Jazz program had to take me because they had already accepted me into the Music school, and there really was no other place to be. What I normally played didn’t appeal to them, and what they normally played didn’t appeal to me… until I heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The Jazz department liked it, I liked it, and I said, “Alright! We’ve found some common ground.” It gave me a connecting point. Later on, Michael Walden was at the school, and I got to jam with him in the big rehearsal room. He was playing his big double-bass drum set. Michael is known as a producer, but he was a great writer and musician and could also play a double-bass drum set along the lines of what Billy Cobham was doing.
It was an exciting time, and I thought it was great to marry the energy of Rock with the experience of Jazz musicians. They definitely made a new sound that I loved. We started off by copying that. Later on, we got more comfortable and went off into our own, more Country and Classical grooves, but it was a great starting point, and a great inspiration for us.
[GTR] “Night Meets Light” from What If remains one of my favorite Dixie Dregs songs. In listening to that track today, I was reminded a bit of “Lila’s Dance” off of Visions of the Emerald Beyond. Was that a track that particularly spoke to you?
[Steve] There’s no question about it, there’s plenty of Mahavishnu influence. When I wrote it, it was all about fitting the melody on guitar and playing it all on the instrument. Then, later on, I broke it up into different people’s parts. Everything that John wrote sounded incredible. We even used to play one of his simple songs, almost a throwaway tune for him, called “Resolution”. For us kids, it was almost like a Punk Rock Jazz track. Not in terms of the tempo, but just like, “Here’s what you can really do if you believe that a B natural can be played over a B flat.” Everything that John wrote was big in my mind.
[GTR] The Dixie Dregs came before Yngwie, Satch, and Paul Gilbert. Noting how vocal John Petrucci is about the massive influence you had on him, how aware were you of the ground you were breaking?
[Steve] Not very! I was aware that there were lots of really good players in the audience, which was cool to me. We figured out that we were playing for a lot of musicians and aficionados of music. That was fine, but the name of the game is to find something that you really love to play, and figure out a way to find an audience for it. I was just glad that we had a little niche to live in.
I had heard that they were looking for a producer, and I was just this guy playing clubs. But I was very interested to see if there was any way that I could be involved with that. And, being a young man, I thought that I could do everything at once. Taking on another project like that would be a huge undertaking, but I loved the band so much. If there was any influence from me, then maybe that’s why it appealed to me so much. They were doing similar work, so I was more likely to get into it. But they had a whole different thing because they had vocals. Whatever John got from me, he quickly took off into a stratosphere that I could see and appreciate. He just took it and ran with it.
[GTR] In a video from the Reverb booth at Winter NAMM in 2017, you and John discuss how YouTube makes it possible for any performance to appear on the internet within hours.
Fortunately, there are some real gems out there like the amazing video of the Free Fall band at the Montreaux Jazz Fesitval. In the video, Allen Sloan plays a number of the solo lines from Free Fall note for note, although they sounded like they were improvised on the disc. As a composer, band leader, and visionary, how did you balance staying true to your vision, while allowing the other musicians to feel that they their voice mattered to you and the sound of the band?
[Steve] It would help when musicians would give me latitude, like how sometimes Allen would ask me how I wanted to approach the violin solo. I would say, “Let’s start by you just playing what you feel.” Then he would let me do an actual production of it. But it can get very stifling to a musician when you say, “Don’t play what you feel, but play this instead.” It required the cooperation of the player. Mark Parrish, Allen Sloan, and T Lavitz were very easy to work with in that regard. They would put themselves in the very insecure position of, “Here we are in the studio. Now, Steve is going to tell me something to play that isn’t natural for me, but that he thinks will sound good.” And that’s what we did. We sort of pieced together the parts by approaching it like, “Here’s what you’re wanting to do, and here’s what I’m wanting to do. Let’s see if we can blend those two things.” Once we got it, if there was a short solo section, one rule that we all followed was if we happened to record a solo that turned out melodic or memorable we would quote it in the live shows to some extent, or sometimes completely.
Allen’s solo in “Day 444” was beautifully played, and I’m going to encourage him to do that solo again when I see him for rehearsals. Hopefully, he’ll feel the same way, because it’s turned out to be more of a part than an improvisation.
[GTR] I remember asking you at a show “back in the day” if the title of that song was about the Iran hostages.
[Steve] Yes, I was finishing it just when the news came out about the hostages being released. It’s not a political statement or anything. The song just feels really intense and enigmatic, and it’s hard to find titles for songs like that. Each person obviously went through a tremendous ordeal, and there’s a little bit of sadness in that tune too.
[GTR] Who is going to introduce the songs on this tour, you or Andy?
[Steve] There probably won’t be so many introductions. But when there are, it will probably be Andy. When we started, it was Andy and I doing some electronic music, and I was busy changing things between songs and Andy had to talk just to kill time. For one of the songs, we had a tape recorder in back going into another tape recorder about ten feet away. The feed reel on one recorder and the take up reel on the other recorder with the ¼” tape pulled up tightly between one machine and the other. We would record Andy’s voice on the first tape recorder and play it back through the second, and then loop it back through to get sound on sound. So, he would start a long rap about this tune coming up. We were doing 7.5 inches per second on the tape machines, and it took about twenty seconds before what he had said before started coming back through the PA. So, he kept talking, and I’d looped it back again so that there was three of him talking after about half a minute or so. It was just kind of freaking people out! Then, when it reached this unintelligible limit we went into the next tune. We were just messing around with stuff, you know?
[GTR] So it was a “Morsertronics” kind of thing?
[Steve] Yeah (laughing), we were just trying to break new ground. I remember having this voltage controlled oscillator, like a synthesizer oscillator, in a box that we were using through an Echoplex to give some atmospherics to one of the tunes. Andy also had a synth that he was controlling. It was a concert that some people loved, and pretty much all of their girlfriends hated!
[GTR] Would this have been after he came down to Miami, or was this in Georgia before Miami?
[Steve] That was in Georgia. My second year of college I spent at the local Community College in Georgia, and Andy was there getting into whatever musical mischief he could. We called it the Dregs, because Dixie Grit had just broken up at the end of the summer and we were what was left of that band. Andy was laughing about it and saying, “We’re all that’s left. We’re the Dixie Dregs!” Any time a title makes us laugh, it becomes the title of something.
[GTR] Will you break out the Frankenstein Tele for any of the gigs?
[Steve] I don’t think so. I don’t even own that guitar anymore. I gave it to Michele Morgenstein years ago, when she was still alive. She always said that it reminded her of those happy times when we were all together in Miami, and on the road. She used to travel with us a lot because of Rod, but she was a part of the gang when we were at the University of Miami. She’d been battling cancer on and off her whole life, and I remembered an offhand comment she made one time, “I love that guitar. You’ll have to will that to me.” And I thought, “I don’t play that guitar anymore. And I hate having things that are not being put to good use, which is why I’m not a guitar collector.” So, I sent it to her, and she was very happy. It became a part of the things that she displayed in the house. I don’t know what Rod did with it.
I can’t get back the sound that I had then, because I played differently and had different life experiences then. I was in a different place. But my guitar has all of the same pickups, configurations, and switch placement, exactly. It plays and operates just as comfortably as that guitar. It’s just better at tuning and a little bit more stable.
[GTR] Do you think that you’re signature gear will allow you to get closer to your vision for the Dixie Dregs?
[Steve] Yes. The beauty of an instrument like my guitar is that I can change the sound from clean, country picking Nashville style, to super long sustain, silky distortion, and back to funky, mid-rangy parts like in “Ice Cakes”. I change sounds all the time with my guitar. My ENGL amp has got the best clean and versatile distortion sounds I’ve ever had. By having these two things, I’m running out of excuses for why I might not be sounding great on a song, because I’ve got some great equipment (laughs).
[GTR] Are the cabinets loaded with Vintage 30’s?
[Steve] Yes. In fact, I’ve only got 2 cabinets that aren’t on the road with Deep Purple, so that’s all I’ll be using. One dry, and one that will be for delay only. When I press down that silver Ernie Ball volume pedal, I’m actually just bringing the TC delay 100% wet to the wet amp. By the way, those TC delays are very reasonably priced. They’re a couple of hundred bucks list price, and you can load them with custom sounds that are called TonePrints. They let me do my own custom TonePrint using their computer to design the sound. I’ve got modulation and a beautiful amount of EQ falloff as the repeats die off. It’s absolutely amazing how good the sound is. I’m really feeling spoiled and pampered equipment wise.
[GTR] Is that the Flashback?
[Steve] Yes. The blue Flashback. And I’ve been using the Hall of Fame Reverb. During the country tune I think I’m going to have that in the effects loop, and it will be the only thing in the effects loop.
[GTR] Are you going to use the Spark?
[Steve] I’m not sure. I am going to use a Keeley compressor. During rehearsals I’m going to decide whether or not to use the Spark, because it works well on a country tune, like on “Wabash Cannonball,” into the compressor, at least on my early trials. But playing it with everyone else in will tell me a little bit more about whether it’s helping or not. I’m going to be playing through that very clean channel, and I want to be careful about which frequencies are getting boosted.
[GTR] Which Keeley compressor?
[Steve] That’s a good question. Last night, I was trying the studio one, the one with four knobs, and I was thinking that would be the one. However, on gigs I’ve always gravitated back towards the two knob compressor, and it may be because it’s so hard to read the position of the dials on the four knob. Anyway, when I was practicing last night I thought that the four knob one would be the one.
[GTR] Will there be another Dixie Dregs record?
[Steve] I don’t know about that. Everyone’s got their own lives, and they live in different cities and different parts of the country. I know we could cobble something together with the Internet, but I we’d need to do it the old school way, everybody in the same room and trying things with lots of variety. I’m just not sure there will be that big of a window of time open for us all, because everybody has other jobs and careers. So, my answer is I don’t know. I’m in favor of the possibility of getting together, even if we just do one song.