Good at being the best

The youngest man in rock and roll, Ronnie Dawson gets hitched and grows up (sort of)

This is a far cry from the apartment Ronnie Dawson once lived in. For three decades, give or take, the man resided in what really amounted to a rather large room, one crammed full of books, photographs, tour posters, videos, and the collected flotsam of a lifetime spent making music. There was hardly any room for Dawson himself, hardly any room for the casual amenities--like, you know, a bed or a kitchen. Stepping into his old place, a room above the pool at the Leeward Island Apartments near McMillan and Mockingbird, was like crawling inside a time capsule undisturbed for so long, the dust had dust.

Dawson now lives only a few hundred feet away from his old place, but it's so different from that crash pad, it's shocking even to see him standing in such an abode--one pristinely decorated, lit candles filling the front room with a springtime aroma, every CD and book shelved away. This is a home, a woman's touch evident the moment you walk through the door. If anything at all remains the same, it's the man who answers the knock at the door--the 59-year-old rock-and-roll hero sporting a backward baseball cap and denim shirt, looking even from just a few feet away like a man half his age, if that old.

"When I moved out of my apartment, I found things in there I hadn't seen in 30 years," Dawson says. "Including a couple of dates." Maybe she wasn't lurking behind an old bookshelf, but the woman Dawson calls Chris qualifies: She and Ronnie dated in the '60s, but only a handful of times. She has forever lived in this duplex-turned-house--which her family has owned and lived in for decades--and knew Ronnie when he truly was a young man, not too far removed from his days as a teen wonder playing the stage at the Big D Jamboree. They remained on-and-off acquaintances for years, until she became his business partner...and then, not too long ago, his wife.

That is how Dawson ended up living in such immaculate quarters. After years of being convinced he was set in his ways--too old to share his life with anyone, too concerned with his resurrected career even to have much time for women--the once-and-future Blond Bomber has finally given in, settled down. Though perhaps that's the wrong way of putting it. To say Ronnie Dawson has settled down is like saying a 2-year-old is all grown up.

It has been a hell of a year for Dawson, whose 84-year-old mother, Gladys, died last year. She had been ill for a long time, and Ronnie tried to take care of her as best he could, but it was difficult, being on the road so often. That was how he reconnected with Christy: He placed a "call for help," and she began taking care of his business and his mother.

"She came to my rescue," Dawson says. "I wasn't in trouble. But you can't do it alone, and I always thought I could. I got showed I couldn't." In the end, it was Christy who convinced Ronnie to marry her--almost told him he was gonna do it. He couldn't say no. She wouldn't let him.

The man turns 60 in August, and still he continues to make records that have the dual ability to startle and delight--rather astonishing, given that most albums these days can manage neither feat. This week, the tiny Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based Yep Roc label releases More Bad Habits, yet another album in a catalog that features not a single misstep, not a single album or song that doesn't serve to remind you what music sounds like in the hands of a man who was there when the doctor cut the umbilical cord, slapped its mama, and called the baby rock and roll.

If there's a difference this time around, it's that Dawson is no longer recording in England on equipment built during the days of the Korean War. For the first time since the 1960s, Dawson cut his album in the States--in Maine, actually--with a real band (including a teenage guitarist from Cleveland) instead of pick-up musicians or whoever was available for the sessions at the time. More Bad Habits is also in stereo, another first. Long gone is that unhewn, primitive sound that has served him so well throughout such "comeback" albums as Still a Lot of Rhythm (released in England in 1988), Rockinitis (1989), Monkey Beat (1994), even 1996's Just Rockin' & Rollin', Dawson's sole record for Rounder Records subsidiary Upstart. The result is a disc that finally surrounds you, absorbs you--places you on the stage, not simply in front of it.

"I can still listen to the album," Dawson says in that deep, melodic twang of his. "I still like to hear it. I haven't gotten tired of it at all. I love the way it just comes on. This is the first time I did the songs on tour before we went in the studio. And when you do that, you're not searchin' for the grooves. They're just right on."

It is perhaps appropriate that in 1999, more than 40 years since he first stepped onto a stage or into a studio, Dawson has made the finest record of his career. He's a man who seems to age backward, who continues to search for new inspiration in the most unlikely places. He exists almost to disprove the long-held belief that rockabilly is the most narrow of genres, one that died almost moments after it was born because it had no place to go.

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