Johnny Come Lately

When most rock musicians turn 32, they're usually either trying to think of ways to recapture the excitement of their early records or they're considering plastic surgery.

Not Johnny Dowd.

Thirty-two is when the soft-spoken singer-songwriter first picked up a guitar, but even at that advanced age, the silver-haired gothic country troubadour was filled with the same dreams of stardom that compel kids half that age to stand in front of the mirror and pretend they're rocking a packed stadium. "I saw that movie The Last Waltz," Dowd says, his relaxed drawl betraying his Oklahoma roots, "and thought, 'I can do better than that.' I figured it would take me three or four years, then everybody would come see me and it'd be cool." And like many an adolescent before him, Dowd wasn't even deterred when, two years after he started, he came to the realization that he "really had no particular talent, musicwise."

But starting out at an age when most rockers are mulling retirement turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it gave him some perspective. While most musicians will gladly tell you they really didn't want to try and redo what their musical heroes had already done, try to imagine any of them admitting flat-out that, "I didn't feel like I was capable of doing it anyway," as Dowd does. And finding his muse at a relatively advanced age only helped his music.

"Anything you start doing when you're 48 or something is gonna come out kind of twisted," he says reflectively. "It's gonna sound different in a way it wouldn't have if you had started when you were 15."

What he ended up with is Temporary Shelter, a pain-suffused album of odd, gothic country and rock performed with searing intensity, darker and denser than his previous releases, 1997's Wrong Side of Memphis and 1999's Pictures From Life's Other Side. Dowd and singing partner, Kim Sherwood-Caso, often sound like George Jones and Tammy Wynette in hell.

"That's a pretty good description of our relationship," he says with a laugh, adding that he recruited Sherwood-Caso when he realized that his strangled vocals were something of an acquired taste. "I thought I owed it to the listener," he explains. "Here's a break--here's someone singing in tune."

Dowd's songs are filled with the kind of quietly desperate characters who inhabit the fiction of Robert Stone, but their tone wrenches between the overheated noir of James Ellroy or Jim Thompson and the affectless style of Raymond Carver. Dowd compares them to "little movies...something to give you a little bit of a jolt, and over the top because it's rock and roll."

His songs deal with people in extremis, contemplating fidelity, perseverance and, possibly, murder. "That's the ultimate reality for me, " Dowd says matter-of-factly. "Life is temporary, and loyalty...well, that's more like a hope. Even if you have it, what can happen? The only thing you can count on is that nothing's going to last."

Dowd paints his work in starkly dramatic terms, and there's a mythic, very American feel to his life story, one he tells with an unexpected humor. Born on Easter Sunday, 1948, in Fort Worth, he was raised in Oklahoma and joined the Army at 20, serving in Germany. Returning to the States afterward, Dowd didn't feel like settling down, so he and an Army buddy began traveling the country.

Eventually he found himself in Ithaca, New York, with no money and even less in the way of prospects, so Dowd decided that the quiet upstate college town was as good a place as any to put down roots and began hauling trash in his pickup truck. Borrowing money to buy a van, he started the moving company that continues to subsidize his rock dreams. Moving is "frighteningly similar" to rock and roll, he says: Both include moving heavy cases in and out of trucks. The only difference is that "the moving business pays better, but no one applauds at the end of a job."

Not that there was much applause onstage either when he first started. When he was fronting bands like the Neon Baptists, his early performances were exercises in frustration. They were "a great band," he boasts, "a family band--my sister on drums, her husband on bass and my nephew on guitar. We were like a loud Carter Family."

But the local population didn't know June Carter from Jimmy Carter. "They were more into jam bands," he grouses--"you know, the Spin Doctors," spitting out the name like it's sour milk--and Neon Baptists shows were met with "great indifference." When the band broke up, his solo gigs were, if anything, even less popular. "I'd play shows, and no one would come."

Dowd wasn't ready to lay down his guitar, however. "All my friends had started to settle down, get married, buy a house, and I just sort of looked at the whole thing and realized that I'm not ready to grow up. I still wanted to do the rock-and-roll thing." So Dowd embarked on his next step: recording his debut album at the age of 49. "It was a fuck-you to the millions of people who didn't appreciate me," he says of The Wrong Side of Memphis, a move he characterizes as "just another incident of me living in a fantasy world."

In the real world, Dowd's music attracts, if not widespread attention, at least attention from the right places. Bolstered by the kind of glowing reviews that can make a career at any age, Dowd toured Europe and is currently on his first full-scale American trek. Traveling cross-country in a van could make even the most enthusiastic adolescent reconsider his career choice, but Dowd takes it in stride.

"I spend hours behind the wheel of a truck when I'm at home, so it doesn't really bother me," he says. "It's not like I'm a lawyer or anything in my other life." He's also not bothered by the prospect of spending time with a band whose combined age is still lower than his. "They know what's expected of them, and they're OK with that," he says, sounding more like a father than a front man. After the show, he leaves them to pursue the rock-and-roll lifestyle while he returns to the motel and reads ("Flannery O'Connor, comic books, cereal boxes. I'll read anything").

Despite the sold-out shows in Europe and the increasing interest in his music at home, Dowd insists his life is rather ordinary. "There's one thing you have to remember: The picture is always more interesting than the reality." He pauses for a second and chuckles. "That's something you don't realize until you turn 50."

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Steven Mirkin