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Deke Dickerson chats about Chuck Berry, the rockabilly scene, & 1980s metal

Rock'n'Roll Hall-of-Famers Duane Eddy (center) and Nokie Edwards (left) share the stage with Deke Dickerson (right) during Viva Las Vegas' 2012 Guitar Geek Show
Rock'n'Roll Hall-of-Famers Duane Eddy (center) and Nokie Edwards (left) share the stage with Deke Dickerson (right) during Viva Las Vegas' 2012 Guitar Geek Show
photo by Patrick Tanaka

How apropos that, as I sit down to describe my interview with Deke Dickerson, "Go, Johnny Go" would come on TCM. First of all, one of Deke's favorite guitars from his legendary personal collection is a TNM doubleneck made the year this flick came out: "That guitar was actually given to me, so it has a great emotional value to it. The guy that built it back in 1959 had it up in his attic, and it was all thrashed. I found this guy, and I saw the guitar and I freaked out about it and he just gave it to me. It was in bad shape, so I had it restored. It’s an amazing guitar." (Actually, as a result of Deke restoring this custom doubleneck and touring with it, the maker was encouraged to once again start producing these beautiful guitars that remind us of the works of art produced by Semie Mosely, played once upon a time by Joe Maphis and Larry Collins).

Secondly, Deke Dickerson credits Chuck Berry, obviously a featured star in "Go, Johnny Go," as one of his reasons for picking up the guitar in the first place: "I remember seeing Chuck Berry on TV. I think it might have been the Sha Na Na show. I remember seeing him play the big Gibson guitar and doing the duck walk and thinking, man, how soon can I get a guitar? Can I get one tomorrow?" And we're glad he soon did.

I caught up with the guitar geek while he was in Austin for the Lonestar Roundup - one of the biggest annual car shows and music weekenders for lovers of hot rods, kustom cars, and all things rockabilly. Under a threatening sky, Deke kept up our spirits with his genuine good humor. Ironically joking that it was too bad there were no tattooed women in the crowd to dedicate the song to, Deke entertained with tunes like "Tattooed Lady": "Tattooed all around her body was a map of the good ol' USA. And every night before I go to sleep, I jerk back the quilts and take a peek..." I was impressed he localized his lyrics throughout the show, throwing in references to towns throughout Texas, from Bastrop to Llano. He even catered to the family friendly nature of the event by initiating a twist-inspired dance-off for the little ones in the crowd. The storm held off until the very last song, when the skies suddenly opened up as if Mother Nature herself couldn't hold off any longer from wanting to share in the scene-stealing awesomeness that was happening on stage. Deke made several appearances throughout the weekend, but I was particularly thrilled to see him sit in with the extraordinary musicians that make up Heybale, including the amazing guitarist Redd Volkaert who used to play with Merle Haggard. With his usual modesty and humility, Deke told the crowd how intimidating it is to be invited to play with Redd: "It's like being asked to enter a wet T-shirt with Dolly Parton!"

KK: What's your favorite guitar from your collection?

DD: It’d be hard for me to come down to 10 guitars that are my favorites because they all have an emotional connection to me. I’ll narrow it down to 2 - that’s as good as I can do. My TNM custom double-neck which was made in 1959 (mentioned above). One of my other favorite guitars also has a strong emotional connection. It’s a 1954 Telecaster that I got from my dad’s best friend. It’s a guitar that I saw underneath the bed when I was 13 years old and even at the time I knew it was an old Telecaster and it was worth a lot. And I [told the owner] if you ever sell that guitar, call me. And god bless him, it was 15 years later, and I got this phone call out of the blue, and he was ready to sell... I would never sell it for any amount.

KK: When you started playing guitar, did you take lessons?

DD: I tried taking lessons from this local hippie guy who taught at the music store and he was really into Carlos Santana and jazz fusion stuff. I remember him telling me, “If you don’t quit listening to Buddy Holly, you’ll never be a good guitar player.” And I quit [taking lessons] that day and never went back. From then on, I taught myself. I wish the teaching experience hadn’t been so bad, because there are a lot of things I wish I would’ve learned from a proper teacher.

KK: How did you get the idea to start the "Guitar Geek Festival" that you host every year while NAMM takes place in Anaheim?

DD: I live in Los Angeles and there are always these guitar things going on. But every single one of them that I went to was just all these guys wanking for half an hour and then at the end there’d be 40 guys on stage and they’d be doing “Whipping Post” by the Allman Brothers and I thought, this is not what I want to see. Why doesn’t anybody do a show where you have people like Nokie Edwards or Duane Eddy, these people that to me are amazingly important guitar players? So I realized that it was not going to happen unless I did it myself. That’s really the genesis and the whole idea of the thing - to put on a show that I would like to see.

KK: I dig your shortened showcase of Guitar Geek Fest during the annual Viva Las Vegas rockabilly weekend. What was the highlight of Viva for you this year?

DD: Duane Eddy and the Ventures were playing the car show, and I thought to myself, man that would be an amazing coup if I could get Duane Eddy and Nokie Edwards playing together for the first time, and I did. It was one of those things where the show wound up being great and coming off exactly the way I wanted it to, but if anyone had seen the behind-the scene shenanagins that went on... (Deke chuckles). Nokie Edwards was stranded over at the car show and no one would take him over, and then finally someone just randomly drove him over to where the guitar festival was. Then, as Nokie was playing, the stage manager said that we had to stop because we were running over our time slot. So Duane Eddy was in the wings waiting to go on and this guy was saying you have to stop your show. It was very nervewracking. But at the end of the day, it all came off perfect.

KK: What is your oddest musical preference that we would be surprised to find out about?

DD: I have a soft spot in my heart for really cheesy '80s metal. That is actually my nostalgia music - it was what was happening when I started playing guitar. One of the guys I knew was in a metal band, so if I hadn’t been bald and pudgy, I would probably be a metal guy!

KK: Talking about nostalgia, what is your feeling on why 1950s culture is so alluring to so many people still today?

DD: It’s bizarre to me. I’m part of the scene and I play the music because I love the music. But to be perfectly honest, I'm surprised it’s still happening because I got into it in the '80s when the Stray Cats were big. And at that time, [the heyday of rockabilly] wasn't that long ago. It was only 25 years old at the time. People still remembered the '50s. So here we are about 3 decades past the Stray Cats and there are all these young people that get into it and they have absolutely no frame of reference to the era or the culture. They dig the music and the style, and they like the cars. America has made these great contributions that people identify with all over the world, whether it's swing music, or punk rock, or rockabilly. But it's still odd to me that it’s 2012 and people are still discovering the '50s.

KK: Who are some up-and-coming musicians in the scene that we should check out?

DD: The fun cool thing is that, today, there are a lot of young people who are really good musicians, because one thing that I really remember about the 80s and the 90s was that the musicianship was really poor, and it was really rare to find a guy who was great. I remember seeing gigs with Big Sandy and thinking, wow, this guy sounds like Cliff Gallop playing with Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, and that inspired me to try and play better (although I never caught up to T.K Smith!). The 18-year old who sat in with me today, Wyatt Maxwell, is awesome. He played with Wayne Hancock and he’s got a band in Utah with his dad and his brothers called Mad Max & the Wild Ones. And there's JD McPherson and Nick Curran obviously - he’s mind-blowingly good.

And I agree. I got the opportunity to see Nick Curran (once of The Fabulous Thunderbirds) sit in with Marti Brom the previous night during a wonderful show that included Wanda Jackson and Southern Culture on the Skids. The Go-Getters from Sweden were also fantastic. And that's what I love about the Lonestar Roundup weekend - the music, the cars, the people, and the chance for us to indulge in our rockabilly obsessions with like-minded folks.

If you're in the L.A. area, don't miss a chance to see Deke when he returns from playing the Rockabilly Rave Festival in the UK (click here for upcoming shows, including June 21st in Fullerton). Not only will you surely be impressed with his guitar wizardy, but, like me, you might also drool over his amazing equipment - from his cool guitars to neat vintage amps, or get a kick out of his oddball humor. After all, this is the guy who has part of his website devoted to armless musicians, gospel midgets, and one-man bands.

For a review of this year's Guitar Geek showcase at Viva Las Vegas, click here.

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