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MODERN 20-725; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

For an artist who was a fairly steady presence on the music scene for a half century Floyd Dixon remains an enigma. Though technically it’d be true to call him an endlessly eclectic artist because of the wide stylistic road he traveled over the years, you’d be equally justified in complaining that those same unfocused tendencies often made him a confounding mess.

The jury is still out as to which of those divergent views holds more weight.

His primary offense boils down to the simple fact that he never really took a firm hold of his own career, choosing instead to let others lead him into directions which suited them, not him and so there was no steady progression of ideas to latch onto as a listener, no sense of who he was or what he stood for, and no guarantee from one release to the next that he’d even be someone you recognized if you’d become acquainted with him and his music a few months earlier.

But Dixon had talent which is often the ultimate equalizer in music and so while your frustration with his lack of a consistent direction is perfectly understandable, more often than not you’re willing to suffer through the endless diversions just so that you’d still be listening on those moments when everything clicked.

This record unfortunately is one of the diversions. Even so, we’ll try not to make you suffer too much in reading about it. Besides in the future it’ll help to know just what out of the way cow towns he ventured into before he arrived back on firmer musical ground.
 

 

Bad Friends And Jealousy
In every walk of life, whether in their personal relationships with others or their professional occupations, someone’s personality largely determines their position. Floyd Dixon, to put it mildly, was altogether unsophisticated, gullible and usually passive when somebody did him wrong and those character traits would define his musical direction.

His constitutional make up was that of someone who wasn’t going to take the reins of his own life or career and forcibly steer it in the direction he felt strongest about. This of course left him ripe for being taken advantage of by those with less scruples than he had, which by definition is every single person in the music industry, but none more so than the infamous Bihari Brothers, owners of Modern Records.

Dixon released quite a few records on Modern at the start of his career but their arrangement began under false pretenses as the Biharis essentially stole his work from him under the guise of an informal rehearsal session conducted when the inexperienced Dixon was looking to sell some of his compositions to the brothers in the hopes that other artists might want to record them. The Biharis conveniently had a rhythm section there to back him, which Floyd thought a little odd but never questioned why they were there, and he subsequently ran through the songs as if they were full-fledged performances, not merely a loose demo session as the Biharis surreptitiously recorded them.

Then, to make their illegalities ostensibly legal, they paid for him to join the musician’s union and in spite of him not signing a contract with them they promptly issued the songs, including Dallas Blues, which became a hit and launched his career. I suppose you could say that was nice of them but then again they claimed half the composing credit for themselves and stole that money from him as well, probably to pay themselves back for having given him the eight bucks or so to join the union in the first place so they wouldn’t draw the union’s ire.

He soon signed a legitimate contract with Supreme Records as part of Eddie Williams & His Brown Buddies where he’d further his prospects while officially taking a backseat to the older and more experienced bass player for whom the group was named, even though it was Dixon who was the frontman and frequent songwriter of the group. But in the midst of that run Dixon would return to Modern on his own to cut other songs and later claimed the Biharis, who probably never gave him a dime for this, “treated him better than most” merely because they bought him a car so he could travel and promote these records which naturally meant more sales – and thus more profit – for the Biharis, not Dixon.

To be fair Dixon was 18 years old at the time and not exactly very worldly but by all accounts he didn’t later become more astute about business transactions. His latest Modern Records effort, Cow Town, has a semi-autobiographical feel to it, a lament about double dealing and his own inability to handle such things which has him longing to go back to the simple small town from which he emerged, but if it was in fact reflective of his own experiences the irony in it flew over the heads of the Biharis who were too busy counting the bucks he was pulling in to notice the critique.
 


 

Here I Come
This is another record which sits uneasily in any field of popular music circa 1949. There can be little doubt that this was Dixon basically attempting to imitate the piano playing Texan who started the mass exodus of that ilk to California almost a decade earlier in Charles Brown, whose Driftin’ Blues cut with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers this song closely follows.

That would seem to exclude it from consideration in a review of rock history but Cow Town is getting a pass for a number of reasons, one of which is because Dixon’s future, unlike Brown who never ventured outside of cocktail blues, lays largely in rock and because of that we’re interested in telling Floyd’s story as fully as we can even if it means a few stylistic detours.

But the other reasons are that whereas “Driftin Blues” came out a few years before rock existed, and thus its cool mellow tones stood on their own as the epitome of the cocktail blues style that dominated that era, today’s effort by Dixon tries to incorporate a few more modern – pardon the pun – touches, shading it slightly with some country blues elements as well as attempting to channel some of the sound of Amos Milburn, another transplanted piano playing Texan, who was arguably the best rock act of the day.

The problem was there already was a better equipped Milburn-inspired piano playing vocalist (also from Texas… their number one export in the late 1940’s wasn’t oil, it was piano players) named Little Willie Littlefield on their roster who was hitting big by mining much of the same territory as Amos was across town for Aladdin. To add a third candidate now was probably overkill, especially since Dixon’s voice wasn’t nearly as similar to Milburn’s, probably because it had the unfortunate tendency to come out of his nose rather than his throat and mouth like most people.

That’s certainly true here as not only does Dixon sound half asleep during much of this, it also appears as if someone is squeezing his nostrils shut with pliers as he sings and as a result the melodicism the song needs him to deliver is removed entirely and you’re left with a halting awkward sounding vocalist who might as well be singing underwater.

Since Dixon’s singing may have only conjured up the image of Milburn if Amos was suffering from a bad cold that leaves the songwriting and instrumental support to pick up the slack and in both cases they too find themselves sinking into the murky depths of the sea.

 


 
 

Not Meant For One Like Me
The concept of the song itself might not be too bad, as Dixon is presumably drawing on his Texas upbringing to paint the picture of whom he can and can not trust which he frames geographically – the highlands representing greed, avarice and deception, while the lowlands of Cow Town houses his trustworthy friends – but we don’t ever get an explanation of who any of these people are and what they do.

The title seems woefully outdated considering the actual content as it hearkens back to the days of ranchers and cattle drives on one side and the homesteaders seeking to build communities out of the prairies on the other, or so I’ve come to believe from a hundred and one B-movie westerns. Whichever element he was personally aligned with occupied the lowlands and so he’s bad mouthing the opposition.

But over what? Petty sniping about personalities with absolutely no examples given? That’s hardly enough to build a song on, it sounds more like a junior high school spat in science class. Dixon for his part doesn’t seem angry, he isn’t claiming to have been stabbed in the back by anyone and he sure isn’t about to confront anybody for whatever bad words passed between them. He’s simply mournfully heading back to his boon companions for solace which doesn’t quite make for a rousing climax to the story.

On top of it all there’s no colorful lines to draw our attention, no plot twist to keep us transfixed nor is there any real subtext to anything he tells us. Basically he’s saying these anonymous people are sort of mean, these other people you also don’t know are friendlier so he’s sticking with them. That’s the gist of the song and he takes an awful long time even getting that much out.

So this lack of detail in the story means that if anything is going to rescue the record from the discard pile it’ll have to be the musicians. Sadly, while I’m pretty sure they were capable of it, they aren’t given a chance to do anything more than wearily trudge alongside him back to the barn, or the saloon, or whatever corner store they all hung out in.

The individual components they add are alright on their own – Dixon’s piano plugs the holes in between his vocal lines with modest efficiency and the guitar gets in some decent fills as well – but they’re being tied down by the overall despondent mood and lack of arranging flair. The guitar solo is where you’d expect them to try and draw notice but while it’s well-played it’s hardly compelling. Meanwhile the drummer never breaks his repetitive and rudimentary beat which sounds as though he was slapping two fingers on an empty cardboard box.

There’s absolutely no variance in anything they play to divert our attention or to even remind us they’re in the room once we get used to the sleepy pace. Granted, maybe a more ragged guitar solo would’ve been out of place, as would Dixon pounding away frantically on the keys, but at least a tenor sax blowing a similar dirge-like solo would’ve given it another texture to consider. As it is you’ve heard everything there is to hear within ten seconds and the next two and a half minutes is just repetitious in a decidedly non-creative way.
 


 

Leave This Place Tomorrow
Because this is just an uninteresting song whose biggest sin might be simply that it’s lacking any visceral excitement… (or lacking any pulse for that matter…) I’d usually be generous and say that since nothing was played badly and there were no ill-conceived structural errors you couldn’t be overly harsh on it and so it’d earn a weak (3).

But that’s giving Cow Town too much credit for merely staying on its feet the whole time.

The fact is we’re getting tired of Floyd Dixon letting us down. His faults, both on his own and in his role fronting Eddie Williams & His Brown Buddies, never seem to be addressed and so the more it happens the less inclined we are to cut him any slack for such half-hearted efforts.

Cow Town is a vague unfocused song pulled out of a hazy dream that’s lacking any reason for us to be subjected to it. He’s got little to say, no real enthusiasm for telling us and no sense to realize this so he can attempt to cover for those shortcomings by at least providing us with something musically interesting to make up for it.

We can blame the Biharis for putting it out (as an A-side no less!) but they’ve already proven they don’t care much for ethics so for them this was par for the course as they viewed it simply as product to fill the shelves. We can also lay blame on Dixon for not coming up with better material (the D. Velma credit was a pseudonym, in case you were wondering where it came from his mother’s name was Velma Dixon). Or we can even blame ourselves for not passing this over altogether in the roll call of records to review since it hardly seems worth the time and trouble to shine additional light on its shortcomings.

But because Dixon is proving to be such a vexing artist with a frustrating lack of any musical conviction in his wanderings, we’re obliged to detail his many stumbles in order to try and explain why someone who can be so good at times managed to hang around the industry into the next century without ever becoming the star he seemed capable of being.

It turns out the best explanation might be that Floyd Dixon was the kind of guy who was often just content to pass the time in one cow town or another, watching the traffic roll by whatever field he was grazing in, bothering no one.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Floyd Dixon for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)