While groups like Snarky Puppy are putting jazz fusion back on the radar, the singular blend of rock, jazz, and country influences Augusta, Georgia's Dixie Dregs brought to their 1977 debut album, Free Fall, has yet to even be imitated, let alone duplicated.
"I feel like our music is still kind of unique," says Andy West, bassist of the reunited Dixie Dregs. "There's not a lot of bands that you can say, 'That sounds like the Dregs.'"
In 2017, with Free Fall's fortieth anniversary on their minds, the 1977 lineup began bouncing reunion plans around, leading to their 2018 Dawn of the Dregs tour with all the early members on board: West, guitarist Steve Morse, violinist Allen Sloan, keyboardist Steve Davidovitch, and drummer Rod Morgenstein. "It was kind of unexpected that we would do this," West says. "Steve suggested we get together and see what it sounded like. It sounded pretty darn cool."
When the band formed in the early seventies under the name Dixie Grit, they drew inspiration from sixties psychedelia, prog, and the trailblazing fusion of Mahavishnu Orchestra. According to West, Morse added one more crucial element: country.
"He responded to some of the things that he had heard, maybe it was Chet Atkins, maybe it was Alvin Lee," West says. "I think the people really appreciated that influence in the music, and we liked it as well, so it kept coming out. And we happened to live in the South, so there was a kind of weird affiliation with Southern rock."
Dixie Dregs' Southern rock connection was perpetuated by the fact that they were on Capricorn Records, home of the Allman Brothers Band, whose pianist, Chuck Leavell, was instrumental in bringing the Dregs to the label. The Allmans' jazzier moments were influential to the Dregs, who could shift from down-home chicken-pickin' guitar licks and back-porch fiddle sawing to furious synth solos and fleet-fingered fusion-guitar firestorms without breaking a sweat.
In fusion's seventies heyday, when the likes of Mahavishnu and Chick Corea's Return to Forever were enjoying a huge, fervid following, Dixie Dregs were the Southern soldiers in the jazz-rock wars. The band earned a pair of Grammy nominations and a ravenous cult of admirers. As difficult as it may be to imagine today, it was a time when all-instrumental bands received rock-star adulation.
"I don't really have an explanation for it. Times were certainly different, but it seems like people were more open to that kind of thing," West says.
But by the early eighties, fusion had fallen out of favor, and a sea of troubles conspired to shipwreck the band. As with so many groups, burnout was a significant factor in the Dregs' eventual slowing down.
"We were very heavily touring and not really moving forward. We couldn't really break out into that next level that we wanted to," West recalls. The band's label at the time, Arista, pulled out of their record contract, according to West.
"They said, 'That deal we signed with you guys, we're not gonna do that, we're just gonna give you a lot less money, and if you want to fight us on it, go right ahead.' So those kind of dynamics really didn't help."
The Dregs scattered. Morse went solo before becoming a guitarist for Kansas and, later, Deep Purple. Morgenstein became a charter member of eighties glam-metal monsters Winger. West eventually left the music business behind altogether and became the technology vice-president for a high-level software company in Arizona. Reconvening the Free Fall lineup wasn't a cakewalk—Davidowski had temporarily disappeared and Sloan had become a doctor in South Carolina. But once everybody was aboard, things fell into place. The Dawn of the Dregs tour setlist will feature material not just from Free Fall, but also from the other five albums from the band's initial run.
"I had to really get my chops back up," admits West. "But it's been really fun to go back into these songs and hear that feeling we had when we created them, and revisit them from this vantage point. When you have the perspective on life having lived sixty-plus years, you're coming at it from a different standpoint. At this point we're focused on now, in a meaningful way."
Dixie Dregs' idiosyncratic sound still stands out in 2018. West says the band's unique approach has given it significant "cross-generational value," but they haven't figured out what their next chapter will be.
"There's nothing on the table," West says. "However, we all love each other and we love hanging out. Never say never. This was an unexpected thing—none of us ever thought it would happen. But it did."