Never givin’ up with foremost country troubadour Danny Dawson

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A white Stetson and red velvet jacket-clad Danny Dawson cradles his Fender Telecaster Sunburst electric guitar, manufactured in the good ole USA, on November 11, 2017, backstage at the Alapaha Station Celebration. “I call her ‘The Drifter’ because of all the places we’ve been together,” South Georgia’s best kept secret confesses in an exclusive interview dropped below. Photography by Jeremy Roberts

“Son, no matter what, never give up on your dreams.” Georgia Traditional Artist of the Year winner and latest member of the Georgia Film, Music, and Digital Entertainment Advisory Board Danny Dawson deftly combines outlaw and traditional country. The former Georgia Heartbeat frontman’s influences consist of George Jones, Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Tanya Tucker, Tracy Lawrence, and Charley Pride. Dawson is proud to call Pearson home and has barnstormed across the country opening for multiple acts including Waylon Jennings and Ronnie Milsap. Cut in Music City USA, Never Give Up [2019] is Dawson’s second album of all original material.

Below the “Why Can’t I Have You” songwriter patiently answers a barrage of questions covering his hardscrabble roots alongside 18 siblings on a farm in Manor and serendipitous courtship with future wife Martha Haskins. And in a brush with the big leagues, an RCA record deal was agonizingly thwarted by an inexperienced manager who shared lineage with a ’70s country superstar. The exclusive interview is off to the races now.

The Danny Dawson Interview

Having 18 brothers and sisters, how on earth did your parents have enough money to feed, cloth, and shelter you all?

There wasn’t a whole lot of money, and it never got lonely [laughs]. We lived on a small farm owned by a kind old man named Bill Inman in Manor, Georgia. My father Willie DeWitt Dawson worked there. Mr. Inman would give us vegetables. If they slaughtered a cow or hog, they would share the meat with us. My mom Bertha Mae was a housekeeper for different families. If you were old enough to work, you helped on the farm. That’s how we survived in the early ’70s. I’m the next to the youngest child. My parents have since passed away along with 11 of my brothers and sisters.

Did your parents live long enough to see you perform?

Thankfully, they did when I was in my former band, the Georgia Heartbeat [1990–1995]. They were so thrilled and supportive. I remember them telling me, “Son, no matter what, never give up on your dreams.”

Who was your very first concert?

I’ll never forget being around 24 years old when I saw my debut show in 1992 at Metropolitan Park in Jacksonville, Florida. It was Ronnie Milsap, and I actually opened for him on that same occasion with the Georgia Heartbeat [we’re planning a one-time only reunion]. It was so much fun. Ronnie was cool, and we took several pictures together. I was as nervous as a sprayed roach.

When you saw Charley Pride on Hee Haw as a kid and became hooked on country music, did you encounter your musical idol later in life?

It was a thrill when I finally got to meet Mr. Pride in Bremen, Georgia. He was doing a concert at Mill Town Music Hall [May 4, 2019] and heard that I was a black country singer from Georgia who had worked with Waylon Jennings back in the early ’90s and also that I was a huge fan since childhood. Arrangements were made so that my wife Martha and I could meet him personally before the show. Mr. Pride is 85 years old, very sharp, and super nice. He was impressed with my credentials and could not for the life of him understand why I never got signed to a big label. He told me, “Keep singing and believing in yourself. Good things will happen. You’re living proof.”

Just how close did you get to being signed by a major label?

Very close. RCA was looking to sign me in 1995, but it fell through because my manager blew it. He had no idea of how to talk to a label even though his father was a legend in the business. I won’t get into all the details because he has passed away, and I remain good friends with his family.

Just prior to RCA’s interest I did sign with a small independent label owned by Berrien Sutton, an attorney out of Homerville, Georgia. He financed and produced my self-titled first album but didn’t know how to market it. The album [containing 12 Dawson compositions plus two covers written by “Good Hearted Woman” producer Ronny Light] sat on the shelf for well over a decade with no radio play until I started selling the CD’s myself around 2010.

After losing the RCA deal, did you keep doing shows or did it frustrate you so much that you stopped music entirely?

I tried performing, but I just didn’t have the heart anymore. I sold all of my guitars and hid in the shadows for a long time. One day out of the blue a fella named Wayne Delk came to my house and asked, “Are you Danny Dawson?” I said, “Yes, why do you wanna know?” He then held up a CD of my first album with my picture on it and replied, “Because I let some people in Alapaha [including your mother Sylvia] listen to it. They fell in love with your voice and want to know if you would do an acoustic set.” I was like, “Man, I haven’t sang in years. I don’t know if I have the nerve anymore.” Wayne, who was basically my guardian angel, couldn’t be deterred. He said, “Danny, you’re awesome and will do fine.” I eventually accepted and returned to country music at the Alapaha Station Celebration [Saturday, November 14, 2015]. I haven’t slowed down since.

How many shows do you typically do?

Between two and three concerts a month, mostly in Georgia. I love playing on weekends but have done some shows during the middle of the week [Dawson’s day gig is a supervisor at Langboard MDF aka medium density fiber board used in furniture crown molding]. I’m looking to start doing concerts in Mississippi and Alabama.

A highlight earlier this month was singing “Queen of Memphis” with Confederate Railroad at the Georgia National Fair in Perry [October 11]. I’m longtime pals with Danny Shirley, and he invited me onstage to sing their big hit [No. 2 C&W, 1992].

What can you divulge about your second studio album?

I’m excited to see Never Give Up finally come out. You can buy it at one of our shows or contact us via Facebook or email [mhaskins86@gmail]. We are also in the process of making it available online.

Never Give Up contains 12 songs, and I wrote all except one [“Pickup Truck”]. Songs I’ve played onstage from the record have received encouraging responses. When I’m doing a club-type atmosphere “I’m Not Drunk” goes over really well [laughs]. More family atmosphere shows like the Alapaha Station Celebration are perfect for “Pickup Truck” or “Something ‘Bout Life.” I’m already at work on material for my third LP.

How does the inspiration for your songwriting manifest itself?

Songs come to me day or night. I might be driving down an old dirt road or a busy interstate. A friend will say something in a conversation that sparks an idea. I’ve even had melodies come to me in dreams. It drives me crazy when I wake up and can’t remember because the music sounded so good [laughs]. It’s like angels sing to me — but I can’t see them — or tasting something sweet in my dreams. It’s crazy but that’s the only way I can explain it.

Tell me about your six-string gear.

My first guitar was made from old wood paneling that my dad built for me using a pocket knife and some wood glue. He was good with his hands, and we couldn’t afford a new one. I kept it until I was 19 years old and then it suddenly vanished. I don’t know what happened.

Believe it or not, I obtained my favorite from a junk car. I was needing a part for my old pick-up truck, and the junkyard owner said, “Hey Danny, if you want that old guitar, you can have it because I can’t play.” So it went from sleeping in a junk car to a brand new home. I had it restored, did some research, and learned that I have an American-made, vintage 1950s Stella acoustic. It’s beautiful, only 36 inches long, and has an awesome sound. I don’t take it on the road and prefer to keep it as a songwriting tool at home.

I also own an American-made, 2016 Fender Telecaster electric guitar. I call her “The Drifter” because of all the places we’ve been together. I’ve never told that to anybody before.

Who gives you optimism on country radio?

That’s a hard question because the country music they play and promote today isn’t really country. But if I had to choose one, it would be Jamey Johnson.

How did you serendipitously fall in love with your spouse and manager Martha Haskins?

I knew Martha for a long time. Just friends, nothing more. We would say hi to each other if we saw each other at a store or something. I had been divorced for a long time and was visiting some friends in Florida when I saw her on Facebook. Martha was also divorced. We both had been in very bad relationships, so we understood each other. I asked her out. One thing led to another. We fell in love, got married, and now she has to put up with me [laughs].

Martha Haskins: Danny and I knew each other from our kids going to school together. Years went by before we ever talked in-depth. I had been single for five years. Danny had been by himself for quite some time. One night in January of 2015 I was on Facebook browsing around — getting used to the social networking site — when his picture popped up. I was hesitant at first, but my curiosity got the better of me. I private messaged him and said, “Hey.” He replied right away, and we talked for about four hours.

We continued the back and forth communication until two weeks later on January 14th. That was our first date, and I felt like a little girl all over again. We have been together ever since. My family accepted him as one of their own and love him dearly. We would get married two years later on May 28, 2017. Our honeymoon was spent in the studio cutting Never Give Up in Nashville.

People often ask two questions. Does Danny sing to you? Yes, he does. I love it when Danny serenades me with George Jones’s “The Right Left Hand” [No. 8 C&W, 1987]. It’s our favorite song. Or, were you aware that Danny was a singer before you met? I did but through a limited perspective. I didn’t realize he was as big or had met as many famous artists as he had. I figured he was just another somebody that everybody said could sing.

And I had never seen him perform anywhere before we started dating or talking. I had never even been around a band, much less managed one. Besides being a reading and English language arts middle school teacher, I have had to learn show business from the floor up. It’s been tough, but I have had guidance along the way. The Danny you meet and talk to is the same good-natured, humble, and patient man I have at home. He doesn’t change. What you see is what you get.

© Jeremy Roberts, 2019. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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