Of all the guitar-wielding hotshots on the SoCal roots scene, perhaps none is so respected by his peers or beloved by fans as Deke Dickerson. Possessed of rare intelligence, great humor, and fingers that seem to have been transplanted from the fleet hands of country-guitar legend Joe Maphis, Dickerson has long been one of the region's best-kept secrets. Only the anonymity is endangered as Dickerson and his backing band, the Ecco-Fonics, make their debut on the national stage in October with Number One Hit Record (Hightone Records). A sensational solo debut, Hit Record skittles across rockabilly, hillbilly, swing, ballads, and good old-fashioned rock & roll on its 15 tracks. Dickerson's originals stand up with the work of his heroes in quality, and the covers (such as the Treniers' "Poon-Tang") are impeccably selected. Dickerson, bassist Brent Harding, guitarist Johnny Noble and drummer Brian Nevill are joined by a guest cast that includes pioneering rockabilly guitarist Larry Collins, surviving Treniers vocalist Claude Trenier, and Big Sandy pianist Carl "Sonny" Leyland. Amid the sharp, stylistic hairpin turns, the one constant on the album is Dickerson's keen and playful pickin'. Too many roots aficionados come off as overstudied and tight-assed in their efforts to stay true to a sound or style. Not Dickerson, who sounds like he doesn't know where his fingertips might land next. But they always seem to end up in just the right place. His sense of musical adventure is what makes his work fun and different. The fierce duet with Collins on "Jumpin' Bean," the Slim-Galliard-strained-through-Merle-Travis humor of "What's That Cookin'" and Leyland's Jerry Lee Lewis-inspired piano pumping on any number of raging rockers are among the highlights. Dickerson is also a fine singer, whose Midwestern twang has the stuff that makes white guys pound back beers with alarming force. Dickerson, 30, is best-known for his stint in the late, lamented Dave and Deke Combo, but his roots as a guitarist go back to his teenage years on a farm outside Columbia, Missouri. "My dad restores antique airplanes, and he's got this giant barn he works out of. My mom's a college teacher. So I always had this push-pull thing between highbrow and lowbrow," Dickerson says with a laugh. "They both came from real superhillbilly parents in Virginia. I grew up on a farm, but I had contact with civilization. Basically, I was bored out of my mind, so I took to playing guitar all the time." Dickerson was forming bands by the time he was 13, and his nascent experiences with garage groups were similar to the stories any veteran musician could tell you. "You had to play 'Back in Black,' 'Smoke on the Water' and stuff like that," he recalls. "There was, like, a required songbook. So I decided, 'This blows' and started a really, really bad rockabilly band instead. This was about the time of the whole Stray Cats thing, so you could actually get work doing that."But after a few years, "I got disgusted with that, too," he says. "I got tired of playing with people who hated the music and were just doing it to make some paydays, to do weddings and stuff." At 17, Dickerson formed Untamed Youth with a group of high school friends; the group toured nationally in the late-'80s and released four indie albums. In one configuration or another, Untamed Youth endured through 1993 and still reunites occasionally, but it's more of a lark than a serious project these days. "What I wanted to do with Untamed Youth was have a surf/ garage thing because it would be so easy to do with a bunch of inept, teenage musicians," says Dickerson. Dickerson moved west in 1991 with bassist Steve Mace; they would kick-start Untamed Youth on the West Coast and become rock stars. He landed in Yucaipa, of all places, and predictably, he found his plans going awry. "I worked selling 'FUCK IRAQ' T-shirts in a bar," he recalls with a chuckle. "Then I pumped gasoline for a while. And after not too long, I decided Yucaipa sucks." Moving to Glendale, Dickerson soon discovered the SoCal rockabilly scene in full swing and decided once again to try playing the music that inspired him as a kid. "I started seeing bands like Big Sandy, and it got me thinking about playing rockabilly again because there was a level of musicianship out here that you didn't have back in the Midwest." Dickerson hooked up with singer/guitarist Dave Stuckey, drummer Lance Soliday and bassist Shorty Poole to form the Dave and Deke Combo in 1991. The group mixed in doses of cornpone hillbilly imagery and humor with their exceptional musicianship, Everly Brothers-like vocal harmonies and red-hot songwriting, becoming perhaps the finest roots band in the country during its brief existence. After a handful of singles and a full-length album, the Dave and Deke Combo released Hollywood Barn Dance on Heyday Records in 1996, which drew critical raves in genre fanzines and some notice from the mainstream press. It seemed the group was poised to make a break for greener pastures, but before anything could materialize, the group broke up-just a few months after the album's release. "I'm very proud of everything that we did with Dave and Deke," says Dickerson. "I had a very good time in that band. But realistically, both Dave and I have really strong personalities; we're both leader-types. He wanted to have a Western swing band with fiddles and steel guitar and the whole lot, and I really just wanted to play some rock & roll. It became clear that we wanted two different things." Discouraged by his failure to make a mark, Dickerson promptly started up a new project with guitarist Mel Bergmann of LA's Phantom Surfers, which must surely have left Dave and Deke fans scratching their heads in confusion. "We'd been beating our heads against a wall playing rockabilly and surf, and we figured if we did something that was the exact opposite of everything we'd done, maybe we'd have a little more success with it," says Dickerson. And so the Go Nuts was born, a group Dickerson describes as "superhero-snack-rock-guerrilla entertainment revue." "Strangely enough, we actually got hooked up with CAA, which represents Tom Cruise and Robin Williams and people like that," he says. "They were actually pitching us to the networks to get a TV show. But we haven't heard anything more from them, and I don't expect anything to happen." So it was back to the road with another post-Dave and Deke group he'd formed-then called Deke Dickerson and His Dekes of Hazard and affectionately known as "DOH!"-which wound up signing to Hightone in June. Why the name change to the Ecco-Fonics? "Because we didn't want to wind up filed away with Weird Al Yankovich or the Fat Boys and that sort of thing." With any luck, Dickerson-who holds a day job working for Dionysus Records-might even be able to fulfill his life's ambition. "I used to tell my dad that my goal in life was to not own an alarm clock," he says. "My dad used to get real pissed off about that because he grew up with that whole Puritan-work-ethic thing. But hopefully, with this record, I can realize my dream."Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-Fonics play at the Foothill, 1922 Cherry Ave., Signal Hill, (562) 494-5196. Fri., 9 p.m. $5. 18+.
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