Acres Of Heartache, the debut release from Johnny Dilks on HighTone's HMG label, transports its listeners back in time to some West Texas honky-tonk, or a rowdy dancehall just outside of Bakersfield in the 1950's. Yet this is contemporary music created in 1999 by a singer who's been described as "sounding like the love child of Hank Williams and Patsy Montana." Fueled by original songs with an authentic sound, San Francisco-based Johnny Dilks and his superb band, the Visitacion Valley Boys, have become one of the most talked about groups in the world of honky-tonk and western swing. And this boy can yodel like nobody's business!
Born and raised in San Mateo, California, Johnny connected with roots music through a fortuitous series of events. "As a young boy, I heard western swing music played at a sign shop where I worked," he remembers. "Then, when I was 13 or 14, my aunt gave me her record collection, which included Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and a bunch of other rockabilly." Right about that same time, Johnny was befriended by the owner of Jack's Record Cellar in San Francisco, a venerable music store, who turned him on to the world of western swing and honky-tonk via old vinyl records.
"I started out as a guitar player and never wanted to be a singer," he admits. After a short stint with a punk band, he joined a rockabilly band at age 19. And when he later wanted to form a western swing band and couldn't find the right singer, he learned how to sing and became the vocalist himself. During the four-year life of this Bay Area-based western swing band, which included anywhere from 8 to 13 members, he also performed in a trio. Eventually, various members of both of those groups became what is now the Visitacion Valley Boys.
Starting in early 1996, Johnny Dilks and His Visitacion Valley Boys began to carve a well-respected niche in the West Coast retro scene with a western swing and honky-tonk sound heavily influenced by Hank Williams, Bob and Billy Jack Wills, the Louvin Brothers, and yodeller Kenny Roberts. Dilks cites pre-Comets Bill Haley, then with the Saddlemen, as another yodeling influence. He also draws on Dixieland and Cajun music for inspiration. An early highlight of his young career came in 1998 when one of his heroes--Charlie Louvin--asked Johnny and the boys to back him on a West Coast tour.
The Visitacion Valley Boys (named after an actual valley south of San Francisco, which was a hotbed of country music in the 1940's) comprise Paul Wooton on guitar; Billy Wilson on steel guitar; Brian Godchaux on fiddle, mandolin and vocals; Brendan Ryan on upright bass, and Pat Campbell on drums. They hail from all over the country, and they range in experience from relative youngsters to seasoned vets. When they play together, the Visitacion Valley Boys create a sound that is warm, exciting, and made for Saturday night dances.
Johnny Dilks wrote all but four of the fifteen tracks on Acres Of Heartache, which marks him as one of the brightest young songwriters working in roots music today. Some of the album's highlights include the title track with its Sons of the Pioneers meets Marty Robbins sound; the timeless sentiment of "The Check's In The Mail"; the cold-war country anthem "Stalin Kicked The Bucket"; and the Dixieland-influenced "Jelly Roll." "Grey Eagle," a traditional fiddle tune, is given flight with a Brian Godchaux arrangement and words by Dilks and HighTone's Bruce Bromberg, who also co-produced the album with Johnny. On "Lose That Woman Blues," "Yodel till I Turn Blue," and "Lonesome Side Of Town," Johnny Dilks lets loose with his astounding yodel. And "astounding" is a good word for the rest of Acres Of Heartache, too. It's a perfect time capsule for the roots of American music.
(C) Hightone Records