One of the most bone-chilling lines in Johnny Dowd’s songbook can be found in a tune the Ithaca, New York–based musician has recorded twice — sung by his angel-voiced partner Kim Sherwood-Caso as ”Death Comes Knocking“ on last year‘s Temporary Shelter, and recut by Dowd as a crashing Weill-meets-Waits waltz called ”On Shakey Ground We Stand“ on his new The Pawnbroker’s Wife. The refrain of the song runs, ”You think I‘m talking about them, but I’m talking about you.“
A scary thought, for the music on Dowd‘s four albums to date is crammed with horror, often hip-deep in blood. But he believes his music is nothing if not universal.
Speaking on the phone in a slow Texas drawl, Dowd recalls, ”At this festival in Belgium this summer, I had that feeling of people feeling like, ’Who are you singing to and about? This couldn‘t possibly have anything to do with me.’ I really don‘t think my view is from outer space, you know. I hope that I’m addressing real people, but sometimes people want to deny it.“
Darkness has suffused Johnny Dowd‘s music since he blasted into the public consciousness with his homemade 1996 debut, Wrong Side of Memphis, which the singer-songwriter-guitarist released himself at the age of 49. The album kicked off with ”Murder,“ which found Dowd crooning, ”There’s a murder here today, see the bloodstains on the wall,“ in a tuneless, distorted warble. The collection hit its peak with ”First There Was,“ an outlaw ballad in which a drifter robs a feed store, kills its employees, shoots an usher who awakens him from a doze in a movie theater, and finally swings for his crime. The album ended with a salutation to the Savior: ”Welcome Jesus to this dismal swamp . . . Welcome Jesus to my sufferin‘ mind.“
Bleak? Terrifying? Maybe, but Dowd says, ”If my mind’s at rest, that‘s where it goes, you know. Writing like that is like whistling when you go past the cemetery. It puts things at bay . . . Like somebody might hear a song that I did and find it disturbing, whereas I find it’s gone out of me.“
He adds that his writing ”reflects the kind of music I‘ve always liked. Even in rock & roll. If there was one song that sort of influenced my subject matter, it’s that song — I can‘t think of the name of it, I’m sure you know it. It was a big hit in the ‘50s. It’s the song where they‘re on the railroad tracks, and he gets out, and his girlfriend’s still in the car.“ He sings ”Teen Angel,“ the 1960 teen-tragedy hit by Mark Dinning. ”It was just that whole . . . a good thing, a great thing, just suddenly goes bad, you know. A car wreck.“ (Dowd says his own ”No Woman‘s Flesh but Hers,“ an appalling car-crash tale on his 1999 album Pictures From Life’s Other Side, is ”a total remake“ of the Dinning tune.)
”Life seems so random to me . . . I have basically a fearful view of life. I don‘t know why. I’ve had a good life, I‘ve had good parents, people I love, people that love me. But it must be genetic. I don’t understand why some people are pessimistic, some people are optimistic. It‘s just the way they are.“
For more than 25 years, Dowd has operated a small trucking business, the Zolar Moving Co., in Ithaca. His musical arrival has been a much longer haul than any he has probably driven.
Born in Fort Worth, Dowd moved as a child to Memphis, and then to Pauls Valley, Oklahoma. ”My great-grandfather was a sheriff there,“ Dowd says, recounting some history that probably played a role in a song or two. ”I had a picture of him — the cowboy hat, two six-guns. He ended up getting stabbed to death in a dispute over a school-board election.“
He moved back to Memphis with his divorced mother at the age of 17. After a year at Syracuse University and a halfhearted attempt to dodge the draft by crisscrossing the country three times in his car, he was finally conscripted into the Army at the height of the Vietnam War. ”I was in Berlin for two years,“ he says. ”My main job was parades. I carried the American flag . . . that, and a mass amount of drugs.“
Returning to the U.S. in 1971, he continued ”wastin’ time, avoiding anything“ in Long Beach and Bakersfield. In the mid-‘70s, he and a buddy drove to Ithaca in a ’51 Ford pickup. ”That was the extent of our, what would you call it, our resources,“ says Dowd, ”so we started hauling trash, just to try to get a little money together, and that‘s when I got into the trucking business.“
In 1978, when he was already in his 30s, Dowd had his great musical epiphany when he saw Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz, about The Band‘s Thanksgiving 1976 farewell show, at an Ithaca movie house.
”They so mythologized the rock life, I realize now that I started to live it,“ Dowd says, choking back laughter. ”I said, ’My God, this is it. I can do this. I‘m kinda old, but I’ll have it down by the time I‘m 40.’ I went out and bought a guitar, and my business partner bought a bass. We bought my little sister a drum set. Nobody had ever played a note. We did the same thing everybody else does, except they were like, whatever, 15. It‘s the exact same story. It just started 20 years late.“
Dowd refers to rock & roll as ”my religion,“ but he confesses that being an acolyte was not an easy calling. ”If I’d known how difficult it‘d be to do anything musically, I would’ve bought a boat,“ he says. By the mid-‘90s, after playing his music in Ithaca bars for years, he was ready to hang up his guitar. But a friend gave him a four-track tape machine, and his life changed.
”I was just fascinated,“ he says. ”And it was also like, ’I don‘t need anybody else to do this. I don’t have to call a band practice. I don‘t have to make somebody believe that this song I wrote is any good. I can do everything myself.’ And it was fun. I got really deeply into it for about six months.“
The result was the exercise in lo-fi terrorism Wrong Side of Memphis, which ended up earning national attention after Dowd blind-mailed the self-pressed CD to a list of journalists supplied by a friend. Within a year, the album had been picked up by the Chicago roots label Checkered Past; Dowd had played a hackle-raising set at Austin‘s South by Southwest Music Conference; and Koch Records had signed Dowd to a contract. After years in total obscurity, Dowd had arrived.
He had by then enlisted most of the musicians who play with him today, right out of his back yard: Singer Sherwood-Caso worked at a hairdressing parlor down the street from Zolar’s offices, and Brian Wilson — the prodigiously dexterous musician who simultaneously plays drums and operates a keyboard bass pedal — actually worked for Dowd at Zolar as a teenager. Keyboardist-guitarist Justin Asher arrived just two years ago, and now co-produces Dowd‘s albums.
The Pawnbroker’s Wife, released earlier this year on Germany‘s Munich Records and just issued stateside by Nashville-based Catamount Records, continues the formula established by Wrong Side of Memphis. The sound is an unsettling farrago of Dowd’s twisted, off-key singing, Sherwood-Caso‘s crystalline harmonizing, high-distortion guitar work and low-budget keyboards. The songs still survey the same hellish terrain — death, divorce, infidelity, loss, isolation.
Speaking about his blunt, naked and unforgiving songs, Dowd quotes Bob Dylan’s ”It‘s All Right Ma“: ”I love that — ’life and life only.‘ If you can strip everything away from it, and you can still see the beauty in it, then that says something. Anybody can see the beauty in a Carpenters song, including me. I love the Carpenters. But can you see the beauty in Karen Carpenter? That’s a different thing, and that to me is more interesting.“
Johnny Dowd plays at the Mint, Tuesday, October 15.
JOHNNY DOWD | The Pawnbroker‘s Wife | (Catamount Records)