There was a time when Dash Rip Rock was the success story traditional music fans tried to ignore.
Funk fans locally weren’t sure what to do with the band’s one-dimensional sonic charge, but then Dash Rip Rock became a national success in the late ’80s through relentless touring as part of a wave of bands that combined punk’s intensity with country and rockabilly.
“We were in Hollywood opening for Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, then the next night we opened for The Circle Jerks,” remembered bandleader Bill Davis.
But time has been Dash Rip Rock’s friend, and while the band is not as big as it once was, Davis is now finally getting respect.
Dash Rip Rock will play d.b.a. Friday night, and as a sign of his changing place in the musical world, Davis will also perform with critically acclaimed Americana singer/songwriters Kevin Gordon and Monty Russell on Sept. 4 at The BEATnik, a new Clio Street venue that was formerly The Big Top.
“Maybe through some of our recent albums, I’ve edged back towards a songwriting vehicle rather than just a wild rock vehicle,” Davis said. “Lately, I’ve been afforded more time to craft my songs. Monty and Kevin have crafted their songs from the beginning and don’t have any weird baggage that they have to hide in order to be a respected songwriter.”
Dash Rip Rock started in 1984 while Davis was attending LSU, and the band’s buzzsaw energy and smartass lyrics were tailor-made for college audiences.
“We were cartoon characters,” Davis said. “You had ‘Hoaky’ (Hickel), ‘Fred’ (LeBlanc), ‘Lucky Dog’ (Chris Luckette). It was great fun.”
But even then he dotted the occasional serious song between celebrations of drinking and high-speed covers of George Jones and Hank Williams songs.
“You can go through the Dash catalogue and cherry-pick a really interesting songwriter’s album,” Davis said.
The band’s biggest hit came in 1995 by rewriting the vintage pop doo-wop tune “At the Hop” as “Let’s Go Smoke Some Pot.” The song was a swipe at the Southern jam bands that were emerging, and it was picked up by the burgeoning alternative radio format created in the wake of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Davis acknowledges it wouldn’t get by his songwriting filter today.
“The pot song was specifically of that moment. There’s no way now I’d want to drag myself into that world,” he said.
That hit was the only favor grunge did for Dash Rip Rock. Most of its country punk peers — Jason and the Scorchers, The Beat Farmers, The LeRoi Brothers — had quit by that time, and heavy music from Seattle became the soundtrack to college parties.
Dash Rip Rock seemed like it had stayed at the party too long, and Davis’ honky tonk side project, The Swinging Haymakers, consumed much of his creative energy. In 1999, he decided to try his hand as a songwriter in Nashville.
“You had Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and all these people bringing an alternative side to Nashville,” Davis said, and he thought he could fit into that scene.
Unfortunately, that was another wave that had crested, and Davis’ rock ’n’ roll ethos was a rough fit in country music’s factory-like atmosphere, where songs are worked out on assembly lines. He spent six years there with little to show for it, but he doesn’t regret the experience.
“It was a school on how music works,” Davis said, laughing. “I learned a lot of stuff, not that I’m practicing any of it right now.”
During that time, he released “Sonic Boom” under the name “Dash” to signify that this was a more mature version of the band. The album had fewer laughs, fewer drinking songs, and was open to emotions more subtle than “thirsty,” “horny” and “angry.” When it came time to play songs from the album at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2001, Davis detoured part way through the set and returned to well-known form, blasting out rowdy anthems.
“I love playing rock ’n’ roll so much,” he said. “I’m always going to err to the side to the power and energy of rock ’n’ roll.”
Davis returned to the band name that made him famous, but his songwriting grew with him. He can still write songs such as “It’s the Beer” and “Country Girlfriend,” but in 2007 he also released “Hee Haw Hell,” which re-imagined Dante’s “Inferno” as a trip through a South-inspired afterlife. These days, some jokes remain broad, but “In This World,” from 2012’s “Black Liquor,” captures our relationship with the powers-that-be when he sings, “In this world / they’ll call you up to make sure you’re alone.”
These days, the band’s lineup is fairly stable with long-time drummer Kyle Melancon and bassist Patrick Johnson, and in 2012 they paid tribute to outlaw country singer Billy Joe Shaver by recording an album of his songs.
“I don’t think I’ve ever written for any listenership or age group,” Davis said. “It’s just what I love and want to write. I have love for ‘70s pop country like Charlie Rich and Gram Parsons, stuff like that.”
While Davis had periods where his own attention to the band wavered, he credits the Internet with helping Dash Rip Rock stay in touch with old audiences and find new ones.
“We’ve been able to get the entire catalog to anyone who wants it,” Davis said. “It used to be you had to go to a record store or listen to college radio. Now it’s available for a five-year-old to listen to.”
Dash Rip Rock
With The Chris Lee Band
WHEN: 10 p.m., Friday, Aug. 22
WHERE: d.b.a., 618 Frenchmen St., (504) 942-3731, dbaNewOrleans.com