Dane Terry has always loved music. You begin to recognize this when he speaks, but the moment he picks up his harp… it’s instantaneous. Terry grew up surrounded by musical influences—from the church, his family, and friends to local radio and records. “There was always music around.” He grins. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Dane’s current projects include four different bands, a couple of spontaneous duo-trio configurations, and he still jumps at the opportunity to sit in if an invitation is proffered. Terry’s blues band is known as the Cadillac Wreckers, his jazz trio, Champions, and then there’s an Americana/folk duo with his buddy Chris Clarke. If you’re really lucky, on occasion you can catch them both with Clarke’s countrified-bluegrass roots ensemble they call Plow. Did I mention that Dane Terry loves music?
You have to wonder how a California kid with so many options, directions, and opportunities would become that obsessed with music. It only seemed natural that we start with his childhood and what it was like growing up in the Terry household? “It was incredible, really,” he says. “We spent a lot of time around my aunts and uncles. My uncle was a pastor at a Pentecostal Church and his wife and daughters sang; they were basically the church choir, so I learned a lot about harmony early on. We would go to church with them, which meant we would go to church in the morning, go over to their house for a big meal in the middle of the day, and then go back to church in the evening. But the meals in the middle of the day were kinda like Thanksgiving. Everybody was there and spirits were high and the funny thing was, people would break into song in the middle of a conversation and I thought that was the way all families conversed. Somebody would start singing a song and whoever knew the lyrics would jump in and take a harmony part. It was fantastic, it really was fantastic.”
Sounds like every small town in America? “This was in Southern California.” Terry says. “I was born in Southern California and my father was born in Arkansas. Even in the ’50s a lot of popular music was what we now call Americana or hillbilly or country. My folks listened to a lot of jazz; my uncle and his family were kinda country sort of people, so there was always music around. We would sing with the radio, sing with the record albums, and the popular artists seemed to crossover in styles then so I ended up with my tastes being pretty broad. I have one blues band, I have one jazz band, and I sing with a bluegrass band.”
How old were you when you got your first harmonica? “Before I was in school,” he shakes his head. “I don’t know exactly how old I was. Someone helped me figure out what the little numbers meant and what I was supposed to do with those. If they had a circle around them you drew in, and if they just had the number, you’d blow. And I managed to figure out songs I recognized on it. Later on, I did get a guitar and a bass and I played for years and years in garage bands around Orange County or wherever I was. Never really had the desire to play out and never had the confidence to; in fact, I had a few earlier experiences trying to play music with people where I just choked up completely.”
When did you realize that music would be a constant in your life? “I think I started thinking about music, like a musician does, maybe before I was a teenager. We listened to a lot of music and my folks always talked to me about the musician who was performing and they wanted me to understand that people made music. I remember Ray Charles was on the radio a lot in the ’60s and his sound was so compelling. His singing was so elemental, so from the heart. He was one of the first who really impressed me to where I thought, ‘Jeez, if I could ever be a musician I wanna be like that guy.’ Of course, nobody has got that kind of talent.
“So I listened to rock ‘n’ roll in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the British Invasion, you know? Those guys brought blues music back to America and most of us hadn’t been thinking about blues music and listening to blues music… all of a sudden these guys were doing stuff with our music that we weren’t doing. And it really caught my ear and made me start listening to that stuff. Eventually digging deeper into what they were doing, I wanted to listen to what they were listening to. And when I found out what they were listening to, I want to know what that guy was listening to, and so on and keep digging back.”
Briefly, can we talk a little about your previous bands… the Snake Drivers? “The Snake Drivers was an early band I put together with a guy named Ray Zvetina and it was my first blues band. And it was my first band as a harmonica player, kind of leader. It was in the early 2000s.”
A 5th of Blues? “That was a North County band with Jimmy Seville and his wife, Tara. That was a fun band; we rehearsed a lot. I replaced Lance Dieckmann in that band. He recommended me and they called and said here’s what we’re doing and we need you to learn these 40 songs. [laughing] That was pretty challenging and really fun. They were all great folks and serious-minded musicians… and they knew what they wanted to do and they knew how they wanted to do it. And I got swept up and taken for a ride for awhile. It was great.”
Jukeville? “It was after Jimmy and Tara had left the 5th of Blues and we got another guitar player, Robert Bradford. We thought it would be appropriate to rename the band, so we renamed it Jukeville. We still kept the rhythm guitar player and, I think, the drummer. It changed the sound a lot, of course. The 5th of Blues and Jukeville were two guitars, harmonica, bass, and drums, that classic blues rock sound.”
Jack City Blues band? “Jack Naughton and his wife, Sandy, the most wonderful, warm-hearted sweet people that I’ve ever been associated with. Jack and Sandy did a lot of recording and we played some restaurant gigs, casual stuff but I haven’t played with them in years.
Cadillac Wreckers? “That’s my blues band [grinning]. I’m really proud of that band. Dana Duplan is the lead guitar player as well as the musical director. Not officially, nobody has a title in the band but I really rely on Dana’s sensibility about the direction we’re taking the band. For song sources, for arrangements, and Dana’s background is real, real strong in country music and blues. He’s been a life-long performer and musician, much longer than I have. He’s the kid that was always in a band. Stan Packer is our bass player. I met Stan when he was playing with Chet Cannon and the Committee. I’ve got a long history with Chet Cannon; Chet’s blues jams helped me get comfortable performing in front of people and I’ve learned so much about how to lead a band and what to do when you walk into an unfamiliar situation, in a jam scenario. He’s been a great mentor to so many blues musicians around San Diego. On drums is Steve Tomaino, and I met him when he was playing with Karl Cabbage’s band, West Memphis. They had a residency on Friday nights at the House of Blues in San Diego.”
Although known as a blues band, the Cadillac Wreckers are incredibly diverse and having witnessed multiple club and festival appearances there was never a time the dance floor wasn’t full… “It’s unique,” Terry admits. “For one thing we didn’t want to do ‘Mustang Sally’ and the really cliché stuff. There are a lot of people that focus on pre-war or post-war Chicago blues and we love that sound, but we wanted to swing. We wanted to swing like big bands. And when the big bands turned into small bands and they were just a one or two-horn band, maybe with piano, sometimes with a guitar, that’s the stuff we focus on. We like using the harmonica as a horn, a lot of the stuff that we play. Dana and I will do either synchronous or harmony leads throughout, or play the hook or the head through, and we like that kind of a sound. We just like to keep it really swinging. When people say, ‘Man you guys really rock,’ well, that’s nice but we don’t want to rock.” [laughing]
I discover a little of Dane’s passion for history and especially blues music history when asking about the origin of the Cadillac Wreckers name. “Back when Muddy Waters was working with Chess Records,” he says. “Leonard Chess bought Muddy a Cadillac when he first got his gold record. He bought one for Little Walter, bought one for Etta, bought one for Chuck Berry, and musicians and industry insiders started referring to Chess Records as Cadillac Records, because you got on with Chess and got yourself a Cadillac. Dana and I had seen that movie Cadillac Records and thought it was kinda cool, so he came up with the play on words: Cadillac Wreckers. And as I say occasionally on stage, one of us has actually crashed a Cadillac.” [laughing] I didn’t even have to ask, just raised an eyebrow before Dana blurts out. “It was me.” [laughing]
You’ve played with so many musicians in San Diego, Robin Henkel, the late Allen Singer… “Chris Clarke has become a very close musical partner. Chris is from Virginia and he has got the high-lonesome sound deep in his bones. His understanding of Americana and country and folk is much deeper than my understanding of blues. We find that we are pretty synergistic, we both bring different influences to stuff that we do. Most of the stuff he takes the lead on. I love the way he sings these songs and I love to harmonize with him. And my instrument [harp] is a good accompanying instrument to vocals. We play as a duo sometimes; I’m literally all over his latest CD, Pale Moonlight Blues, and Chris has a band called Plow, which is a bluegrass band, kind of a non-traditional bluegrass band because in some situations we play with a drummer. We have Mark Markowitz on drums—just snare and brushes, Jason Weiss on banjo, arguably the best Scruggs-style banjo player in San Diego if not Southern California. He is a monster. Doug Walker is a super accomplished bassist; he’s a degreed player, teaches, and he’s involved in several jazz bands and in Plow. And then there’s Chris on mandolin. Joe Pomianek was our guitar player, but he moved out of the area so we’ve been playing with Alex Sharps who is a fiddle contest winner and me on harmonica. It can be a big band but sometimes it’s just four or five pieces, sometimes it’s six or seven and it is all bluegrass, all the time.”
You also perform with Clarke as a duo? “When Chris and I play as a duo we play country, folk, bluegrass, old time blues… the blues stuff we play is definitely on the country tip. Blues guys might not even consider it country blues. I mean, I do because I was raised around that kind of blues as well as the more stereotypical or more familiar types. You know, Jimmie Rogers played a lot of good, country blues; even Bill Monroe played stuff that was bluesy. ‘Evening Prayer Blues’ is a real well know blues song that Chris and I want to do sometime. That was a DeFord Bailey tune. DeFord Bailey was a harmonica player, an African-American, and he was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry. He opened the Grand Ole Opry—every show for 15 or more years and everybody knew who DeFord Bailey was then. Nobody knows who DeFord is now, but he had a signature, a very sweet, melodious style.”
You released a CD with the Cadillac Wreckers, and you worked on it with yet another well-known and talented San Diego musician, Scottie Blinn. “Dana and I wanted to have a CD that was good and representative of the Cadillac Wreckers; we talked about all the guys we knew that had their own recording thing going on and Scottie Blinn’s name came up. We kicked it around and talked with Scottie, who was great to work with and he really knew his recording set up. So when we needed to punch something up or go back and slice something out… he was so fast and just made it wonderful for us. I would recommend Scottie to anyone who wants a professional-sounding album. The guy is a great player and he’s huge in Europe. We had a great experience with him and recorded up at his house and put a few original songs on the album and we tried to pick covers that you’re not going to hear every other band doing.”
Okay, just to set the record straight, as we speak just how many different bands are you performing with…on a regular basis? “Well, one more band that we haven’t talked about is Champions. Cadillac Wreckers is my main blues band, Plow is a bluegrass band that I’m a member of, with Chris Clarke, so that’s three.” He smiles. “Although, when I play with Chris as a duo that’s really a different thing.”
Tell us a little about Champions. “Champions is an early jazz trio. In order to explain Champions I should tell you about a band I played with before I played with Plow… the Zapf Dingbats. David Bandrowski, a phenomenal banjo player can play Scruggs; he can play tenor banjo you know, with a plectrum? He can play old-time banjo, the old claw hammer style. I mean the guy is a super virtuoso banjo player and this was his band. He played arch top guitar in this band, with Doug Walker on bass and Chris Clarke on mandolin, so we had the start of a Grateful Dead power trio almost, right? And then they brought me in and we played early jazz music from New Orleans. Bandrowski lived in New Orleans before he and his wife took shelter out here after Katrina, and she went to school for some kind of medical degree. When she got it, they moved back and David is in New Orleans now. So we played all this early stuff—Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Boldon, Satchmo, and the Memphis Kings—the New Orleans lexicon of Jazz and, man, was that fun! So Zapf Dingbats hooked me on that music, the early ’20s and a lot of those songs were written in the 1890s. W.C. Handy was one of the first ones who’s credited with writing and recording; I think he was recorded around 1910… fantastic source material. And Lou Curtiss was influential on the catalog of songs we did; every now and then he would be talking to Chris or David or me and suggest a song and that song would lead down a rabbit hole of some great old vinyl and we’d find something else to add. So when David left, we were heartbroken because we loved playing the music and that band played weekly for two years but I had to find an outlet for more of that music so I eventually got together with a tuba player and a mandolin player and formed Champions. I really wanted the mandolin player to be Chris Clarke but his calendar was filled up. Gary Layman, who is a long-time professional San Diego musician, played with other bands; is a solo guitarist, a songster, and also plays and teaches harmonica. Brian Smith is on tuba, and it’s really weird to think of a band as consisting only of harmonica, mandolin and tuba, but Brian is more than a capable player.”
So just to recap, you currently play in four or five bands? “Yeah, four counting Champions.” Dane says. “Once in a while I’m invited to jump in with the Little Kings and I occasionally play with Robin (Henkel).”
How did you acquire the name, Mr. Chromatonic? “I started a website to vent about harmonica stuff and share harmonica information. I play both chromatic and diatonic harmonicas, so that came out of pushing those two together. When I started and really wanted to learn about harmonica, I realized what I had to do first was develop good tone. So I literally spent about two years in the bathroom, playing long tones, and working on tremolos. There are three types of tremolos most harmonica players can do. I didn’t even try to learn licks or try to learn songs; I’d spend an hour at a time in the bathroom, because in the bathroom there are very bright, reflective surfaces and there was one corner I could stand in and hear the harmonica in both ears really well—as if I were standing in front of it. Normally, you can’t hear yourself play that way. You have to have good acoustic tone before you amplify it.”
Talking with most harp players, the conversation inevitably comes down to tone. For you, who did you consider, out of all the legends, to have the best harp tone? “Little Walter… Big Walter! A modern-day living, breathing guy that has that kind of tone is Phil Wiggins. Phil has got tone, a deep, intense beautiful tone. Another player is Rod Piazza… His acoustic tone is every bit as strong and as beautiful as Little Walter and Big Walter. He can do the Walters, man. And to hear that up close and personal or to see a guy pick up his harmonica and play a note that can move you back in your chair and go, ‘Wow, how did he just do that?’ That was profound for me. It hit me right between the eyes and actually made me go back and work on my tone even more.”
Are you an experimental type of performer or do you prefer more precision when performing? “With the bands I play with there’s always a part of every song that is set and rigid; there’s a definite formula for a song that sets out the structure, usually a couple of times through the head and then the solo’s start. So I love to play as a soloist and to play improvisationally—so, yeah, both of those things are important to me.”
Do you still consider yourself a bluesman at heart? “I used to. I embrace the blues; I love blues music and I’ll never to be able to play anything that doesn’t sound bluesy. When I play with Plow, the bluesier I play, the better they like it, which surprised me. Because we play a lot of fiddle tunes and I’m trying to learn complex melodies for a lot of what I do there. But you come back to the blues and that’s what makes people hoot and holler. Yes, I’m always going to be a blues player, but I don’t think that defines me. What defines me as a musician is musicality and I think I generally approach most of my improvisational stuff from the melody of whatever it is I’m doing. I’d say I’m a melodic improviser.”
If live music is your thing, go to www.daneterry.com for dates and times near you. Whether you’re a fan of blues, Americana, bluegrass, folk, or New Orleans jazz, you’re in luck, Dane says, “I’m playing with all of my bands in September.” For the love of Dane Terry, or any artist for that matter, mark your calendar and get out in support of your local music scene. It’ll make your day just that much better.
Catch Dane Terry live at Humphreys Backstage Live with the Cadillac Wreckers on August 9th and 20th.