The Curious Tale of Donnie and Joe Emerson and Dreamin’ Wild

“We were kind of in a dream world,” Joe says, “because we were isolated, we hadn’t been to any concerts and so really the radio was our inspiration and insight into music. We were really still very innocent.”

Wikipedia: “Living on a 1600-acre family farm in rural Fruitland, Washington, in the late 1970s, the brothers’ father, Don Emerson Sr., encouraged his teenage sons’ musical interest as they began writing and playing their own music. Don Sr. built his sons a state-of-the-art $100,000 ($415,000 in today’s dollars) recording studio.

In it, they self-produced and self-released their first album, Dreamin’ Wild, in 1979, an eclectic mix of rock, soul, R&B, country, and funk music on their own Enterprise & Co. label.”

How did this minor miracle come to be? Well, Fruitland, WA today has a population of grand total 812 people. And so, farming was the thing. As Donnie, says, during the summer in particular, “there wasn’t no messing around. You don’t run that type of farm by sitting around.”

In 1978 their father bought a tractor with a built-in AM/FM radio. And given that driving a tractor is pretty bloody boring, the brothers had not much else to do but listen to the radio all day long. But unlike the rest of us who just get those earworms in our heads, the brothers felt compelled to write their own stuff.

Writing songs came naturally to the brothers. (I always say you either got it or you don’t – ME). First their father built them a practice space, then they wound up making a demo 45. But when they realized that that wasn’t enough for them and they already had a practice space, why, their father went andย borrowed the moneyย to build a studio. (I love my kids but ain’t no fucking way I’m borrowing $400k to build a studio – ME).

And according to The Guardian, “.The record that they made in that homemade studio was the beautifully naive, deeply sincere Dreamin’ Wild, an intuitively sophisticated set of songs that tempered west-coast pop with blue-eyed soul.

And that record went … nowhere. Their mother drove them around to various radio stations and gave a bunch away and then a whole bunch sat in their basement in what was – let’s face it – a vanity project. Meanwhile, the loan was coming due and they were losing “huge swatches of the farm” since it was used as collateral in the world’s longest shot.

And so, they managed to somehow keep the farm and the brothers brief flirtation with the music industry – like so many others before them, crashed and burned. And the brothers went on with their lives, more or less as they always had always wondering what if? “Joe, who, unlike Donnie, never married, stayed on the farm, in a house he built just a hundred yards away from the little recording studio.”

And all of that would have been a nice little story to tell their grandchildren and the 800 or so other residents of Fruitland who were likely snickering about the whole thing anyway. And then:

Dreamin’ Wild had no commercial success until 2008 when record collector Jack Fleischer discovered the record in an antique shop in Spokane, Washington. Fleisher began to evangelize it. (It was the cheesy white jumpsuits that caught his attention apparently).

In July 2012, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti covered the song “Baby” and in the same year Light in the Attic Records re-released Dreamin’ Wild with “Baby” becoming an underground hit. In October 2012, the brothers performed at a Light in the Attic anniversary concert in Seattle. The album received “unanimous praise.”

Having listened to it myself, I find AllMusic’s review fairly accurate: “The album’s best asset is Donnie’s unaffected, high, earnestly sweet singing, which at this young age, was certainly of a respectably professional standard. Otherwise, the record is an odd mix of kernels of promise compromised by the somewhat half-baked songwriting and slipshod production, placing it on an unsteady perch between competent mid-’70s pop/rock and outsider music.

That means it’s hardly a great record — the rabid enthusiasm of some collectors to the contrary — but that strange blend is also responsible for it sounding like little else from the time, and thus more interesting than uncounted, more professional (yet average) records drawing from similar styles.”

I would actually give the songwriting higher marks than AllMusic did but the production leaves quite a bit to be desired. I think that if instead of dear old dad sinking a ton of cash into a studio, they would have been better off working with a professional producer who could have given the album a little, shall we say, pizazz. That said, the album does have a certain young naive charm.

See (hear) for yourself. This is “Good Time.”

And here’s the aforementioned ever-popular “Baby.”

It turns out the brothers Emerson recorded some 70 songs and so of course, once Dreamin’ Wild had a measure of success, why, they then released Still Dreamin’ Wild: The Lost Recordings 1979-81.

Guardian: When I ask Joe what it’s like hearing their teenage voices out there in the world again, his voice cracks. “I just want to cry,” he admits. “We did it with our hearts in the right place, we did it because we really wanted to share our music and we thought we had something special. And sure, we were naive about the music business, but I think it all happened in God’s own time: he felt it wasn’t right then, it’s more right now because we’re able to handle some of this.”

This is such a great story – you are by now saying to yourself – it’s a shame they didn’t make it into a movie starring Casey Affleck, Walton Goggins, and Zooey Deschanel. Well, of course, they did. In fact, it was just released a few months ago. Seems to have been pretty well reviewed and, I suppose, will make its way to streaming. See the Variety review here.

Until then, you have the sometimes good, sometimes questionable, always heartfelt recording of Dreamin’ Wild, an ode to youthful non-garage band rock (?) if ever there was one.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Guardian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15 thoughts on “The Curious Tale of Donnie and Joe Emerson and Dreamin’ Wild

    1. Quite the story, eh? When I read about it, I said, I gotta do that one. I actually kinda like the album. It’s certainly no masterpiece but it’s got kind of a low-key charm to it.

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  1. That was interesting- I’d never heard of them. That first track you featured reminds me of Already Gone until the vocal comes in. As you mote, probably could have been mixed and produced better – that lead vocal sounds really exposed.

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    1. I actually find his vocals to have a sort of naive innocence. But yeah, dad could have spent a hell of a lot less money by hiring a good producer and an agent. No guarantee but he likely wouldn’t have been selling off the farm. Gotta see that movie.

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    1. Forgot about them. From Fremont, NH. I used to work for a woman who had a house there and held parties. Pretty much a rural town with not much happening.

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        1. i don’t suppose you have Apple+TV. They’ve got a documentary about Louis Armstrong who I happen to be reading about. You a fan? Worst case, get the channel for a month then dump it.

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        2. I do like Louis and have read and seen quite a bit but I will check that out for sure. Very interesting life. I like his music with Teagarden, late 40’s? What book are you reading? Still havent pulled the trigger on the Carter doc. Almost last night. Like a fine wine waiting for me to pull the cork.

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        3. The book is called ‘The History of Jazz’ by Ted Gioia. I heard about Gioia from one of Rick Beato’s YouTube posts. He interviewed him too. Very interesting guy. Has a blog too. The book is excellent. Details the history of how jazz got started in New Orleans. Do you know that a lot of later Black players like Miles thought that Louis was an Uncle Tom which is about the worst thing an American Black person can call another one? By the time they heard of him, they were unaware of his innovations and to them he was just some guy sucking up to the White man. I believe this is addressed in the doc. And Louis was aware of it.

          Fun fact – when Louis died he was living in a neighborhood of New York called Corona about 4 miles away from where I was living. Paul Simon immortalized that neighborhood. “Goodbye Rosie, the queen of Corona.”

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        4. Dont get me going on that Davis stuff. Louis was a tough bastard that earned everything he got. Money wise and what he brought to other musicians and listeners. I’m pretty up on the Armstrong story. Burns did a pretty good job on him in his movie.
          One day when you and i are sitting on the island we will talk shit. I’ll give you my thoughts on guys like Davis, Baker (both of them) Jerry Lee. Then we’ll get back to the good shit. I heard someone say that talent wasnt always given to nice people. I would agree with that. But even those 4 I mentioned had some redeeming qualities (just like CB maybe). But I’m a cheap date. Thanks for the author. I’ll check out.

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