JOHNNY DILKS STAYS TRUE TO
COUNTRY, WESTERN SWING ROOTS



By Tom RichardsAppleton Post-Crescent staff writer

2001 - The leader and namesake of the western swing and roots country band, Johnny Dilks and the Visitacion Valley Boys, doesn't care much for what passes as country music these days. "Pop garbage is what it is," he said in a telephone interview at a stop on the band's national tour.

Dilks said that on a visit to Nashville, the band went to the Grand Ole Opry. "All the old guys are still there playing," he said. "The new country guys don't give a damn about them. Vince Gill is the only one who cares about the roots. They don't care where they came from. They were listening to rock'n'roll when they were kids. That wasn't what Dilks was hearing, though he acknowledges that he was something of a captive audience. As a boy, he worked in a sign shop in his native San Mateo, California, and the owner loved and listened to western swing. Then, in his early teens, an aunt gave him her record collection, which included a lot of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and other rockabilly artists.

When he went to San Francisco to find out about selling the records, the owner of Jack's Record Cellar befriended him and turned him on to old records of western swing, honky tonk and rockabilly. "That was like a drug," Dilks said. "I spent all my money on records for nine or 10 years." Still for a time in high school, he played in a modestly successful punk band. His country influences took over, however, by the time he was 18. He joined a rockabilly band.

Then, at 19, he formed his own western swing band, the Rhythm Wranglers, that ranged at various times from eight to 13 members. The band enjoyed some success in the Bay area. At the same time, he was part of a trio, the original Visitacion Valley Boys.

The current incarnation is a six-member band that is a combination of the two groups. One of the problems of such a group is finding musicians who can play western swing, which, Dilks said, is much more complex and difficult than rockabilly. The group now consists of Dilks, who plays guitar, sings and yodels and writes most of the band's original material; Paul Wooton, guitar; Billy Wilson, steel guitar; Brian Godchaux, fiddle, mandolin and vocals; Brendan Ryan, stand-up bass; and Pat Campbell, drums.

Dilks said these musicians come from all over the country. They also range in experience from relative newcomers to seasoned pros. It is music like that of Hank Williams and Bob and Billy Jack Wills that most influences Dilks' tunes, but there also are the strong tastes of bluegrass and Cajun. "I love a lot of '30s western swing," he said. "For me, it's just kind of real. Those guys were writing songs about their lives, from their hearts."

"Nowdays, you've got songwriters writing songs for guys. The radio picks who they make famous." Dilks said with a fairly large band touring, "money is really tight. I'm just kind of hoping that more and more people wake up to this kind of music."



Rockabilly Hall of Fame