While felicitous circumstance crowns many of history's victors, there are always others cobbling the streets and surveying the valleys along the way. Long before Ben Folds, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Superchunk, Don Dixon ruled Chapel Hill, N.C., laying the groundwork for the area's subsequent college-rock success.
Dixon co-founded rockers Arrogance with guitarist Robert Kirkland in 1969, while attending UNC, and by the mid-'70s they'd developed a vibrant regional following for their folk-tinged boogie. They sounded like Big Star with Brinsley Schwartz's barroom bluster -- plenty of harmonies and ringing guitars backed by country-blues chug. But after four studio albums, including two separate stints with major labels, they called it quits in '83, as Dixon was transitioning into his second career as a producer, working with a young band from Athens, Ga., with some similar influences.
As R.E.M.'s debut, Murmur, kickstarted the whole Southern-pop movement, Dixon's production career took off like a nitro funny car. In the mid-'80s he produced a slew of power-pop and folk-rock acts -- The Connells, Smithereens, Tommy Keene, Matthew Sweet, Marshall Crenshaw, Fetchin' Bones and Guadalcanal Diary -- and launched a solo career.
Over the years, he's released nine studio albums, five of them between '85 and '95. All feature Dixon's facility with hooks and slinky, pop boogie, but the tone varies from the jagged new-wave swing of his debut, Most of the Girls Like to Dance (But Only Some of the Boys Do) through 1995's old-school soul-pop Romantic Depressive, to the punchy jangle-pop of 2001's Invisible Man.
In 2006, Dixon released perhaps his best album, The Entire Combustible World in One Small Room. With his crooning tenor and clever, character-driven storytelling, it's more subdued and songwriterly, recalling the best of mid-period Elvis Costello (after he ditched the Attractions). The songs are keenly sketched, like the sparsely loping "Sunlit Room," with its benumbed characters whose "snapped nerve pain has nowhere to go," or the gambling-themed cabaret-folk strut, "Smoke (Queen of Vegas)."
His latest, The Nu-Look, is a covers album (with a pair of Dixon originals) featuring his long-time running mates, the Jump Rabbits. It showcases the breadth of Dixon's influences, from the shredding blues guitar of Willie Dixon's "300 pounds of Joy" to the dB's infectious collegiate hit "Amplifier" and the mod-ish "Six Pack," by Matt Barrett, a Carrboro, N.C., songwriter Dixon produced in the early '80s. While Dixon's name may not be familiar, he taps some timeless sounds.
Don Dixon and the Jump Rabbits with Davy Rocket 7 p.m. Thu., June 26 (6 p.m. doors). Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $10. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com
- Jingle-jangle: Don Dixon