June 28, 2012 in City

Doug Clark: ‘Wild’ dream bears fruit three decades later

By The Spokesman-Review

Don Emerson plays his first guitar in 1975.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Spokane’s Don Emerson is enjoying the attention every rocker yearns for.

For starters his album, “Dreamin’ Wild,” was released Tuesday through Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records.

(For orders, go to www.lightintheattic.net.)

Songs from the album, Emerson said, have been recorded by a number of other artists. A few tracks will be included in a movie, and a documentary about “Dreamin’ Wild” is apparently in the talking stages.

Ariel Pink, an indie musician of some note, has voiced affection for “Baby,” praising the song as “nothing short of sublime.”

The music press has come calling, too. Emerson and his music have caught the fancy of publications from MOJO magazine to the Los Angeles Times.

This tale comes with a rather significant twist, however.

“Dreamin’ Wild” was originally recorded and released in 1979, back when Emerson was a 17-year-old high school senior who went by “Donnie.”

“It’s so weird,” Emerson told me when we met for coffee one recent morning. “It doesn’t make sense. It almost is scrambling my brain up a little bit.”

You can’t blame the guy. Having to suddenly confront your jumpsuited youthful past would give anyone a dose of psychic whiplash.

The cover of “Dreamin’ Wild” is a sight, all right. Donnie and his older brother Joe, a drummer, strike a pose in matching white high-collared outfits that look like they were pilfered from Elvis Presley’s closet.

It’s a laughable look, even to Emerson.

But make no mistake. It’s not the album cover that has heads turning.

The music on the eight-song album is flat-out groovy, conjuring up a 1960s vibe despite its decade-later date.

Even more amazing is that “Dreamin’ Wild” was created and recorded in a home studio on the Emerson family farm near Fruitland (population 50), about 70 miles northwest of Spokane.

And here’s where our story starts resembling the plot of a Hallmark TV special.

See, Donnie was something of a musical wonder lad who grew up playing an assortment of instruments. At age 9, for example, he put together a sax, flute and trombone trio that performed for a Grange hall wedding.

Emerson the teenager eventually settled on guitar. He became consumed with writing songs and playing them with his percussionist bro.

Enter Emerson’s father, Don Sr.

Or Santa Claus, for short.

Seeking to support his sons’ musicality, the elder Emerson built the aforementioned sound studio for his kids and equipped it with top-notch gear.

He then remodeled the barn into Camp Jammin’, a concert venue big enough to hold 300 fans and complete with bathrooms, a ticket booth and snack bar.

The project cost $100,000, “an astonishing outlay of cash for a father to devote to his children’s pastime in any community,” wrote Dave Segal in the compelling booklet that comes with the $12 “Dreamin’ Wild” CD release.

“That it occurred in the remote rural region of northeastern Washington by a small-scale farmer represents possibly the most beyond-the-call-of-duty gesture in the history of parenthood.”

“Dreamin’ Wild” was the result of Emerson’s natural musicianship, the siblings’ raw creativity and many, many late-night recording sessions.

(Check out “The Rock-n-Roll Farmers,” a seven-minute video on YouTube that tells the “Dreamin’ Wild” story.)

The Emersons couldn’t have realized how aptly named their record was, of course.

Taking out a second mortgage to pay for the studio and venue was the wildest of dreams. The return never materialized, and the venture ultimately cost Emerson Sr. more than 1,500 acres of his 1,600-acre farm.

And that was that.

At least it was until this long-forgotten gem began to enjoy a new life thanks to a quirk of fate and the World Wide Web.

A couple of years ago, Emerson explained, two random music lovers found a copy of “Dreamin’ Wild” in a Spokane antique store.

Maybe it was the goofy cover that grabbed them. Whatever it was, they bought it and liked what they heard. Slowly, the music started moving around the Internet.

And a buzz began to blossom.

“This is one of those LPs that helps one understand why people bother to even look for records to begin with … lovely, surprising mix of folk, soul, psych and funk,” wrote music writer Oliver Wang.

Emerson, who today fronts The Emerson Band, obviously can’t predict how far this newfound appreciation will go.

But he’s still an unabashed believer in the music he created with his brother on the farm nearly 35 years ago.

“When we’re kids our minds are not constrained by the world,” Emerson said. “Your imagination is so true and real. Nothing taints it.”

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email