Classical mixed with bluegrass? Call them the Dregs
San Francisco — Imagine being in college and receiving class credit for forming an energetic musical group that plays rock, bluegrass, jazz, and classical - and which becomes listed in the college curriculum as Rock Ensemble II.
Envision then, after graduation, using the school's new 16-track recording studio to produce a ''demo'' (demonstration) album, ''The Great Spectacular,'' while seeking a record company contract.
This was the plan devised in 1975 by a group based in the South called the Dixie Dregs - known today as simply The Dregs. It consists of band leader-composer-guitarist Steve Morse, bassist Andy West, drummer Rod Morgenstein, keyboard player T. Lavitz, and newly acquired fiddle player Mark O'Connor - at age 19 the three-time grand national fiddle champion.
In the six years the group has been together, it has produced five albums and amassed a solid following of Dregs loyalists throughout the country. The band's music remains, as it always has been, a high-energy mix of bluegrass and classical styles that also incorporates rock and jazz textures. The blending of styles is largely accomplished through the violin, which emphasizes the classical and bluegrass overtones and gives an unorthodox texture to the rock and roll.
The core of the Dregs' approach to music is the unique writing and playing style of Steve Morse, which has evolved over the last 15 years. Having learned to play guitar at age 12, Morse was influenced by the pop music of the early Beatles era. Later, in the '60s, his interests moved to classical guitar.
The turning point in Morse's music career came in 1970, when he attended a concert in Augusta, Ga., that featured classical guitarist Juan Mercadal. The quality of craftsmanship in Mercadal's playing ''left me completely floored,'' Morse explained.
So in 1971 Morse enrolled at the Miami school. He studied guitar with one of Mercadal's teaching assistants for a full year before he was qualified for the master musician's classes.
By spring semester of 1973 Steve Morse had teamed up with drummer Rod Morgenstein and bass player Andy West, who were also attending the University of Miami. That same semester, the musicians created the Rock Ensemble II - the nucleus of the Dixie Dregs.
Two years later the band was looking for a record label and professional playing dates. They didn't look for long. In 1976 they were signed by the Georgia-based Capricorn label and produced their first commercial album, ''Freefall.''
Subsequent albums have included ''What If'' and ''Night of the Living Dregs.'' When the Capricorn Company folded, the group switched to the Artista label, Steve Morse took over as producer of the Dregs' albums, and ''Dregs of the Earth'' was released.
Morse has written nearly every song the group has recorded. His music, says drummer Rod Morgenstein, has ''tremendous virtuosity. Having studied and taken classes in dissecting music,'' he says, ''I find it unbelievable what is in (Morse's) songs. There are so many subtleties.''
This complex blending of sounds and styles comes through loud and clear on the Dregs' latest album release, ''Unsung Heroes.'' A bluegrass tune follows a classical number, which is succeeded by a combination of high-energy rock and subtle interludes. Depending on the song, the album could get radio air play on country and bluegrass, classical, jazz, and rock stations.
The future looks bright for the Dregs. Their new album, ''Unsung Heroes,'' has moved higher on the record charts than any of the group's earlier albums. A recent concert tour through California included night-after-night sellouts in the San Francisco Bay area.
Drummer Rod Morgenstein says future albums may feature even more experimental combinations of music styles and sounds. ''We will have new surprises in store for the future,'' he predicts. ''Let's look to the future and let's not put people down for trying new things.''