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Dolly Varden Comes In From the Country

Chicago band concentrates on pop sound at IOTA show.

"Call me country," Lowell Fulson sang in the song "Tramp." But Stephen Dawson used to be sensitive to being called "country."

Dawson and his wife Diane Christensen are the core of Chicago’s twangy indie pop band Dolly Varden, now in its seventh year and celebrating the release of its fourth record, "Forgiven Now." The band stops at IOTA Club and Café April 28, part of a month-long tour along the East Coast supporting the album.

Dolly Varden, named for a breed of Western trout, does incorporate country influences, and Dawson and Christensen’s shared harmonies have been compared to iconic country-rock couple Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.

Those comparisons are flattering, Dawson said, and he does bring some country flavors to his songwriting. But Dolly Varden is not exactly a country outfit. "Forgiven Now" does feature a few weeping steel guitars. But it also has blues guitar riffs, organ riffs that recall the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and Indian drums.

"I used to be more sensitive to that label" in his former band Stump the Host, he said, "which ironically was much more country."

Now, he said, he’s happy to be called "country" – he’s happy to be called anything, if it’s in praise. "If anyone has any nice thing to say, I’m happy for that," Dawson said. "I guess if you’re singing plaintive songs, you can’t escape the label."

<b>CALLING HIM "COUNTRY"</b> does not reflect Dawson’s influences, though. He grew up in Idaho, listening primarily to the Beatles, along with singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, Van Morrison and Neil Young. Only recently, he said, has he become especially interested in old R&B and country records.

In writing, he said, his central tenet is to keep it short and sweet. Producer Brad Jones helps in that respect, he said. "His big thing is tightening it up, cutting out parts that don’t work," Dawson said. "I think that helps us to sound more poppy."

Dawson said his wife’s influences are more eclectic, "all over the place," but all five members of Dolly Varden come from a pop background, he said.

Songwriting credits for the newest album go to Dawson and Christiansen, but the other members of Dolly Varden come in for music credits. Dawson said collaboration among the band members works well, in part because all the band members are good friends.

"It’s easier to get through things," he said. "When there’s not a lot of money to offer, you have to have something to keep people around. We did a tour of England right after Sept. 11, with a lot of difficult driving, and it was very stressful. If we were not as good friends, we wouldn’t have lasted through that."

The relationships have expanded to include band families. Bassist Michael Bradburn and drummer Matt Thobe are married, and their wives join in the friendly vibe. They are also pregnant, and their children will soon join Dawson and Christiansen’s 10-year-old daughter as second generation Dolly Vardens.

But guitar player Mark Balleto "is still single," Dawson added. "He’d be happy if that were mentioned."

<b>DAWSON AND CHRISTIANSEN</b> serve as heads of the family for the band, with a few years on their bandmates. "Those guys are in their early 30s, we’re late 30s," Dawson said.

They have been married since 1990, after getting together as the lead singers for Stump the Host. Other musical marriages have disintegrated after a few albums, but Dawson said his is not heading down that same road.

For one thing, he said, Christensen is a painter, with gallery shows in Chicago and around the country. "I’m wondering if she didn’t have that, if we might go nose-to-nose more," Dawson said. "I think what it comes down to is we’re just happy doing it."

Some of his songs might sound like the product of unhappiness. "The lyrics are more harrowing but that’s just because I like that kind of songwriting," he said. "It’s not a lie, the emotions are true," he said.

"But we have a real good marriage."