It’s been quite a while since we’ve mentioned how much we love and appreciate Donnie & Joe Emerson. Their music represents an innocence not easily captured and serves as a true example of how ambition and drive can pay off in the long run…even if sometimes “the long run” can mean over 30 years. Not to mention the lovestruck 80s soft jams are just killer.
Lucky for us we have friends like New York Times writer Steven Kurutz, whose essay about the brothers Emerson, titled “Fruitland” has just been published in TRUE STORY, a new non-fiction literary magazine by Creative Nonfiction. “Fruitland” tells the story of Donnie and Joe Emerson, two brothers from Fruitland, WA, an isolated community outside Spokane, who as teenagers in the late 1970s self-recorded an album in a log-cabin studio their father built for them on the family farm. The album, Dreamin’ Wild, flopped upon its release but was rediscovered in a junk shop in 2008 and reissued by Light in the Attic records to critical and cult acclaim—but not without bringing out ghosts from the past and taking an emotional toll on the brothers and their family.
Of the piece, Kurutz says, “Some stories are so rich and so layered you really need the word count to tell them properly. ‘Fruitland’ was one of those tales. I’d written a short article for the Times, but I kept coming back to Donnie and Joe, finding more there, expanding the narrative. It was a writer’s salvation when True Story gave the longform article a home.”
To celebrate the release of Steven’s essay, we are going to have a Donnie & Joe fan contest/giveaway! Send us your best Donnie & Joe fan art or video/audio of cover songs by NOVEMBER 30, and our first place choice will receive both Dreamin’ Wild and Still Dreamin’ Wild on vinyl, along with a copy of True Story featuring “Fruitland” and a rad vintage guitar strap from Original Fuzz! Second place will receive everything mentioned except the guitar strap. Submissions can be sent to email@example.com. Dream On! You can purchase a single copy or subscription to True Story here, and read an excerpt from “Fruitland” below:
by Steven Kurutz
Some years back, an unusual and astonishing album began circulating among record collectors and fans of lo-fi music. Will Louviere was one of the first to hear it. A Bay Area vinyl dealer, Louviere is an authority on private-press LPs from the 1960s and 1970s—records that were self-produced and released by amateur musicians and destined, in most cases, for the bins of thrift stores and flea markets. In a year, Louviere and his fellow collectors across the country might buy one thousand of these obscure albums between them. Of those, maybe ten would be artistically interesting. Maybe one would astonish.
This record had been sent to Louviere by a collector, but still, his expectations weren’t high. The group was a duo, Donnie and Joe Emerson. The cover featured a studio portrait of them: teenagers with feathered brown hair, faces dappled with acne, sincere eyes meeting the camera. They were posed against the swirly blue backdrop you’d see in a school photo, with the album’s title—Dreamin’ Wild—written above them in red bubble script. Both boys were dressed flamboyantly in matching spread-collared white jumpsuits, like the outfit Evel Knievel wore vaulting over Snake River Canyon, though the jumpsuits had name patches on the chest, like a mechanic’s work shirt, an odd counter to the attempt at showbiz slickness. Donnie, posed in the front, held a Les Paul and looked a little stoned.
Given the packaging and the era—late seventies, Louviere was certain—he expected teen-idol cheese, a third-rate Osmonds knockoff. What he heard was something else entirely.
The opening track, “Good Time,” was a burst of power pop, with a catchy fuzz-guitar riff over crashing drums and a jittery vocal mocking a selfish lover. “Give Me the Chance” followed it—a funk jam, this time with soulful singing interrupted by wavy blasts of echo distortion coming out of nowhere like acid flashbacks. The other songs included an orchestral-disco instrumental; an R&B groove that recalled the Temptations in their Psychedelic Shack period; an earnest, David Gatesian piano ballad. Layered throughout were assured musical nods to Fleetwood Mac, Hall and Oates, and the Brothers Johnson.
Louviere checked the back credits. Of the eight tracks on Dreamin’ Wild, young Donnie wrote or cowrote all of them. He also played lead and rhythm guitars, bass, piano, and synthesizer and handled all the lead and harmony vocals. Joe drummed, and he often fell behind the beat or flubbed his fills. But instead of detracting from the music, Joe’s drumming added to its appeal. It gave the songs an amateur charm, and created thrilling near-chaos as if the music might collapse on itself.
It was clear to Louviere that Donnie and Joe hadn’t worked with a professional studio engineer or
producer. Songs went on too long, had unorthodox structures, faded out rather than ended. But he loved the muffled, homemade sound and heard serious ambition and talent. Teenage Donnie’s voice was especially compelling—“so stony and hazy,” Louviere told me, as if he sang from some private interior room.
Donnie’s voice reached new levels of stoniness on “Baby,” the standout track. Simply defined, it’s blue-eyed soul. But its effect on listeners isn’t simple. The first time I heard “Baby” I broke out in goosebumps and felt a ghost had come in the room. The music is gestural and fades in: soft, pulsing piano, one guitar playing a repeated five-note pattern, rim hits on the snare. Sung in a reverb-soaked near-falsetto, the lyrics are mostly indecipherable—the chorus sounds like “Baby, you’re so baby.” It hardly matters. The song’s power is 90 percent atmosphere. You hear this magic quality in old country-blues recordings or some of the early rock ’n’ roll stuff—say, “I Only Have Eyes for You” by the Flamingos. Beyond the instruments, what really got put on tape was a vibe, some molecular thing in the room that got baked into the recording. With “Baby,” as with much of Dreamin’ Wild, that subatomic thing, incredibly, is the emotional intensity—all the yearning and heartache—of being a teenager.
As Louviere told me, “It was hard to believe what I was hearing.”