My friend Tom and I recently went on our annual hiking trip, this time to the Marble Mountains Wilderness Area—a beautiful, remote, 241,744-acre forest in Northern California. We’ve been taking these trips once a year for several years now, our daily routine consisting of a long day hike followed by the search for the perfect burger and beer. We cap off the nights at our cheap hotel by relaxing somewhere outside with a few more beers, and in my case, Jack Daniels and a cigar. Tom typically plays some tunes at a low volume over his smartphone—loud enough to hear, but not loud enough to spoil the conversation or disturb the neighbors.
Such went our first night at the Budget Inn in the small town of Yreka. Without any other suitable place to chill, we dragged the wooden chairs out of our room to sit just outside the door under the awning, the parking lot in front of us getting blanketed in a soft drizzle.
And that was when I first heard the music of the Donnie and Joe Emerson.
I was only half paying attention as Tom and I chatted, before a certain song took over my attention.
“What is this?” I asked him with a chuckle. It was a very mellow, soft soul kind of tune that sounded out of time and timeless at once.
“The Emerson Brothers,” Tom replied, slowly nodding his head with droopy eyelids, the song having hypnotized him long ago, and certainly in this moment. As a musician, I couldn’t place what I was hearing. A Smokey Robinson B-side? An early Hall and Oates track I’d somehow overlooked? As someone who produces their own records, I was picking up on something being a bit off with regard to the production, the playing, the repetition.
“It sounds like a demo,” I said.
“That’s what makes it good,” Tom said with a shurg. “Yer so baaaaay-bayyyy…” he sang along softly over the gentle drizzle.
“What’s he saying?” I said, straining to hear. “‘You’re so baby?’” I laughed. “What the hell is this?”
Tom kept nodding his head, lost in the music, oblivious to my snark—he just wanted to hum along to this weird record he clearly treasured. After pressing him a bit more, he explained he’d been turned on to the duo on a date by a girl he’d met online. I asked him if I could have a look at his phone, and this is what I saw:
“What the… fuck?” I said, laughing. “Is this for real?”
As the Brothers shaky, lo-fi blend of pop, soul, funk, classic rock, folk and trippy art rock continued over the span of the album’s eight songs—which I asked Tom to put on loop—my brain couldn’t keep up. It was hard for the producer/recordist dork in me to ignore things like flubbed bass notes, tinny-sounding drums with wavering tempos, out-of-tune guitars, songs that went on for too long, etc., but the sheer variety of what I was hearing… and that voice. That soft but strong, hesitant but sincere, voice. It was hard to believe it belonged to a teenager.
While it was the mellow, soulful “Baby” that originally caught my ear, Dreamin’ Wild seemed to run the gamut of American popular music in a way that, quite simply, defied comparison or classification.
The record opens with the garage-y power pop of “Good Time,” which is lent depth by Donnie’s unusually sonorous voice and caustic, biting lyrics. “Give Me the Chance” sounds to me like Steve Miller meets porn soundtrack on acid (that’s a compliment). Things get mellow and folky with “Love Is,” it’s musical depth and power made even more heartbreaking when you read the old-soul pain and sincerity reflected in the lyrics. I couldn’t believe it had been written by a teenager and not some ‘70s era hitmaker like Jim Croce or John Denver.
But it’s the somber, balladic “Dream Full of Dreams” that eventually helped seal the deal for me. This is, quite simply, one of the most heart-rending, soul-crushing, authentic songs I have ever heard. And I don’t even like ballads. You really have to read the lyrics to realize how deep a cut this one really is.
“It’s a pretty emotional piece. It’s my brother’s favorite song on that album. That’s another song that if I redid it, it would be pretty magical. That was influenced by Elton John. It was about a break-up thing again. Sometimes you just don’t get over stuff. I don’t care if it’s 10 minutes or 30 years—you never get over it.”
— Donnie Emerson
“A big part of Dreamin’ Wild’s charm is its raw, emotional quality that is utterly sincere. There’s no pretense about it. It’s just young guys laying it bare.”
- From Dave Segal’s liner notes for Dreamin’ Wild
As for the rest of the album, you can hear certain influences, but you can also hear the confidence and originality of an artist in his own right. Repeated listens throughout our hiking trip and beyond only confirmed for me that, despite its cosmetic and structural flaws—the raw production, unusual songwriting, the formative musicianship—I’d been listening to something very unique, and very special.
And so began my own obsession with the music and story of Donnie and Joe Emerson.
Part 1 — Fruitland and Dreamin’ Wild (1977-1980)
When I get really into anything pop culture related—movies, music, TV shows—I need to go deep. So I started googling the Emerson Brothers. The story of how Dreamin’ Wild came to be is just as unique and fascinating as the record itself.
Donnie and Joe Emerson grew up on a family farm in Fruitland, Washington (pop. 751) about five hours east from Seattle, tilling 1,600 acres of hay, wheat and alfalfa under the direction of their dad, Don, Sr. Apparently Fruitland consists of little more than a combination gas station-food market-post office.
Donnie was reportedly just nine years old when he wrote and performed his first song. In 1978, Don Sr. bought a Case tractor that came with an enclosed cab and built-in AM-FM radio. In the cultural and geographical void of Fruitland—coupled with the fact that the Emersons didn’t have a record collection—the tractor's radio became Donnie’s primary source of musical inspiration as he soaked up a number of genres from the local station.
“I would picture myself doing those songs…. Smokey Robinson, Hall and Oates, Marvin Gaye… You could listen to music in there for 8, sometimes 10 hours a day, tilling up the ground, planting seeds.”
— Donnie Emerson
By the time he was in his teens in the late ‘70s, Donnie could play trombone, clarinet, piano and guitar, and was already writing his own songs—sometimes up to two a day, according to Don Sr., who at the time felt overwhelmed by his sons’ interest in music.
One day, he sat the boys down for a chat about what they wanted to do with their life, and they said music. He encouraged them, but advised them to focus on writing original material instead of just “playing the bars.” Helping them take their first steps on their journey towards becoming professional musicians, he drove them to Spokane to record their first seven-inch, 45 RPM vinyl record.
If, so far, this sounds a bit like the story of the Wiggins sisters from The Shaggs, a quintessential example of so-called outsider music, I’d like to point out a few key differences. Firstly, the Wiggins’ father, Austin, insisted the three siblings form a band, whereas with the Emerson Brothers, they got into on their own. (“I never told them to practice,” Don Sr. said, “they just practiced all the time. That was their love.”) Secondly, The Shaggs record is, without mincing words, simply godawful, regardless of my idol Kurt Cobain’s fondness for it.
Being “the type of a person that tried to support my kids,” Don Sr. took his sons’ musical career one step further by taking loans out on his farm to finance a $100,000 studio they equipped and built themselves, calling it “The Practice Place.” A local music teacher advised them on what they needed, including a TEAC 8-track machine, drums, guitars, and $12,000 PolyMoog synthesizer. Don Sr. bought it, and the brothers, mostly Donnie, figured out how to work the gear.
"We were untainted. And back then I didn't realize what I was doing, I was just doing. I just got in front of the mic and started singing—Joey and I would just play.”
— Donnie Emerson
The result of all this literal woodshedding, writing and recording was the 1979 release of Dreamin’ Wild, their first self-produced LP they put out on their own label, Enterprise & Co., pressing 2,000 vinyl copies. Donnie wrote the bulk of the material and produced the recording, and Joe played drums on five tracks. Donnie was 17 at the time, Joe 19.
They passed it out to their friends at school. Their mother Salina helped them sell it door-to-door to supportive neighbors.
But nothing happened.
Hundreds of copies of the record languished in their basement. Don Sr. defaulted on loans taken out for the studio and was struggling to make repayments, suffering back problems from the stress. When Donnie graduated high school in 1981, he made a temporary move to Los Angeles to try to make it, while Joe focused on the farm.
Part 2 — Los Angeles (1981-1985)
In 1981, Don Sr. financed a solo album by Donnie called Can I See You, an effort supported by top L.A. session players. According to Don Sr., this is what really got him into financial trouble, with the bank taking most of the farm’s 1,600 acres, eventually leaving the family with about 60 acres. The record ended up too slick, making Don sound like ‘80s yacht rock crooner Christopher Cross. The album was never released, and again—even though Donnie would travel back and forth between L.A. and Fruitland for several years afterwards—the record didn’t spark his music career. Disillusioned with L.A., he settled in Spokane, WA, where he met his wife, Nancy, a fellow musician, on a blind date.
In the late 1990s, the Emersons turned a cow barn 30 yards from their farmhouse into “Camp Jammin’ at the Barn,” a 300-seat concert hall for Don and his band to perform, replete with a stage, spotlights, and a ticket booth.
In 1997, Donnie recorded another full-length LP, this one country-tinged and called Whatever It Takes. One of Donnie’s songs made it to #1 on the European charts for nine weeks, with Donnie touring at home and overseas. Heady times for most musicians, but bigger things were to come.
Fast-forward to 2012, when everything changed.
Part 3 — Dreamin’ Wild discovery (2012)
As legend has it, Jack Fleischer was a young record collector who spotted a copy of Dreamin’ Wild on a mantlepiece in an antique shop in Spokane, Washington. He bought it for $5 and wrote about it on his blog. Will Louviere, a Bay Area record dealer and an early fan of the album, was also mesmerized and became an online evangelist. In July 2012, an L.A.-based musician named Ariel Pink covered “Baby.” The buzz eventually led to Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records properly releasing and promoting Dreamin' Wild, with "Baby" becoming an underground hit. Jimmy Fallon talked it up on his show. The Guardian, the New York Times, and Pitchfork wrote features, with Pitchfork calling the record “a godlike symphony to teenhood.”
“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.”
— Steven Kurutz, “Fruitland”
“I was expecting the Partridge Family, that vibe,” he recalled. “Nothing that would have the depth and sincerity and beauty this album possesses.”
— Matt Sullivan, Light in the Attic founder
“It’s quite amazing, Donnie’s ability back then, for such a young artist and such a secluded area,” Joe said. “It’s a sense of genius, truthfully.”
— Joe Emerson about Donnie
Donnie himself found it baffling that songs he wrote as a teenager were suddenly getting this kind of attention. He told The Guardian about a musician, who like me at first, told him he didn’t get “Baby,” like it was missing something.
“It's not missing anything," said Donnie quietly. “Sometimes it doesn't have to be complete; it has to wander, it has to make you want more. And when you're a kid, at 17 or 18, you're not complete, you're not there. And even when we're 75, 80 years old, we're still kids and we don't want to be complete. I embrace these fans because they see the purity in it. They see that it doesn't have to be so perfect. That it's just a vibe, that it is what it is.”
In his beautifully written and moving essay about the Emerson brothers, Fruitland, New York Times writer Steven Kurutz describes his reaction upon seeing the small room Donnie and Joe grew up in, where the family’s five siblings shared a platform bed:
“It wasn’t until that very moment that I fully grasped the miracle of Dreamin’ Wild. A recording studio had been financed and built by a family that slept five to a bed. Richly layered music had emerged from a household with no stereo. A third-generation logger and farmer and his wife had risked their land so their sons could be musicians. And two isolated farm boys had made a classic soul record. It didn’t seem possible.”
Part 4 — Still Dreamin’ Wild (2014)
In the 18 months the Emerson brothers spent in their farm studio, they wrote and recorded some 70 songs. In 2014, Light in the Attic released 12 more in a compilation called Still Dreamin' Wild: The Lost Recordings 1979-81, two of which Joe played on.
On our hiking trip, Tom played this album for me on Spotify as well, before I subsequently ordered my own copy from Light in the Attic. The record kicks off with the trippy synth fantasy, “Overture,” before kicking into the ’80-esque, upbeat pop dreamscape of “Don’t Fight.” Next up is “Ride the Tide,” about Donnie’s days in L.A. courting a surfer girl he’d found napping on a photographer friend’s couch. I love these two songs not just because of the ‘80s sound; I also love them for their pure originality and accessibility. If Donnie’s vocals on Dreamin’ Wild are defined by a certain haunting melancholy, on this follow-up, they sound clearer and even more assured.
Free-download my cover of "Don't Fight"
The brothers then bring it down with “Something’s Coming Down,” easily one of the most achingly sad, heartbreaking songs I have ever heard. If there’s any song in existence that sounds like a breakup about to happen, this is it. It seems like a sequel of sorts to Dreamin’ Wild’s “Dream Full of Dreams,” which for me, falls into the same category, even if they sound quite different in many respects—including the timbre of Donnie’s voice, production, and overall vibe.
“Stand by Me,” Donnie’s wonderfully energetic, snappy love song to his guitar amp, is another standout for me (and as someone who names his guitars, I can relate). The mild slapack echo on the vocals is a tasty throwback to ’50 and ‘60s era rock, and Donnie’s guitar playing on this shines, right down to the country-twanged licks at the very end. The track is a reminder of Donnie’s gift for being able to make a simple song with a complex arrangement sound clear, melodic and energetic, even with a lot going on under the surface.
When Tom played me Still Dreamin’ Wild, I admit I liked it better than its predecessor, although I've since settled into loving both of them for what they are. Even though the Emersons recorded Still Dreamin’ Wild during the same fertile, three-year period as their first record, it sounds much more sophisticated in terms of the arrangements, the songwriting, the production, and even the playing. As a body of work, it somehow sounds like it’s from a different era. This isn’t corroborated, so I can only speculate that this might be attributed to Donnie’s musical gifts evolving in the Practice Place, with his forays into L.A. and new exposure to a bigger world outside Fruitland evolving their sound. Whatever the case, this collection of songs showcases the evolution of Donnie’s unique talents, and they shine with their trademark originality and range that’s only amplified by the energy on some of the more upbeat tracks.
I should qualify that I am well aware that my fellow hardcore music fans out there will likely always prefer the unbridled rawness and sincere purity of Dreamin’ Wild. I also acknowledge that I tend to prefer more polished and professional production in general (I mean, c’mon, my favorite record producer is Mutt Lange.) Pitchfork gave Still Dreamin’ Wild a 6.3 vs. the 8.0 it awarded Dreamin’ Wild, and the review leaves the impression that this collection somehow missed the mark.
I don’t agree. In fact, I think the record is, in some ways, a more interesting and varied record than the first. If the Emersons and/or LITA put out a third collection of Emerson Brothers songs from this era or any other, I’d expect it to be different, and just as good if not better than the record that started it all—and Dreamin’ Wild is already a very strong baseline.
Part 5 — The Field of Dreams (present day)
As I write this very paragraph, I’m on a flight from Chicago back to our home in Marin County, San Francisco. I’ve spent the last week on vacation with my two young sons, my wife, Becky, and her family in my wife’s hometown of Dyersville, Iowa (pop. ~4,200), a Midwestern borough about four-and-a-half hours from Chicago. The quiet residential streets are shaded by thick, leafy trees and the town’s wide main street, just a few blocks long, is lined with a few bars, a coffee shop, and assorted local businesses. The main street seems to lead off to the edge of the earth, with the town’s tall Basilica of St. Francis Xavier looming in the distance.
Life in Dyersville, and probably Iowa in general, is very different from our lives in San Francisco. While people in the Bay Area look up to Silicon Valley business luminaries—along with their often sudden wealth and the powers of persuasion that got them there—Iowa folk have a different lifestyle, set of values, and outlook on life.
Iowa values honesty, hard work, contributing to the greater good (the farm, the household, the family), faith, self-reliance, pragmatism, and ingenuity. People are courteous and take time to talk to their neighbors. Every night after dinner with my in-laws, I’d visited the local park with my two sons as the sun started to set. I saw white kids and African-American kids playing basketball without a single raised voice or note of tension. This seemed in complete contrast to the Bay Area, where white people in particular seem to “converse” about diversity and inclusion in a near-constant drone, as if the rest of the world wouldn’t know how to get along without them doing so. In Iowa, it just is.
Of course I was on vacation, and while areas like Dyersville have their own disadvantages and even a dark side, there’s a certain magic quality to it. For one, it feels largely disconnected from the shallow noise of the modern world. Family, neighbors, and other real people seem to drive life and community there—in face-to-face conversations—versus culture, the news (noise) cycle, technology and smartphones driving the daily conversation. You see people playing cards at the local bar at dinnertime. Time seems to pass more slowly, so you can take more time to rest, recharge, and connect with others.
Iowa’s most defining, pervasive characteristic, at least for me, is this unique combination of doing what needs to get done and faith. Nowhere is this feeling for evident to me than the Field of Dreams movie site just a few miles from Becky’s parents’ house. I’ve visited the site each time I’ve visited Iowa, and on this last trip, I went twice. The first time was in the morning as a lightning storm started brewing in the distance, and with dark clouds overhead. I sat on the wooden bleachers, watching a few tourists toss a ball on the field. For the first time in a long time, I felt the presence of whatever god is, and I said a prayer of gratitude.
Now, before you throw up, please know that I while I was raised Catholic, I haven’t been a regular churchgoer since my junior year of high school, when I announced to my parents I didn’t get anything out of church and wouldn’t be going anymore. Even so, I do consider myself to be a spiritual person, and I do believe in “god,” or at least some sort of Force in the universe (Yoda sums it up well for me in his Empire Strikes Back soliloquy). I feel fortunate to have always felt that connection to something greater, even though after decades of urban living, it doesn’t happen nearly as often as I’d like it to, or as much as I felt in my early twenties—before I had my first big setback in life (my rock band unexpectedly broke up, leaving me feeling hopeless and adrift).
Visiting the Field of Dreams makes me feel that connection, and reminds me of some of the best qualities inherent in the human spirit: creativity, imagination, faith, hope, innocence, ingenuity, beauty, simplicity. Being in Iowa, and researching the Emerson’s story, reminded me of all of that. When I got my copy of Still Dreamin’ Wild in the mail a few days ago, I wasn’t surprised to see the Field of Dreams mentioned in Jack D. Fleischer’s beautifully written liner notes for the the record.
There was an if-you-build-it-they-will-come aspect that defied all logic. When Matt Sullivan first saw Camp Jammin’, he found it “mind-boggling,” he said. “I asked them, “Who in the heck did you think was going to drive out here? It’s five hours from anywhere.”
— Steven Kurutz on Camp Jammin’ in Fruitland
I had seen Field of Dreams when it came out in 1989, but I wasn’t a baseball fan, and as a movie, I thought it was corny (both literally and figuratively) and sentimental. I never really understood or appreciated it until my first trip to the film site about 10 years ago and watching the film again that night with my wife and mother-in-law.
It’s worth noting that Dyersville is close to five hours from Chicago, if the latter can be considered “anywhere.” But as I saw on this most recent trip to Iowa, people still come from all over the world to visit the Field of Dreams. There’s a reason for that. It reminds us that the most important “anywhere” is with your family, with your community, with your faith in yourself, in something greater, in the mystery and beauty of life—the metaphysical connection we all share that transcends time and space, and sometimes, when we’re lucky, expresses itself in our dreams.
There are so many parallels between the film’s narrative and the Emerson’s story, and I think this is how and why reading about the Emersons and Steven Kurutz’s Fruitland in particular became even more moving and emotional for me. I can also admit that I relate strongly to the Emersons, and to Donnie’s story and journey as a musician in particular. I think we can all relate to feeling something deep inside and needing to do what seems impossible, as improbable or as impractical as it may be, but finding the courage to do it, anyway. We can all relate to making sacrifices for others, sometimes at a great cost to ourselves. As much as I completely understood Matt’s reaction to Camp Jammin’, and the world’s initial reaction to Dreamin’ Wild might have been almost predictable, most of us can understand that any creative act is an act of faith, and one we hope will ultimately connect us to others.
There are so many layers to the Emerson Brothers story with regard to how being isolated and different in geography and culture can be a blessing for creativity, but not so much in terms of opportunity. Small town life is difficult to come out of and go back to. I got a strong sense of that from Donnie—especially in the little I've read about his trying to make it in L.A., which can be a very cold place for newcomers (the theme of the title track of my new record, Lost Angeles, if I may shamelessly plug for a moment). I feel like this element to their story is as bittersweet as the music itself.
To me, the Emerson’s story is one of hope, vision, parental generosity, innocence, family, ingenuity, the drive to create and make art, and the good intentions and purity behind all of that. For all of the world’s ills, it’s a reminder that, like music, love is a force that transcends time, space, and the boundaries between us.
Part 5 — Where are They Now
Here’s a wonderful mini-documentary on the Emerson Brothers that Light in the Attic shot and produced when Dreamin’ Wild was reissued.
While shooting the film, Light in the Attic founder Matt Sullivan stayed on the Emersons’ farm, with Donnie and Joe’s parents, Don Sr. and Salina. To hear him describe it, he’d entered a place untouched by the shallow, hurried quality of modern life and met the last sincere people in a cynical land. ‘It was one of the most moving and emotional experiences I’ve ever had.’
— Fruitland, by Steven Kurutz
Joe Emerson — Joe never married and still lives on the farm in a small stone-and-wood house he built himself for “a girl he loved” a hundred yards away from the Practice Place. He plays guitar in his spare time with an instrumental trio called Emerson, Smith & Bischoff, said he hopes to “get together with Don and do some collaborations on some new recordings.” (Yes, please!)
Don Sr. — Don controls the majority rights to Dreamin’ Wild. Sales of the record and inclusion of his sons’ music in films like Celeste and Jesse Forever, The Skeleton Twins, and The Spectacular Now have helped him recoup a bit of his investment. He and his wife Salina still live on the farm as well.
Donnie — Today, Donnie is still a full-time musician, performing with his wife Nancy Sophia in and around Spokane. They have two kids.
The Emersons had believed the music was special. They’d been laughed at and ignored and nearly lost everything—but they’d been right. As painful as parts of their story were, there was also triumph, made possible through a second miracle: one of the few copies of Dreamin’ Wild to get out into the world was rescued from the forgotten dustbin of time. People heard it, and they believed, too.
— Fruitland by Steven Kurutz
In the improbable rediscovery of Dreamin’ Wild, many see an uplifting story: vindication for the effort, money and hope the Emersons put into its creation. As Mr. Louviere put it [an early advocate of the record], “They knew the music was special, and they were right.”
— Steven Kurutz for the New York Times
“We were quite naive about what we were going to do,” concludes Don Sr. about the Emersons’ musical endeavors. “We just knew we had something very unique. We just stayed at it. I don’t know why we did, but we did… Because we just loved what we were doing.”
— Don Emerson, Sr.
“If I died tomorrow, hey, man, someone got it.” When you strip away everything else, that’s the desire of every artist, lost or found.
— Donnie to Steven Kurutz in Fruitland
Free-download and share my cover of “Don’t Fight” by Donnie and Joe Emerson. Enjoy, and thanks for reading this post.
Sources and acknowledgements
Much has been written about the Emerson Brothers since Dreamin’ Wild finally found its audience in 2012. I’ve included links to all sources all below, but I want to give special mention to writer Steven Kurutz, who not only met with the Emersons on their farm twice for interviews, but also seemed to understand and appreciate their story best. I have deep respect for this kind of artistry and sensitivity in journalism, so if you read any of the entries below, I encourage you to read these top two by Mr. Kurutz especially.
The New York Times, “A Time Capsule Set to Song” by Steven Kurutz
Fruitland, by Steven Kurutz
The Guardian, "Donnie and Joe Emerson, and the most moving lost record of the 70s," by Hermione Hoby
New Statesman, “The best of happy endings: the rediscovery of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s Dreamin’ Wild”, Bob Stanley
NPR, “Dad Builds A Recording Studio, Sons Make A (Lost) Classic,” Oliver Wang
Light in the Attic documentary, “The Rock-n-Roll Farmers: Donnie & Joe Emerson”
Dreamin’ Wild liner notes by Dave Segal
Still Dreamin’ Wild liner notes by Jack D. Fleischer