‘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
Donnie and Joe Emerson grew up on a 1,600-acre family farm in the far-eastern Washington State community of Fruitland, population 751. Under the direction of their dad, Don, Sr., the brothers tilled hay, wheat and alfalfa.
Don, Sr. built and equipped a studio for his sons and dubbed it “The Practice Place.” It could have just as easily been called “The Field of Dreams.” A local music teacher advised them on what they needed for the studio, including a TEAC 8-track machine, drums, guitars and a $12,000 PolyMoog synthesizer. Don, Sr. outfitted it, and the brothers (mostly Donnie) figured out how to work the gear.
Between 1978 and ’79, the Emerson brothers when they were 19 and 17 spent 18 solid months in their farm studio, and they wrote and recorded some 70 songs — mostly country-twanged soul and blues music, but also with real variation and originality. As a creative art, it was an act of faith.
Literally out of a woodshed came the “private label” 1979 LP release of “Dreamin’ Wild” with a first-press run of 2,000 vinyl copies. Donnie wrote the bulk of the material and produced the recordings, and Joe played drums on five tracks.
Their mother, Salina, helped them sell their records door to door to supportive neighbors.
But nothing happened. Hundreds of copies of the record languished in their basement.
Here’s a short Vimeo documentary on the rock-and-roll farmers.
The Emersons continued to dabble in music. In the late 1990s, they 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 called “Whatever it Takes.” One of Donnie’s songs made it to No. 1 on the European charts for nine weeks, and Donnie toured at home and overseas.
Their Better-Late-Than-Never Discovery
As legend has it, Jack Fleischer was a young record collector who spotted a copy of “Dreamin’ Wild” on a mantle piece 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, a 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.
“I was expecting the Partridge Family, that vibe,” recalled Matt Sullivan, Light in the Attic founder. “Nothing that would have the depth and sincerity and beauty this album possesses.”
Winter Watch Takeaway
The wags and “experts” would have you believe that Fruitland, Washington, of the 1970s was a “cultural and geographical void” that is too insulated to ever produce heart music like this. But I submit that this cocoon is what makes Emersons’ music unique, pure and special. They 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.
This music is not perfectly produced. There are flubbed bass notes, tinny-sounding drums with wavering tempos, out-of-tune guitars. The track “My Heart” is a bit too long, but it’s my favorite. In 2019, all this adds to the authenticity.
Donnie himself put it well: “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.”
The second video Love is – is a terrific love ballad, a genre the brothers didn’t back down from.
The publication “Pitchfork” called the recordings “a godlike symphony to teenhood.”
I would add that it’s a teenhood of a bygone place and time.
The next video below is the full “Dreamin’ Wild” album. The first track, Good Times is hard to beat- and has a message.
In 2014, they released more music in “Still Dreamin’ Wild: The Lost Recordings 1979-81,” which is the last video below.