Most people who claim they’ve seen it all are usually the ones who’ve seen the least. But some folks really have been there and done that—even if circumstance and coincidence had a lot to do with their fortuitous résumés. Take the guitarist and singer/songwriter Dave Mason, for instance. Born and raised in Worcester, England, at the ripe old age of 20, he co-founded legendary prog rock band Traffic with Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi. Two years later, Mason was by Jimi Hendrix’s side the night the axeslinger heard Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” for the first time (Mason plays the acoustic riff at the beginning of Hendrix’s iconic version).
Further classic rock jaw-droppers followed for Mason: an uncredited turn on the Rolling Stones’ 1968 classic Beggars Banquet, backing guitars on George Harrison’s beautiful 1970 solo debut All Things Must Pass, and a quick stint as second guitarist in Eric Clapton’s supergroup Derek & the Dominoes before Northeast Florida pride and joy Duane Allman assumed those finger-licking slide duties. Three years before her tragic death in 1974, “Mama” Cass Elliott recorded a collaborative album with Mason, who also produced it. And in 1980, Mason dueted with Michael Jackson, who’d just embarked on a solo career after a contentious break-up with The Jackson 5. “I learned so much from all of those guys, absolutely,” Mason tells Folio Weekly. “And I still am. There’s always something new to learn.”
If anything, it’s Mason’s balanced sense of wide-eyed discovery and music-biz cynicism that’s kept him relevant for so many years. Even in the annals of ridiculous rock ’n’ roll drama, his on-again, off-again affair with Traffic ranks high—out after the band’s 1967 album Mr. Fantasy, in for the recording of 1968’s Traffic (which features the timeless Mason-penned joint “Feelin’ Alright”) but out after it was released, barely there on 1969’s aptly titled Last Exit, and briefly back in the fold in 1971 before the group moved on without him. As recently as 2013, almost a decade after all the original members of Traffic were inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Mason and Winwood were still publicly grinding an ax of what Mason described to the Nashville Scene as “some bizarre personal acrimony.”
Post-Traffic, Mason’s solo career flourished, however. His 1970 debut Alone Together contained only eight songs, but each one was a bona fide gem featuring contributions from ex-Traffic bandmate Jim Capaldi and vaunted session players like Leon Russell, Bonnie Bramlett and Rita Coolidge. Alone Together’s success, especially refracted through a softer pop-rock lens than Traffic’s often-psychedelic work, pointed the way toward Mason’s biggest hit, 1977’s “We Just Disagree.” And on tour this year, Mason will perform Alone Together in its entirety for the first time ever. “We started playing songs from the album last year,” Mason says. “We just never played all of them together. So we figured, why not? Those songs just work. I always tried to write somewhat timeless songs, and those eight [from Alone Together] still hold up.”
Unlike many classic rock icons, Mason isn’t content to just rest on his laurels, however. Constant touring remains his bread-and-butter, even as he’s slowed down on writing and recording. “I’ve been touring since I was 18 years old, so that part hasn’t changed,” Mason says. “I don’t write like I was writing when there were actually record sales, though. The Internet has served to destroy the commerce end of intellectual property. Recording an album is expensive, and the way things are, making one becomes an exercise in futility.” Beyond his own career, Mason has retained his status as a steady collaborative hand, working since the ’90s with Fleetwood Mac and Ringo Starr. And in the last decade, his philanthropic work with kids, veterans and those struggling with substance abuse has increased considerably.
But in the end, for Dave Mason, it’s all about the song as a whole—the form, the melody, the lyric and the arrangement. And there’s no denying that he’s written and contributed to some of the most timeless songs in the American canon. “I’ve somewhat achieved that level of timelessness with some of the things I’ve done,” Mason says. “Good things last. They don’t go out of style.”