The Blue Dogs
Let’s just say that I was engaged in a conversation with someone from outside of South Carolina and we were discussing and comparing our regional artists and bands, and let’s just say that the inevitable question was posed in said conversation – “so, who is the biggest band to ever come out of South Carolina?” A lot of people reading at this very moment would utter that most obvious name BUT, if the question were put in a different context like maybe – “who is the most beloved band?” or “what band best represents all that is good and extraordinary about the state of South Carolina and the people living there?” You see where this is going right? The Blue Dogs have been a source of positive and creative energy in this state for over a quarter of a century. They seem to be the glue that holds it all together when it comes to rallying some of the best talents this state has to offer and entertaining thousands. Giving it back one song at a time, one performance at a time, always gracious, always humble, in my opinion the core players in this band represent the best South Carolina has to offer the rest of the union when it comes to the heart and soul of our great state.
The Blue Dogs were formed in Charleston, SC, in 1987 by lead singer/guitarist Bobby Houck and bassist Hank Futch, both had known each other since childhood and played together in college. Drummer Greg Walker came along later, joining the band in 1993. At first, the Blue Dogs were acoustic-oriented and predominantly played bluegrass and country covers but in the early '90s, they went electric and shifted their focus to roots rock, country-rock, and southern rock. Artists who have influenced the electric version of the Blue Dogs range from the Wallflowers, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Little Feat and John Cougar Mellencamp.
The Blue Dogs' first album came out in 1991 when they released Music for Dog People on their own Black River label. That album was followed by 1993's Soul Dogfood and 1995's Street Theater, both of which are also on Black River. While those three releases were full of cover songs the Blue Dogs' fourth album, The Blue Dogs, (which was produced by John Alagia and came out in 1997), marked the first time that one of their albums contained only original material. In 1998, the band recorded its fifth album, For the Record, a live CD that was followed by a studio effort titled Letters From Round O, (which was produced by Cracker's David Lowery in 1999). The Blue Dogs' seventh release, Live at the Florence Little Theater, was recorded in 1998 but didn't actually come out until 2002.
For the Blue Dogs, personnel can change from one album to the next; a Blue Dogs album, (either live or studio), will typically include core members along with what could be called an extended family of fellow southern musicians. In the early 2000s, the core of the band included Houck, Futch, Walker, and guitarist David Stewart, (who joined in 1998).
In 2008, to mark their 20th anniversary, the Blue Dogs released a DVD of a live performance in their hometown, recorded in a 200-year-old theatre called the Dock Street Theatre, (where they not-so-coincidentally made their first live CD 10 years earlier). On Thanksgiving Day 2008, Live at the Dock Street Theatre…again (Black River) was made available exclusively at , and at the bands’ live shows.
That video serves as a milestone in the Dogs’ career in more ways than one. With 99 minutes of footage, it includes guest appearances by some of their good friends and well-known South Carolina musicians: Blue Dogs songwriter Phillip Lammonds, Tommy Dew and Kevin Wadley from the influential 90’s Charleston band The Archetypes, Columbia’s Danielle Howle, and the Adande African Drum ensemble featuring former Dogs percussionist (‘97-’98) Jesse Thrower.
The show might as well be considered the Blue Dogs’ definitive performance. It is packed with 20 songs, pulling from all 5 of their studio releases as well as a couple of songs that have never been released by the band. There are fan favorites throughout. And the band runs the gamut stylistically, flexing their country/pop muscles, but then also weaving in the bluegrass sensibility that goes back to the band’s beginnings, while then managing to incorporate African djembe drums seamlessly into the show.
In fact, what is so obviously present in this show is a Blue Dogs trademark: a loose unpredictability. Various local and regional bluegrass musicians step on and off the stage with ease, most with no rehearsal that day with the band. At one point in the show, the band blows an intro to the song, and without missing a beat, stops and jokes and then starts again. Not surprisingly, the moment was not edited from the footage and made the final cut.
Rounding out the band’s lineup for the show is original Dogs’ drummer Greg Walker, whose first gig with the then-acoustic band was in 1993 at the Music Farm in Charleston, where he spontaneously set up and played and has been the band’s drummer ever since. The newest member of the band is celebrating his 10th anniversary--guitarist David Stewart, who plays flawlessly on this night. Yet the star of the evening could well be the band’s some-time mandolin player, Daren Shumaker, who is all over the stage and all over the songs with tasteful solos and licks and seems to be having the time of his life. Everyone shines in this video, which truly turns out to be just the right kind of celebration as it showcases the achievements of a band 20 years in and on top of their game.
As it turned out, 2005 was a prolific year for the band. In January of that year, Live at Workplay, a live CD released later in 2006, was recorded at the Birmingham, Alabama concert venue of the same name. Produced by Bruce Hornsby guitarist and veteran producer Doug Derryberry, the CD was a warm up of sorts for the Live at the Dock Street…again DVD, pulling from all of their previous records but featuring just the core group, the current Dogs lineup (the same since 1998): Houck and Futch with Walker and Stewart.
Recorded before a very lively and intimate audience, Workplay features versions of songs from their more recent studio albums Halos and Good Buys, Letters from Round O, and Blue Dogs (all recorded after 1996, when the band went full time), but it also reaches back to their early 90’s recordings Music For Dog People and Soul Dogfood and includes several previously unreleased songs. Many of the Blue Dogs’ most-requested songs are present, including “Walter,” “Isabelle,” “Cosmic Cowboy,” “Bill Bill,” “Half of My Mistakes” (co-written by Bobby Houck and famed Texan-turned-Nashvillian songwriter Radney Foster) and “Make Your Mama Proud,” plus Hank Futch takes a turn on the acoustic guitar with the gospel song “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” and Arthur Smith’s “Conversation with a Mule.” A rendition of Lyle Lovett’s “L.A. County” and a take on Blue Mountain’s “Blue Canoe” (seemingly custom-made for the Blue Dogs) close the CD in rocking fashion.
The CD received accolades right away, from fans and critics and radio. The Midwest Record Recap writes:
“Once again we have to wonder why this bunch of roots rockers are one of the best bands you never heard of. A hard working outfit that rubs some mighty impressive elbows along their way, here they do a live recap and more of their ten years as pros. Turning the crowd on with great ease, the Dogs deliver the goods and go on their merry way. Funtastic outing that simply lets the good times roll without pretense or affect.”
The CD was accepted with open arms by XM Radio, where Channel 12’s “X-Country” played numerous tracks from the album until it climbed to #1 on its chart by August 2006. And listeners of one of the biggest AAA/Americana stations in the country, WNCW, put Workplay in its year-end list of the top 50 Americana records of the year.
The Blue Dogs’ previous CD, 2004’s Halos and Good Buys, was produced by Don Gehman (John Mellencamp, REM, Hootie & the Blowfish, Pat Green), garnering excellent critical reviews and extensive airplay, particularly on the Texas music charts. “The road-seasoned band effectively straddles the line between loose rock swagger and radio-friendly hooks,” said Billboard magazine in its review. An earlier CD, 1999’s Letters from Round O, generated radio response from Modern Rock, Triple A and Americana radio, as well as glowing reviews in the New York Times and the Washington Post, among others.
After 25 years of playing shows and releasing 9 CD's and 2 DVD's, South Carolina's Blue Dogs celebrated in grand style with a sold-out two-set performance at the Charleston Music Hall on Sunday, December 29, 2013, joined by special guests and friends paying tribute to the band and, in some cases, singing the Blue Dogs' songs back to the band. Darius Rucker sang "Isabelle" along with his own "Wagon Wheel," and his old band mates from Hootie and the Blowfish joined him onstage for two Hootie hits, "Time" and "Hold My Hand". Edwin McCain sang the Dogs' "Rainbows Over My Blues" and part of "I'd Give Anything" as well as his own "Gramercy Park Hotel". Well-known Nashville songwriter (and Texas native) Radney Foster performed with the band two songs that he co-wrote with Dogs lead singer Bobby Houck, "Half of My Mistakes" and "What's Wrong with Love Songs." There were also appearances by other South Carolina musicians including Cravin Melon's Doug Jones, Dangermuffin's Dan Lotti, Danielle Howle, Mac Leaphart and John Satterfield, and most of the former members of the Blue Dogs.
The band continues in 2014 to perform on pace to do more than 100 shows a year, from clubs, festivals, and colleges to corporate events, private parties, and fundraisers---primarily from New York to Florida but expanding wherever they are called. They continue to maintain a national (and international) fan base, with all 9 recordings available through iTunes and other digital portals via their distributor, Redeye, and their CD's, DVD's and other merchandise offered exclusively at their website, . 2013 marked 25 years since standup bassist Hank Futch joined forces with longtime friend, fellow cub scout, and acoustic guitarist/vocalist Bobby Houck under the band name “Blue Dogs.” And so the Charleston SC-based Blue Dogs quietly move into their 26th year as a band (est. 1987) playing and singing Americana/country-rock music.
The band has performed on the same stage with such well-known and diverse artists as Willie Nelson, Widespread Panic, Bruce Hornsby, and Hootie and the Blowfish and more. They have also received national exposure by singing the national anthem on NBC at the final Southern 500 NASCAR race in Darlington, SC in 2004, and in 2007 by performing as the house band on a week’s worth of Wheel of Fortune shows.