Let it be said from the start: the Blue Dogs never broke up. In fact, the popular Charleston rock band never even took a hiatus. They just scaled down their gigging schedule a lot. But one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. That’s because the group’s new album “Big Dreamers” is their first original studio release since 2004.
“We never stopped playing,” said singer/guitarist Bobby Houck, who forms the nucleus of the Blue Dogs along with bassist Hank Futch and drummer Greg Walker. “We just had not managed to get back in the studio to do a new record. So it was really exciting to be able to do that.”
Houck says the album was a long time coming because the band had a long bout with writer’s block following years of constant album-tour-album cycles. Before then, the group, which formed in 1987, had spent years mining a melodic, country-tinged acoustic-based rock sound, similar to what contemporary acts like Cravin’ Melon were doing at the time. They recorded five studio albums and four live releases between 1991 and 2006.
“I don’t know whether it was PTSD from being on the road for 10 years,” he said, “but we are down and it was just a feeling of being mentally and slow physically exhausted. I tried to write, and I couldn’t do it. Then I got married and had kids and your life kind of changes. So doing this album was a real catharsis.”
The eleven-song “Big Dreamers” album certainly doesn’t feel like it was a struggle to write.
It’s chock full of acoustic-electric Americana tunes, country twang and even a straight-ahead bluegrass number featuring dobro wizard Jerry Douglas (“The Road You Don’t”). It’s quintessential Blue Dogs, in other words, and Houck couldn’t agree more with that description.
“It’s kind of funny,” he says. “You know, when you’re recorded talking and then you hear yourself on the tape and your voice sounds weird? It doesn’t sound like what you think you sound like. This was a case where you record something and the whole record sounded to me like this is what the Blue Dogs sound like.”
That hadn’t been the case with the band’s previous album, 2004’s “Halos & Goodbyes.” At that time, Houck and the band were writing with people from Nashville. He felt they sacrificed some of the “Blue Dogs sound” in an effort to fit in better with the country market.
“We really didn’t do that this time and what’s really great is it came out sounding a lot like what we feel like we sound like,” he explained.
Houck credits the album’s producer, Sadler Vaden, with helping the band realize their vision. If Vaden’s name sounds familiar, you might know him better as Jason Isbell’s lead guitarist, or perhaps as a former member of Drivin’ N’ Cryin’.
Vaden actually played with the Blue Dogs for around six years in the late 2000s, and his friendship with the band has endured over the years.
As Vaden began doing more work as a producer, he and Houck began talking about doing a Blue Dogs album together. In fact, it was Vaden who helped Houck conquer his longstanding case of writer’s block.
“We just had this conversation,” Houck said, “and I was like ‘Dammit, Sadler, I need to get out of this writer’s block.’ And he’s like, ‘Dude, you can do it, and when y’all do a record, I want to do a record with you because I know what you’re supposed to sound like.”
Now with “Big Dreamers” out and a summer tour planned (the band has a show at The Main Course in Columbia on Friday, July 8), Houck is excited for people to hear the first new Blue Dogs songs since 2004.
The band expects to play the entire new record at each show, including Columbia’s stop.
“I mean when you haven’t done a record 16 years, everything’s old, even though a lot of those are songs that people want to hear. It’s nice to have a new one. And so I feel certain that will do all of the songs on the new album in Columbia, and in other places that were playing this summer,” he said.
And don’t be surprised if there’s another new Blue Dogs album in the near future. Houck hopes to see another album come out by 2023 or 2024.
“I hope that the new normal for us will be writing some songs every year and getting some more recordings done,” Houck says. “I mean, I think that would be great for us to sort of have a fruitful period for the next several years. I can definitely see it happening.”