By Charlene Oldham | Photography courtesy of The Salty Dogs
From classic country to modern music makeovers, The Salty Dogs have been rockin’ Little Rock audiences for more than a decade.
When a group of Little Rock-based musicians were brainstorming for a band name, one of its two singers suggested The Salty Dogs, a moniker inspired by a folk/bluegrass tune that dates back to the early 1900s. The name turned out to be his longest-lasting contribution to the band, which has now been together for more than 14 years.
“He kind of named the band and never showed up for a gig, so that was the end of that,” said Salty Dogs singer, songwriter and guitarist Brad Williams. “But we were too lazy to try to rename it.”
Similarly, guitarist Nick Devlin was a late addition to the band’s original roster in 2003. The loose lineup and nonchalant naming has a lot to do with how and why the band began. The Salty Dogs launched on a lark to win the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase with an over-the-top take on classic country, complete with countryfied clothes and straightforward musical missives focused on common themes from the genre.
“The band kind of started off as an exaggeration of a traditional country band to the nth degree, and I think the songwriting and the music was part of that exaggeration,” Williams said. “It was very to the point.”
After taking the top prize in the annual contest, The Salty Dogs decided to continue performing and recording music, expanding their repertoire and range. The band’s most-recent release, a six-track EP titled “Goodnight,” features Williams, Devlin and Salty Dogs drummer Bart Angel and bassist Brent LaBeau. It also showcases work by Brian Whelan, Rodney Block, Tim Crouch and Stephen Winter. Between them, the guest musicians boast country credentials including time playing with Dwight Yoakam and at the Grand Ole Opry.
The Salty Dogs have also shared the stage with artists including Willie Nelson, Old Crow Medicine Show, Billy Joe Shaver and Robert Earl Keen, among others. So, the group has evolved from an exercise in overstatement into a band that plays on the same bill as some of the musical icons that inspired the band’s beginnings.
Over the years, The Salty Dogs have expanded beyond their roots as a retro country act, and Williams said the newest EP blends all the long-time band members’ musical tastes into a sound that’s now all their own.
“It’s a four-way contribution that reflects our influences,” he said. “So,there will be some aspects of country and there will be some that are rock ‘n’ roll and there will be a guitar solo that makes you think, ‘That shouldn’t be in a country song.’”
The EP starts with a scratchy, stripped-down version of the title track “Goodnight” that was produced in The Third Man Record Booth at Jack White’s Third Man Records location in Nashville. The record booth is a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph that dispenses a 6-inch phonograph at the end of a recording session.
The “Goodnight ‘47” prelude helps set the tone for the rest of the album, which also includes a rocking version of The Louvin Brothers’ 1959 song “The Christian Life” and closes with the full-length studio recording of “Goodnight.” With their newest release, The Salty Dogs are paying tribute to classic country, gospel and bluegrass while giving some traditions a decidedly modern musical makeover.
In fact, drummer Bart Angel said the band’s sound takes listeners far beyond hayrides and honky tonks.
“Now it’s everything: Bakersfield, bluegrass, overproduced Nashville stuff, ‘70s California stuff, British music…whatever,” Angel said. “We all listen to anything and everything so it shouldn’t be a surprise, I guess. It’d be only natural to incorporate it, intentionally or not.”
The band’s continuing musical metamorphosis has kept members and fans engaged for nearly a decade and a half. In that time, the group’s members have held down day jobs, which they once balanced with shows that began in the wee hours, Williams said.
“There was a time when we would play a gig from one to four in the morning,” he said. “There’s no way I would do that anymore.”
Since its first show in 2003, The Salty Dog members have added kids and grandkids to their broods. And, after so many years of practicing and playing together, the band members seem like family, too, Angel said.
“Probably jinxing things here, but my favorite thing about the band is that we genuinely like and respect one another personally and musically. Everything else pretty much works itself out,” he said. “For me, gaining three quasi-brothers has been the biggest reward. And getting paid money to play good music with guys that know each other so well personally and musically. It’s crazy.”
The Salty Dogs are on the web at thesaltydogs.net. The new EP “Goodnight” is also available through Spotify, Amazon and iTunes.