November 12, 2013 by Kevin M. Duvall
Sometimes a man wants to rock out hard when listening to music. Other times, he wants to settle down, have a seat on the porch, and watch the sunset while taking in sounds of the Appalachian tradition. For those times, there’s Dog & Gun.
The band includes Evan Johns (guitar/vocals), Ben Perdue mandolin/fiddle), Trent Porter (banjo), Nathan Sams (bass), and Marlon Rhine (drums), Dog & Gun formed in 2011, and have since performed all around north central West Virginia and were recently featured on The Saturday Light Brigade radio show in Pittsburgh. You can listen to that set here. I talked to Johns and Rhine to find out more about the group’s music, performances, promotion, and future plans.
What type of music does the band make?
JOHNS: I always have a tough time with that question. In the past, we’ve called ourselves “country-folk” and “alternative country,” but those are pretty broad umbrellas. We’ve been called “dark bluegrass” as well, but despite covering a few classic bluegrass tunes, we don’t really consider ourselves a bluegrass band. I’d say we’re somewhere between country, old-time, and bluegrass—but with a little rock-n-roll edge. We just call ourselves “mountain music.”
What are the band’s main influences?
JOHNS: The real heart of our sound comes from traditional Appalachian music—stuff we’ve either picked up from local musicians or from some of the classic recordings (Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, Bascom Lamar Lunsford). We’re also really influenced by country music—Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt, on up through alternative country artists like Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, and Lucero.
Our sound is heavily influenced by artists from other genres, too. Several of us are big metal heads, and you can definitely hear some Black Sabbath or Baroness seep through here and there. Classic rock artists have left their mark as well—Thin Lizzy, the Stones—and most of us cut our teeth playing punk music. Breece Pancake’s short stories and Ruth Ann Musick’s anthologies of regional ghost stories were big influences on my songwriting, as well.
How did the group come together?
JOHNS: I first started playing music with Nate at a weekly country/bluegrass/old-time jam that I organized to bring together regional musicians in my hometown (that’s Buckhannon for anyone keeping score at home). I eventually convinced him to trade in his electric bass for a stand-up, but I left for school before we really got things off the ground. Years later, we started playing again—this time with Marlon, a fellow law student. We met Ben playing at an old-time jam at the local brewpub, and it wasn’t long before he was playing shows with us as well. As for Trent, he overheard us jamming on a friend’s back porch one night. He ran home to grab his banjo and asked to join in. He’s been with us since.
Marlon, You’ve played with many musicians as a professional drummer. What do you like about playing Dog & Gun’s style of music?
RHINE: Frankly, my exposure to this sort of music had been relatively minimal prior to moving to West Virginia. I had heard a few old time bands here and there, and of course had heard a decent bit of Bluegrass having grown up in Georgia. However, the Appalachian musical heritage is something that is really in full swing up here. What I like about what we do in particular (and from a drummer’s standpoint) is that it’s really pushed me in terms of controlling my dynamics. Most of my previous bands have been really loud, and trying to play quietly and tastefully is something that can be really hard to do.
What has your experience playing in Morgantown, or other areas in the region, been like? Any favorite venues or performances?
JOHNS: It’s always great playing at venues that cater to music-lovers. 123 Pleasant Street has been a blast, as has the Morgantown Brewing Company. It’s a different beast, but some of the most enjoyable performances for me have been at house shows. While not in Morgantown proper, we’ve also really enjoyed playing the Whitegrass Cafe in Canaan Valley, the 88 in Buckhannon, and at the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins.
RHINE: I’ve gotten to travel around the country and play music a lot of places past few years. That said, I’ve definitely gotten more experience in this region with Dog & Gun than with any other band. I’ll tell you, the best thing about playing with Dog & Gun has been getting to see some of the really beautiful areas in the region. We played at a ski resort in Canaan Valley last year and that was great. We also got to play at the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins, WV this summer.
That was a great town as well. Playing in Morgantown is its own beast. It’s like a lot of college towns in that I think the “scene” tends to be really cyclical. When I first got here I think things were a little slower, but it really seems like stuff has picked up in the few years I’ve been here. That said it could also be that finding good music in Morgantown is really about knowing where to look. When I first got here I clearly didn’t but once I started going out to a few different jam sessions around town I quickly realized that there are a huge number of really, really talented musicians floating around. It’s just about getting connected to them.
Where is the band’s “man cave” (practice space)?
RHINE: I’m not sure that we have an official practice space per se. Maybe Evan’s house? To some extent I think we all kind of prefer a trial by fire approach to playing music. There’s a lot of improvisation in bluegrass. Typically Evan will send us demos of songs and we’ll learn the song structure. Then we’ll try to put it all together at a “lower-key” gig. There’s no better time to dust of a new song then during a 4-hour bar gig.
You guys recently played a radio show in Pittsburgh. How did that come together, and how was your experience?
JOHNS: One of our first shows as a complete band was at a festival in Helvetia, West Virginia. While there, we met Erika May, a singer-songwriter from Pittsburgh, and we’ve been close friends with her ever since. She was able to lock down that radio show for us. It was great! We can’t thank her enough.
RHINE: It was one of those gigs where I just kinda got word about it and showed up not knowing what to expect.This was the first time I had done a radio gig in Pittsburgh and it was a great experience.
What are the band’s upcoming plans? Any shows coming up or new music coming out?
JOHNS: We’ve been working on recording a five- or six-song EP of original material—we’re blessed to have Marlon as the technical brains behind that operation. Look for that by the end of the year. We’re opening for the Hillbilly Gypsies at 123 Pleasant Street on November 22nd. Beyond that, we’ll be playing some shows around the area: a few in Buckhannon, a square dance in Thomas. We’ll be adding some more shows soon, so keep an eye on our website.
How does the band build its audience?
RHINE: It seems like it’s been largely word of mouth at the point. A lot has changed in the music industry, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that you have got to get out and play shows if you want to build an audience.
What role does the Internet (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) play in building your band’s fanbase? Have you had experience with online audience building in any previous bands?
RHINE: In this band I haven’t done too much in terms of building our online presence. This is mostly due to the rigors of being in grad school. That said, in the past I have definitely done a good bit more. You can do a tremendous amount through social media and it’s one of those things that you have to at least have a presence on. I remember being in one band that had been signed to a label that wanted us all to have Twitter accounts and to Tweet as much as possible. That worked really well for that particular kind of music, but I’m not sure that the average listener to our music really wants any of that. I guess it’s about trying to “know your audience.”
Because this is for Morgantown Man Cave, what is the manliest thing about Dog & Gun?
JOHNS: Misplaced and destructive tendency to express fear through aggression; crippling inability to connect emotionally; varying degrees of androgenic alopecia.
RHINE: Ben Perdue.