Sunday, August 27, 2006

Hank Dogs (Dirty Linen)

Just now, trying to find out whatever happened to these folks, I found someone else's blog that mentions them:

Supposedly they have a Web page at, but I couldn't get it to come up.

From Dirty Linen #86 (Feb/Mar 2000).

Hank Dogs

Deeper Than a Hat

by Pamela Murray Winters

In a smoky American bar, under strings of old license plates from the 50 states, I’m talking to a man in a Stetson. The subject is Joe Boyd of Hannibal Records and his prowess for finding talented and innovative musicians: the likes of Maria Muldaur, 10,000 Maniacs, and now this man’s band, Hank Dogs.

To the remark “Joe Boyd is really batting a thousand,” the Stetson tips up to reveal a startled face. “What does that mean?” Andy asks crisply. “That’s an Americanism.”

Americanism” is not a foreign concept to Andy, nor to his companions in London's Hank Dogs, Lily and Piano. (They prefer not to use their last names.) Offstage, they listen to Steve Earle, John Hiatt, and Nanci Griffith.

Onstage, and on the superb debut album Bareback (released by Hannibal in early 1999), the trio blends the sounds of its homeland with those of American roots musicians and a generous infusion of imagination. As the band finishes its second album, it seems clear that Hank Dogs’ status as citizens of their own peculiar and magical world will not change. They can't claim loyalty to a single heritage.

The Englishness comes from my guitar playing,” said Andy. “It’s not exactly blues, and it’s not exactly Celtic. I learned to play guitar on a six-string. I was listening to John Fahey and John Renbourn.

Maybe 10 years ago, I suddenly got struck by all this new country music,” Andy continued. Steve Earle is a perennial favorite. (The Dogs also admire his sister Stacey, and on this recent U.S. tour they regretted that they kept just missing her; in Arlington, Virginia, she was playing the night after them.) In alt-country music, Andy and friends found a kinship. “They weren’t entirely accepted by Nashville. That’s how we felt. We weren’t accepted by the folk establishment [in the U.K.]. We didn’t feel like a folk band. And they don’t feel like country bands. They just play the songs the way they like to hear them,” Andy explained.

Piano was quick to point out that “folk music” isn’t a slur. “We don’t have anything against it. We just haven’t really crossed paths with it.” Hank Dogs (the name is an homage to Hank Williams, as well as a tribute to Andy and Piano’s late Labrador retriever) handled its maverick status in a sensible way: Andy and Piano started their own club. The Easycome Acoustic Club in South London features “English acoustic indie” music.

One of Easycome’s inspirations was the club where Hank Dogs was born in the late 80s. At London’s legendary Troubadour, the late-night come-all-ye’s provided on-the-job training. “It’s like an open mike night, but without the mike,” said Andy. “You’d wait all night to play one song, and you’d be terrified, but you’d really learn the art of going up on stage.”

The standard of people playing [at the Troubadour] was so high, it made you think you’ve gotta be that good,” Piano said.

This experience was crucial for the shy Piano, who had been “terrified to get out and do it. You have to get over that,” she said. “Get out there and do it.” She first faced a Troubadour audience, alone, about 9 years ago. “It was awful, but it was a start.” But it took years for her to conquer her stage fright, her sense of “what could people possibly be interested in here? I’ve got nothing!”

Andy played rock guitar for a time, including a brief stint in a late incarnation of the Sex Pistols. “I stopped when I met Piano, because Piano was just learning guitar and thinking about writing songs. She really brought me back into music. Lily [Andy’s daughter] was only, like, 10 when we started.

So you hadn’t done any gigs yet, right?” Andy teased his daughter, who was too busy with a pre-show meal to offer a reply. “At school you had. You used to sing in the choir.” He recalled Lily singing the Suzanne Vega song “Tom’s Diner,” unaccompanied, at a school assembly.

Lily and Piano were both drawn to the poetic lyrics and natural phrasing of artists like Vega. Piano cited the simplicity of Vega’s delivery: “It’s not that warbling country vibrato. It’s like speaking to a tune.” Piano also lists Maura O’Connell, Tracy Chapman, the Bangles, and Sinead O’Connor as favorites.

Lily and I started singing together, not thinking it was going to go anywhere, just because we liked the same sort of music,” said Piano. “Andy and I were living in the same house. I was trying to impress him. It worked!” she laughed.

I’m more impressed every day,” Andy said staunchly. Critics are impressed as well; Time Out London said, “This is deft acoustic music with a rare soulful ache and a powerful twisted beauty.”

Most gratifyingly, this seductive, atmospheric music, rooted in the organically twining harmonies of Lily and Piano, is finding its audience. Hank Dogs opened for Joan Baez on a U.S. tour last year and later toured the States as a headliner. “We didn’t know up until that point that we actually had a following in America. In certain areas loads of people turned up to see us,” said Piano.

Andy added, “It’s a good feeling to be three thousand, five thousand miles away from where you live and to find that people have been buying your record and listening to it.”

They credit their record company and their agent for getting their music to the right ears, but they also acknowledge the unknown. “We’ve been incredibly lucky in our careers, certain things falling into place,” said Andy. “We’ve never really pushed it; we’ve just let it happen in a natural way. Piano has a philosophy that you don’t make mistakes in life; everything happens for a reason. You have to have faith.”

That doesn’t mean you don’t have to work,” Piano added.

As they travel the American road making their music, Andy likes to muse on the Western legend. “I’m fond of cowboys, that whole idea of the outdoors, the outdoor life. I never knew how Americans would react to that.” He pondered possible rejection: “What are these upstarts doing — they’re English!” But the authenticity of the band’s vision has largely won out.

To doubters, the definitive word comes from Lily. “People might think the hat is an image thing,” she grinned as she looked at her dad’s Stetson. “But he used to pick me up from school with that on!”

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