Recently I was invited over to dinner by a friend that I hadn’t seen in a while. As I approached the step to ring their doorbell, I heard a low growl coming from inside. Once again, I knew. The dog could smell a musician.
It is a little known fact that Switchback and some dogs just don’t seem to mix. But then my dismal track record with man's best friend started back in childhood. When I was five years old, I dressed up in a skeleton costume and went trick or treating with my brothers. I was very excited as it was the first time I was allowed to tag along. As we approached one neighbor's house, the door opened and out bounded what was, without a doubt, the biggest German shepherd in the world.
I panicked, knowing that dogs like bones and I was dressed up as a skeleton. I proceeded to run in circles around the lawn, candy spilling out of my bag, the skeleton mask pushed up over my face, screaming my head off as the dog happily bounded behind me, enjoying the game. Finally,the neighbor called off the dog and helped me gather up my candy, no thanks to my brothers who stood and watched the entire spectacle unfold. I think they were even eating some of my candy as they enjoyed the entertainment.
Needless to say, I was scarred for life and this trepidation about dogs followed me into my music career. I thought I had it bad, but I found out that Brian had it even worse than I had.
In our early days on the road, we headed down to Austin, Texas, to play a string of clubs. Janine, our road manager at the time, decided that we should have a photo shoot and so we hopped into her SUV to find a picturesque spot. We found some open fields in the Hill Country that sported some cactus and got out of the vehicle. The back window of the SUV was down so we could fish out our guitars. We were in the process of doing just that when across the field came -- you guessed it -- yet another enormous German Shepherd. I flattened against the SUV. The dog ran toward us, almost as if in slow motion, and I could see that its tail was wagging and its open mouth showed absolutely no teeth. This was an old happy dog and I turned to Brian to tell him so. But all I could see were Brian’s feet as he scrambled through the window and into the SUV. The dog came trotting up to Janine and me, wagging its tail and whining. But his whines weren’t as loud as Brian’s. To this day we remember that incident as "the time Brian was almost gummed to death.”
Over the years we had more run-ins with dogs. Some dogs, like Brooks, beloved elkhound of our Memphis fans, Jayn and Rich Lando, would make an uneasy truce with us. We stayed out of the room Brooks (whom we renamed Cujo) was in and all was well. However, we once brought along a drummer named Phil to visit. Phil fancied himself a “dog-whisperer.” “I have a way with dogs,” he told us as we sped down to Memphis and told him about the famous Cujo. “Don’t worry about about that dog ever bothering you once he and I reach our understanding.” We watched him walk into Brooks' room. After about 10 minutes of silence, we crept over to the doorway and looked in. Phil was leaning over Brooks, slowly bringing his hand from high over his head toward the sitting dog and murmuring reassuring words. Cujo waited patiently until Phil's hand was in front of his mouth...then bit it. Phil wouldn’t walk into the same room as Brooks after that.
Most of our troubles come when we arrive at a house and the dog hasn't been notified of our arrival. Once we were invited to stay at a fan's brother's house near Fort Campbell, Kentucky. We were playing in Nashville and in those pre-GPS days were clueless as to how long and far it would be to get there. We arrived well after 1 a.m. The couple, who had never met us before, were kind enough to be waiting for us. So was their dog Killer. Killer was a pit bull and sported one of those wire collars that are supposed to keep them under control but really are designed to make the dog look that much more intimidating. As they showed us to our rooms, they put Killer in a flimsy plastic dog kennel. “Don’t worry about Killer, he’s just a pet. He won’t bother you once he is in his kennel,” the lady of the house said.
I worried about Killer until about 6 a.m. when I decided I would get up. I could hear Killer hitting the sides of his kennel like a shark bumping the bottom of a rubber life raft. Apparently Brian worried about Killer as well, because we both looked like we had no sleep. Eventually the couple awoke and the first thing the husband did was to let Killer out of the kennel. Killer slowly crouched out of the kennel as a lion stalks a zebra and kept his unblinking eyes fixated on us two musicians.
The husband had a video of Stevie Ray Vaughan in concert and decided that it would be fun for us to watch that as loud as possible. Killer padded out to the kitchen and stayed with the wife. Brian and I did a double take as we noticed she scrambled eggs while holding a guinea pig with one hand, resting it on her shoulder like one would a baby. Killer finally took his eyes off us and stared at the guinea pig.
“Now Killer, you stop looking at Sassy here,” she said, pulling back the shoulder that the guinea pig was resting on. “Killer ate her twin sister two days ago and Sassy can’t seem to get over it,” she said conversationally.
“Aw, don’t let Killer freak you out,” the husband said. “You just gotta learn not to look in his direction and you’ll be fine.” We turned back to the Stevie Ray concert and pushed deeper into our easy chairs.
About 10 minutes later, breakfast was ready and the husband rose up from the video to set out plates in the kitchen. That left Killer between them and us. “Breakfast,” the husband said cheerfully. “Come on in, you guys.” We unsteadily rose from our chairs. Killer rose as well. Brian bravely made the first step toward the kitchen when Killer let out a deep growl, a growl that went on for three minutes without breathing it seemed.
“Killer, you be a nice dog,” said the husband. We stood there, frozen. It took Sassy as bait to get Killer to move from where he stood and be locked into a room so we could eat.
“I got some nice plans for us today,” said the husband. “Thought we could take the dog and head over….” Brian and I quickly cut him off. “We have to head back early to Nashville,” we both blurted out. And shortly after breakfast we packed what clothes we had and got out of Fort Campbell as fast as as we could.