Brian D'Ambrosio

Big Sky Bluegrass: Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs

By Brian D’Ambrosio

You can do this right now. No one is stopping you.

That’s part and parcel of the doctrine of Bozeman-based Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs, a gaggle of good-timers who are committed to chart the boulevard of bluegrass with an unyieldingly brisk folk-country mark.

Unifying a four-part harmony and a vigorous musical drive, the Bird Dogs have taken an active approach to the local and regional festival circuit this summer. With their bounce and upbeat ballads and eager-voiced delivery, the Bird Dogs hope to stake a claim in the bluegrass-folk festival genre with their own distinctive sound and devoted fan base.

“Festivals are so much fun,” said Lena “Laney Lou” Schiffer of Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs. “You’ve got a one hour slot to show your best work and to capture their attention. Festivals are fun settings and generally everyone is in the best of moods. The weather is great, and backstage is a great setting. You are part of this bigger vibe that everyone is trying to create. Not only do you play but you get to listen to all of these other bands, and gather inspiration.”

With a flock of musicians who draw from a number of collective experiences in eclectic bands, the Bird Dogs have comfortably settled into the frontier of bluegrass-country music. They’ve invested the time it takes to build the infrastructure of a fan base with a mixture of innovative covers and swift-tempo originals.

“We have a whole process to see if it draws up to a usable cover or not, and we’ve learned a few different traditions or covers and some stick, but overall we seek out covers with great harmonies. “Fat Bottomed Girl” has a great four-part harmony and “Sharecropper’s Son “has a harmony throughout the chorus and a real potential for vocals…we are constantly growing as a band and finding our style. I think the great thing that contributes to a versatile and variable set is that we each write different songs, Matt, Josh, Brian and I, and we can make that song a Birddog tune. It starts as an idea and someone else dotes on it and adds their flare. As a group we pick out each song and then all start throwing in our own creative juices… we can start with something that’s not a high-energy song, and we can go with the ebb and flow of set, rotating to a slow or harmony-driven piece. That creates sets that rise and fall and creates a whole scene.”

The Bird Dogs released a live self-titled studio album in 2016, recorded at Basecamp Studio in Bozeman. Their follow-up album, The Vigilante Session, was recorded live at a forest service cabin in the Tobacco Root Mountains. While the quintet is still learning about all of the responsibilities that come with the gift of music, they have already shared the stage with a plethora of talents, including The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Leftover Salmon, The Infamous Stringdusters, The Black Lillies, and most recently Amy Helm.

“We had the chance in July to be with Amy Helm and her band,” said Schiffer. “They were such friendly people that we met and immediately connected with, and we were invited up on the stage to sing and play fiddle and made a great connection.”

The fivesome consists of Schiffer on vocals-guitar-percussion, Matt Demarais on vocals-banjo-dobro, bassist Ethan Demarais, Brian Kassay on fiddle-mandolin-harmonica, and guitarist Josh Moore who also shares vocal duties. The Bird Dogs originated in Bozeman, though the crew all have starting points elsewhere, including the Demarais brothers who claim roots in Great Falls. Schiffer arrived in Montana from California less than a decade ago while other members drifted this far north from Colorado and North Carolina. 

“We basically connected through Craigslist,” said Schiffer. “I’d just finished massage school and I wanted to play in a folk band and be part of that community. Craigslist had a music page and we started there about five years ago.”

Schiffer somehow managed to locate a handful of future bandmates who all shared similar musical aspirations: to cultivate an expression that paid homage to contemporary bluegrass-folk stalwarts such as the Old Crow Medicine Show, Trampled by Turtles, The SteelDrivers, Devil Makes Three, and Gillian Welch.

“We wanted to do something in the style of the Old Crow Medicine Show, covers that were not super traditional bluegrass. None of us comes from a traditional bluegrass background, but our love of folk – Allison Krauss, Jackson Browne and Neil Young – that contributes to the style. We find that uplifting.”

Indeed, the band’s philosophy is to merely continue to crank out music as happy chemicals. It’s about giving them – and others – the vitality and initiative needed to infuse and energize the power of song.

“Happiness a big part of why we’ve chosen to play and write the way that we do,” said Schiffer. “Our music inspires people to dance and smile and connect with us. The thing that drives us is seeking out that audience connection, and they are giving energy to us, and we completely try to give that energy back. It’s a great exchange of energy and we feel the excitement and energy coming right back, and that’s sort of addicting in a way. It’s really symbiotic. You crave that after a while.”

The spontaneous part of the band is still foraging, scanning the world for details leading to a reward and a sense of place.

“We are flying by the seat of our pants and connecting with other musicians and asking for advice. We have a great team, and all five of us play a specific role, and we have a machine that has figured out each other’s strengths and capitalizes on that… we’ve been spending time in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon, and Washington, as well as parts of Colorado, and our short-term goal is to build a following in those states, and to hit the Midwest next year, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Iowa, and to add that to our roster.”

Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs don’t just daydream, they take action. In addition to plans of expanding into other regional markets, the band hopes to record its first full professional studio album by the end of the year (the first two albums were comprised of live recordings).  

“We are going through an interesting phase as musicians right now,” concluded Schiffer. “CD sales are not the highest point of income anymore. It’s about touring and getting yourself in front of actual people. You have to prove yourself these days and be proving to the people who book that we are serious and that we can engage a crowd, and that this is what we want to be doing.”