Lightening can indeed strike twice. And the odds for another flash of brilliance improve considerably when there's talent involved like the pioneering musicians collectively known as Dogs of Peace. It's been 20 years since Gordon Kennedy, Jeff Balding, Blair Masters, John Hammond and Jimmie Sloas joined forces to record Speak, a groundbreaking album that was musically inventive, lyrically insightful and both playful and poignant all at the same time.
Now the Dogs are back with Heel, a potent collection of tunes that percolate with the same passion that gave voice to Speak, yet is seasoned by 20 years of experience that gives both the music and lyrical content an added heft and depth. "The music that we were listening to when we grew up made you want to get out an album, open it up, look at the pictures and listen to the entire album in one sitting and that's what we hoped to accomplish with this record," Kennedy says of the project, releasing on Naxos' Suite 28 Records. "The message is just a proclamation of what we believe to be the truth and we try to tell it the best way we can. We're just trying to write the best songs and record them to the best of our ability, and hopefully that's what we've done again."
Indeed, that's exactly what they've accomplished on Heel. The album is an engaging sonic tapestry that opens with aggressive anthem "One Flight Away" and includes such well-crafted songs as the compelling "Dark Without" and the playful yet pointed "All This for a Piece of Fruit," an intriguing examination of the Garden of Eden and the fall of mankind. Heel also includes a groove-laden 10-minute medley before closing with a heartfelt instrumental rendition of "Amazing Grace."
Each song is brought to life by five of the most-accomplished musicians in the world.
Born in Shreveport, LA and raised in Nashville, Kennedy is a legendary guitarist and two-time GRAMMY® winner who co-wrote Eric Clapton's GRAMMY® winning Song of the Year "Change the World." Currently on tour with Peter Frampton, Kennedy has written songs for Don Henley, Garth Brooks, Ricky Skaggs, Bruce Hornsby, Tim McGraw and Carrie Underwood among others as a player, has worked with Little Big Town, Kenny Loggins, Reba McEntire, Amy Grant, PFR, Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins and many more.
Sloas is a world-renowned bass player/songwriter and producer who hails from Eastern Kentucky but has called Nashville home for decades. His credits include Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Megadeth, PFR, Thomas Rhett and others. He is a five-time Music Row Bass Player of the Year recipient and has performed with different artists on "Good Morning America," "The Tonight Show," "Saturday Night Live," "Conan" and the CMA Awards Show.
Blair Masters is a keyboardist/composer/producer who has recorded with Frankie Valli, Amy Grant, Casting Crowns, Steven Curtis Chapman, Megadeth and Jeremy Camp. As a producer, the Oregon native has worked with Jim Brickman, Twila Paris and Point of Grace. He has toured with Frampton, McDonald, MercyMe, Giant and Steve Wariner, and he has composed music for television shows on A&E, the Discovery Channel, ABC, NBC and CBS.
When it comes to the drums, few names are more synonymous with the skins than John Hammond. The Summerville, GA native has recorded or performed with Vince Gill, Jewel, Faith Hill, Olivia Newton-John, Barry Manilow, Whitney Houston, Peter Cetera, Kristin Chenoweth, Bill Gaither, Christopher Cross, Cliff Richard and many others. He has performed on "The Today Show," "Pepsi Smash," "The Tonight Show," The Gospel Music Association's Dove Awards and for the President as part of an In Command Performance at the White House.
For more than three decades, Balding has been one of Nashville's most in demand producers and engineers with a career that spans multiple genres. A native of Southern Illinois, his credits include Taylor Swift, Don Henley, Shakira, Little Big Town, Megadeth, Keith Urban and Jewel. Balding has held elected positions with The Recording Academy and serves on Belmont University's Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business and the Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School Academy Advisory Board.
Collectively, the members of Dogs of Peace possess a lifetime of musical innovation both on stage and in the studio, and personally they share the same passionate commitment to spreading the gospel through music. It's a mission that was born over two decades ago. "PFR had just slung the towel into the ring and called it quits as a band," Kennedy recalls citing the demise of one of the most beloved Christian groups of the 90s. "Sparrow Records' Peter York said the label had a void for that genre of music and he reached out to Jimmie Lee who produced PFR and said, 'Can you find a group to produce?' And then it became, 'Can you and Gordon find a group to produce?' because I'd been on Sparrow with Whiteheart and so it became 'Hey, why don't you guys just do us a record?'"
Kennedy and Sloas recruited friends Masters, Balding and Hammond and thus Dogs of Peace was born. Speak became a landmark album that influenced the next generation of Christian bands. MercyMe frontman Bart Millard and others consider it a musical textbook for illuminating the journey of faith in a fresh way. Speak became a must have for every discerning music lover caught at the intersection of faith and art. However, when the label didn't ask for another album, and their individual opportunities propelled them in different directions, Balding, Hammond, Kennedy, Master and Sloas decided to give the Dogs a rest and return to business as usual.
After two decades of assorted musical adventures, what prompted the Dogs to reunite? "Jeff and I were at a function for NARAS, both being on the Board of Governors at the time, and we were getting ready to hear Geoff Emerick speak. [He was] the engineer from the Beatles records," Kennedy recalls. "Jeff and I looked at each other and he said, 'When are we doing another Dogs record? I said, 'I'm ready' and it's sort of like we were daring each other to be serious about it, and then within a couple of years, we found ourselves making this record."
Since they were each still busy with other recording projects, Hammond says advances in technology helped make the Dogs record easier to tackle. "I don't think anything was done at a studio per se," Hammond says. "It was all done at one of our houses. The drums were all cut in my basement and then Gordon cut his guitar and a lot of vocals over there. Blair did his keyboard stuff at his house and Jimmie came over to Gordon's or did some stuff at his house and Jeff mixed it at his house."
The result is a record that pays homage to their individual musical roots. "All of us have our own influences. I don't think you can be our age and not be influenced by such a variety of things like Led Zeppelin or the Eagles or whoever," Sloas says. "All of those things are there in some way and there was never a time on this record that anyone said, 'Hey this needs to be a song that sounds like this.' It was like Gordon would play a riff or had this idea and then it became what it became. Everybody would respond by drawing from our own influences and it could be a huge variety of influences."
"People will get a little snapshot of all of our lives musically and the journey," says Balding. "There are inspirations throughout all of our lives musically on this record that I identify with and I think, for all of us, it has resonated heavily. I kept telling my wife, 'I don't know if this is good or not, but I think it's fun and it sure resonates with me and my spirit.'"
The Dogs are pleased with the songs that populate Heel. "'If it Weren't for You' is the first song I played for my kids," Sloas says of the song, which was penned by Kennedy solo. "It's the most unusual and I love that song."
"Crush" is a bonus track that was inspired by the album's cover art, an image of a red Converse sneaker crushing a serpent. The song "Healed" is also a reflection of the album art. "The image that's on the album cover was something that I saw in my mind's eye and was explaining it to John Hammond at his house one day when he said, 'You ought to call my friend Nate Mather who is really good artist,'" Kennedy says of Mather who did a painting for each song on the album that is included in the CD's booklet. "The next day he sent me the image that is the album cover. I could not believe it. It looked exactly like I saw in my brain and the only difference was I saw a black high top Converse sneaker, but his was red and everything else looked exactly what I'd seen in my head. . . That is what took place in that act in history. When Jesus crushed the head of the serpent and went to the cross and died, we were healed at that time. That's what the artwork is saying."
"Friend of the Groom," penned by Kennedy, Masters and Hammond opens with the line "Can you save me a piece of that cake now?" Kennedy recalls inspiration for the song striking one morning as he was in the lobby waiting to go into his church's second service. "As I'm standing there looking over the crowd and the doors, waiting for them to open, that title occurred to me," Kennedy remembers. "I thought it would be funny. It started off as a bit of a humorous thing in my mind. When you walk in, there should be an usher standing there asking you where do you want to sit and the response being, 'Friend of the groom!' And that's where that song came from."
Kennedy says "One Flight Away" is one of the most special songs on the album to him. "The first verse is about Jimmie Lee's real life experience he told me about years ago when he got saved," Kennedy explains. "And the second verse is about my mother so that song has always been special to me and that's the first song we recorded for this record."
In recording Heel, the Dogs enlisted special friends to lend their talents. Michael Omartian plays piano on "Friend of the Groom." Skaggs lends his mandolin to "Only the Gold" and Frampton puts his signature guitar licks on "Healed." PFR's Joel Hanson, Whiteheart alum Rick Florian and the McCrary Sisters provide guests vocals on "He's the Light of the World." As much as they enjoyed having friends add to their musical offerings, for the Dogs of Peace, the biggest reward was just in being back together and getting a chance to howl once again. "This was a passion project for us all," says Masters who took the songs to Naxos. "We didn't go, 'Let's make a record that has a hit song!' It was really, 'Let's make some music that we love making.' That's what inspired everybody and there's a quote from Gordon that we all embrace: 'If nothing else happens with this other than it being an offering, then that alone is enough reason to do it.' That's the heart behind the record. If it's an offering we put at His feet, then that's enough and is the reason for this record."
Kennedy says when they'd completed the record a theme emerged. "It's one of light," he says. "It keeps showing up time and time again on the record---the whole idea of you can't hide light. There's this light that is part of our lives and when John Hammond, as a drummer, goes to play on a session no matter who it's for, same thing with Blair and Jimmie, Jeff, and myself, if we're invited somewhere like that it must be because there needs to be some light no matter where it is. Jesus would have done the same thing. He's going to go where it's dark because that's where he's needed more than anywhere else, so that's the theme of this record to me. It's light into the darkness."