The Blooming of Doghouse Flowers
WMSE’s “Chicken Shack” host Jon Ziegler joined with New Orleans native Justin Reuther to created alt-country band.
Milwaukee has been the inspiration for at least two stone-cold, country classics: Jerry Lee Lewis’ closing-time favorite “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)” and the George Jones/Brenda Carter duet “Milwaukee, Here I Come.” There also have been several lesser known, twangy shout-outs to Brew City, including Charlie Walker’s daring “Gonna Drink Milwaukee Dry” and Milwaukee native Larry Lee Phillipson’s obscure “Milwaukee Road” and “First Night Back in Milwaukee.”
Doghouse Flowers has entered this small yet powerful subgenre with “Meet Me in Milwaukee,” the very fine lead off track to the very fine debut album, Chasing the Sun, by the Milwaukee honky-tonk and country rock band.
Lead singer Justin Reuther, a New Orleans native who grew up in San Francisco and returned to his hometown as an adult before moving here nearly three years ago, wrote the song about his girlfriend (now wife), as he waited to reunite with her in Milwaukee. The mid-tempo song is filled with soulful longing but also optimism about celebrating a “brand new life” in a new city.
“She had decided to make the break from New Orleans,” Reuther explains. “She wanted to come on out to Milwaukee and be close to her mom, and I said that I would meet her after (she moved). So the song just kind of came about with what I was feeling, what she was feeling.”
Soon after landing in Milwaukee, Reuther hooked up with local musician and disc jockey Jon Ziegler, whom he’d met a few years earlier in New Orleans during the Ponderosa Stomp music festival. Ziegler, who also is in the Uptown Savages and the Exotics, had told Reuther he would help him form a band by connecting him with other local musicians. But as Ziegler listened to Reuther’s songs and played music with him, he decided he wanted to join Reuther’s effort. On board as bassist, Ziegler helped recruit the rest of the band that became Doghouse Flowers: lead guitarist Brian Scheele and drummer Mike Budde.
“They were people who I had thought if there was ever another project to come along I would ask them to play,” Ziegler says.
Ziegler, who also hosts WMSE’s popular country and Americana show the “Chicken Shack,” liked Reuther’s songs right away. “I think at this point I have a pretty good idea of a song whether it’s unique or really stands out,” he says. “When I heard Justin’s songs, I thought this is definitely something I would play on the radio.”
Music was a major part of Reuther’s life from an early age: his father moved the family out west to do promotional work for Capricorn and RCA records. Through his father’s job, he learned about and often saw performances by musicians such as the Allman Brothers, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Waylon Jennings, Ronnie Milsap and Poco. The singer-songwriter approach taken by the country artists made the biggest impression on Reuther.
“I started playing rock a little first, because, I like the exuberance,” he says. “As I progressed, my writing style has definitely fit the themes and pathos of country.”
Ziegler says Doghouse Flowers tried to expand and update traditional country music, adding elements of rock and pop: “We certainly pay respect to the classic country guys. But the songs are different. They are little more structurally developed. The arrangements are a little more sophisticated.”
The group has been performing regularly with shows four or five times a month at venues around southeastern Wisconsin in addition to rehearsing weekly. Ziegler and Reuther agreed this has improved the band.
“I think the band that people would have gone to see last year or even seven months ago is different than the band playing now,” Ziegler says. “This is a more confident band. A tighter band.”
Reuther says the band has moved toward a more collective feel and defined sound. “We’ll start working on a new idea I have or Jon has, and it just automatically starts to sound like your sound, which is kind of cool. We’ll kick around a cover tune, and it sounds like ‘us’ doing the song.”
The band’s debut album has had a good reception, getting radio airplay and positive reviews from around the country as well as Europe and Australia. Ziegler is very pleased with the reaction, considering the band has not toured widely.
The Doghouse Flowers plan to head back to the studio in the fall. Even with the addition of a keyboard player to the band, Ziegler doesn’t anticipate that different a sound for the next album but says the band wants to add more pedal steel to the mix. “It’s going to be very similar but a lot stronger.”
Reuther says he enjoys the music scene in Milwaukee, which he’s found very receptive to original music. “People here have a lot to be proud of,” he says. “Every city has its problems, its politics, its nepotism, but as far as playing in clubs, there’s a great variety in music here, and hopefully we can find our niche.”
More information about Doghouse Flowers can be found at thedoghouseflowers.com. The band performs next on Saturday, July 5 aboard the Vista King with God’s Outlaw.