As bluegrass bands go, Summerdog was never ordinary. The Tucson group, active from the mid-1970s to the early '80s, was characterized by its diverse tastes and for performing music in a variety of styles.
Not only did Summerdog play traditional high-and-lonesome bluegrass, as well as some old-timey string-band music and a dash of country; it dabbled in jazz and rock, taking part in a movement that eventually came to be known as progressive bluegrass, or "newgrass." The group also was known to inject swing, ragtime and Mexican folk into its repertoire.
In fact, the band's original name was The Summerdog Bluegrass Experience, Mariachi and Swing Ensemble.
"We didn't pattern ourselves after Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, but we took our inspiration from Tucson and the wide range of music that we heard here," says banjo player and founding member Chip Curry, who now lives in San Jose, Calif. "We embraced the whole community."
And Tucson embraced back. Summerdog was a top draw in the Old Pueblo back then, playing regularly at such locations as the Oxbow Saloon, the Splinter Brothers and Sisters Warehouse, and the Mount Lemmon Inn. The group also took to the road, touring extensively in the Southwest and on the West Coast, playing everywhere from El Paso to Seattle.
Summerdog and its individual members often were active in the Tucson theater and arts scenes. The band was conscripted to perform in the long-running Western musical Diamond Studs, which played on the soundstage at Old Tucson throughout the summer of 1975, then moved the next year to the Tucson Convention Center's Little Theatre (now called the Leo Rich Theatre).
Members of the group worked on musicals for Invisible Theatre, and guitarist-singer Ron Doering wrote a couple of shows that appeared at the now-defunct Plaza Antigua, in the spot on Campbell Avenue that is now home to a Trader Joe's.
The embrace continued. Even after Summerdog disbanded and its members scattered to various cities, a reunion was a perennial topic of discussion.
"I have been to the Tucson Folk Festival many times," says Curry, and people often are saying, 'When are you guys going to get back together?' I usually have 10 or 12 people asking. It's a big job, and it took a lot of coordinating and getting everybody to fly in, but it's happening."
For the first time in 30 years, Summerdog will reunite for a concert. It's Saturday night, April 14, at El Casino Ballroom. The band has never played the venue before, but they have a lot of collective fond memories of the place.
Bass player and founding member Ed Davenport points out that El Casino long has played an important role in the Tucson community, and that it's a great place for dancing.
"We all have seen so many great shows there, from Queen Ida to Flaco Jimenez, and I think the Dusty Chaps played a reunion there a few years ago," says Davenport, a visual artist who lives in Tucson and plays with longtime local bluegrass act Titan Valley Warheads.
Between 10 and 15 musicians held membership at one time or another in Summerdog. At the upcoming gig, the band will feature six musicians. In addition to Curry and Davenport, the lineup will include fiddlers Marc Rennard and Pete Rolland, guitarist and singer Doering, and mandolin-player Jon Ross.
Also scheduled to perform are guest musicians Earl Edmonson and Stefan George. Curry and Davenport expect other former Summerdog members or associates to show up and sit in, too.
Concurrent with the reunion concert is the release of a new album on compact disc—a format that didn't exist when Summerdog last played a gig.
The new CD, titled simply Summerdog 1978-1982, was compiled from three of the band's albums recorded during the era of the title.
"We took a hot list from the three LPs we made," Curry says. "Ron Doering had saved all the original reel-to-reel master tapes, and he took them down to Allusion Studios in Tucson and re-mastered the whole thing there."
Davenport wrote the informative historical liner notes on the new disc—and they hint that a CD of new material might be forthcoming as a result of the reunion.
It seems fitting, too, that a portion of the proceeds from Summerdog's show will help support the 2012 Tucson Folk Festival, scheduled for May 5 and 6 in and around downtown's El Presidio Park.