The Scrappy Triumphs of the Lost Dog Street Band

Singer-songwriter Benjamin Tod discusses the grief, houselessness, train-hopping and industry doubts that informed his brand's brilliant, personal new album, Survived.

Music Features Lost Dog Street Band
The Scrappy Triumphs of the Lost Dog Street Band

In early January 2023 folk musician Benjamin Tod recorded a honky-tonk album. When he was done, left over on the cutting room floor were a handful of songs perfect for his Lost Dog Street Band, which he’d put on hiatus the previous October. Although Tod didn’t realize it at the time, he’d felt the band had run its course. “When we did our last show, I cried on stage. I did not know if I’d get back on stage again,” he says.

For years, Tod—known for his honest, raw stories about marginalization, addiction and anger—ran the band almost single-handedly, booking 1000-person shows and self-managing on an almost unimaginable scale. “Success worked our way out of the job, essentially,” he says. But, as he thought about the leftover songs, Tod decided to give his Lost Dog Street Band another go. Eager to hold onto the momentum, he booked more studio time and set out to reassemble a crew of players and write the rest of the album. He completed the final and title track, “Survived,” just a week before the band were due in the studio. Tod, his partner and fiddle player Ashley Mae, bassist Jeff Loops, drummer Ben Duval, banjoist Richard Bailey, Sparrows Pants and string-player John James Tourville got together at the Bomb Shelter in Nashville and hammered out a record in just a few weeks.

Tod spent his formative years hopping trains and traveling the country, depending on luck and gumption to keep him alive. Now sober and mostly settled down, the grit and harsh romance of those experiences infuses his music with a narrative depth that only comes from lived experience. Disenfranchised as he still is with most of the trappings of a civilized society, Tod’s music is, at times, exquisitely dark and callous. But as trite as it might sound, he’s also masterfully channeled his angst and a heavy helping of painful life experiences into songs that, like all the best stories, demand necessary self and social examination.

While Survived retains Tod’s signature intricate, brooding lyrical style, it often feels lighter than his previous work—a relief from the years of struggle and pain that brought it to be. Pairing guitar and fiddle with mandolin, the album begins with “Brighter Shade,” a love song written for Mae, before descending into requisite darkness in order to emerge on the other side, wrapping up with “Survived.” In an homage to the band’s tradition of including a dark waltz on each album, “Survived”—which Tod anoints the best song he’s ever written—ruminates on the nature of and human proclivity for suffering. “Hardship is inevitable. Struggle is inevitable. Suffering is a choice,” he says.

As if to illustrate that mantra, between the comfort of “Brighter Shade” and the reckoning of “Survived,” Tod dedicates his life to service in “Lifetime of Work,” eulogizes the crusty characters and tight community from Nashville’s Lower Broadway on “Divine to Be” and celebrates his beloved L&N train line (and the underdogs he rode it with) across “Last Train.” Looking forward to his new home, “Muhlenberg County Line” is Tod’s tribute to the famous county’s musical legends (The Everly Brothers, Merle Travis and John Prine’s “Paradise”) and influence on American music. Descending slowly into darker territory, Tod reminisces about bad decisions and the power of fear with “Son of Tennessee,” reminding himself “It’s hard coming down from all I’ve seen.”

“I think this album was a rebuke of cynicism or rebuke of nihilism,” Tod says. “There is no nobility in nihilism. There is no nobility in relativism. There is no nobility and saying, ‘oh, well, everything just sucks, fuck everything, let’s not participate.’” Tod chooses to participate, engaging directly with life’s painful moments in order to persevere beyond them. He calls “Lonely Old Soul” a “hobo gospel tune and a brotherhood hymn” for the fellow wanderers he’s known and bonded with through desperation. With the album’s only cover, folk singer and producer Larry Murray’s fiery ballad “Hubbardville Store,” Tod metes out revenge. And finally, just before survival, in the album’s penultimate track, “If You Leave Me Now,” Tod battles the impulse to destroy things because he’s in pain, an urge he’s felt many times in his life.

Tod grew up in Sumner County, Tennessee. At age 12, he started hanging out at the Rocketown skatepark on Lower Broadway in Nashville; by 13 or 14, he was busking Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie songs; by his mid-teens, Tod lived primarily on the streets of Nashville. Outside the entertainment district’s neon lights and bars, he found a community of characters who mentored and supported him—several of whom appear in “Divine to Be”: Cowboy, a belligerent wanderer who liked to tell people Tod was his son and get the teenager drunk; Tod’s “guardian angel” Abby the Spoon Lady, named for her captivating, dynamic spoon playing; and Mandolin Mike, who taught Tod how to protect himself, who to look out for and how to make a quick buck (“with a knife”).

While celebrating the mainstays of the community, Tod spares no rebuke for the double standards he saw: “Life got hard and he caught a charge no poor man could beat / Thank the Lord the streets are safe for yanks to drink and scream.” “It’s nothing different than the tourists are doing,” he says. “If you’re poor down there, you’re taken to jail if you’re drunk in public; if you’re wealthy, then you’re encouraged to drink and spend your money.”

Tod’s first real guitar was a Fullerton Parlor, gifted to him at 14 by a family friend. With it in hand, Tod busked and picked up gigs at the skatepark and in bars. When he was 15, he met his now wife and bandmate Mae at one of his shows. For their first date, they spray-painted the back of legendary rock venue The End, dumpster dove for donuts and pizza, stole albums from Tower Records and threw bricks through windows. At 17, when the pair started hopping trains together, Tod asked Mae, who’d studied violin in school, to learn folk tunes so they could play together on the streets and earn money for food.

The Lost Dog Street Band formed in 2011, releasing their debut EP Sick Pup that same year, followed by Life’s a Dog-Gone Shame in 2013. Their subsequent two albums—2015’s Homeward Bound and 2016’s Rage and Tragedy—establish the group’s appeal, with audience favorite tracks like “Carry On” and “September Doves,” respectively. Since then, the band’s released two more studio albums: Weight of a Trigger and Glory, whose first and last tracks (“Until I Recoup” and “I Believe”) explore dual meanings of glory: angry passion and reverent appreciation. Over the years, Tod has also released three solo albums, including 2022’s deeply personal and cathartic Songs I Swore I’d Never Sing.

Tod rarely co-writes and eschews any rigid writing practice. Instead, songs come to him while he’s at work or in the middle of the night, he says. But in spite of encounters with the muse familiar to many writers and his vast catalog of work, Tod doesn’t consider himself a particularly creative person. “I’m a neurotic, borderline sociopath, so I don’t really come from the creative world,” he says. “I just happen to be creative, in the sense that I’m neurotic enough to know what is going to be received well with the public and what isn’t.” Always wary of the music industry’s formal structures (record labels, managers, recording studios, PR teams), with Survived Tod handed over the production reins and set up a distribution deal with Thirty Tigers, taking some of the weight off his shoulders necessary for the band to continue. On May 14th, the Lost Dog Street Band will make their Grand Ole Opry debut.

These days, Tod cuts an imposing figure—preferring sturdy boots, vests and muscle-baring shirts; he sports myriad tattoos, most notably 11030 (the hobo zip code) which marks thick, blocky numbers across his throat. Settled in a home built on land he purchased a few years ago in Muhlenberg County, Tod’s life is radically different than it was during his itinerant train-hopping years. He’s the head of a successful band and solo act, and vice president of a nonprofit—Muhlenberg Music Mission, which aims to increase access to musical instruments for disenfranchised youth.

But the restlessness and grit of Tod’s youth simmer beneath the surface in conversation and his writing. Although it seems unlikely he’ll stop singing about those stories anytime soon, Survived feels not like a farewell to that life, but a final salvation from it. In the music video for “Survived,” Tod reincarnates his hobo days. Tromping through the woods, he finds a defunct well—dropping his backpack against its curved side, settling against it. One by one, he pulls a bottle of alcohol out of his pack. Then a crack pipe, then a heroin needle, spoon and lighter, using each one for intentionally-sickeningly too long. Iteratively, when he’s through, he throws each into the well. “So many times through needle addiction, and through hard drug use, you’re sitting there on the verge of death and you don’t want to be taking the substance, you don’t want to be using that tool,” Tod says. “I think it’s important to have archetypal figures that embody recovery.”

In the video, Tod—fresh out of vices—passes out, clutching on his chest a green, leather-bound bible that belonged to his real-life friend Nicholas Ridout, who died by suicide while Tod was still living in Nashville. Ridout’s death was deeply traumatic and complicated for Tod, who didn’t yet have the tools to process it (he cleaned Ridout’s blood out of his car so he could scrap it for money to make it to the funeral). The weight of that loss and Ridout’s memory flit through much of Tod’s work even now, including “Wyoming,” which he originally recorded with Ridout a few months before his death. For years, it felt wrong to sing the song without Ridout, but Tod finally recorded it on, fittingly, Songs I Swore I’d Never Sing after performing it for YouTube channel Western AF in a viral video.

At the end of the “Survived” video, Tod’s hobo incarnate wakes up, leaving his pack and its contents strewn on the ground. He walks away into the distance, bible still in hand—signaling that release can still come with a new beginning. “I think it’s time for me to let that be at peace. It’s been 12 years, I miss [Ridout],” Tod says. “I have given more than I could have ever imagined at the onset of Nicholas’s death to his legacy. I never could have imagined that this much would have poured out of me from that one bullet, but I have achieved my goal. It’s time to give to the living.”

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