Luke Dick has made a name for himself in Nashville as an in-demand songwriter, having penned hits for Dierks Bentley (“Burning Man”) and Eric Church (“Round Here Buzz”) as well as countless other country artists including Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and Kip Moore. When he’s not writing country songs, he serves as frontman of the post-punk/new-wave band Republican Hair and director of the new feature-length documentary Red Dog, which made its official premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival on Sunday.
Red Dog details Dick’s upbringing at The Red Dog, a popular strip club in Oklahoma City. The film’s lead character is his mother, Kim, who spent years as a stripper there to make ends meet. Dick grew up at the strip club himself, and tells Billboard the idea for the documentary is 15 years in the making. While it took some time to develop the storyline with co-producer and co-director Casey Pinkston, Dick says the film was always about his mom.
“This movie could always be framed in the context of her relationships,” he says, settling into a couch in his East Nashville studio. “She got married to move. She got married for love. She got married for security and then she got married for love and security. I’m in the context of that as sort of the glue. This is a movie about a mother and her arc and her kid. Her kid just happens to be telling the story and making music.”
Kim gave birth to Dick when she was 21. A father now himself, the 40-year-old says the film’s concept developed after he began asking his mom questions about his childhood. Seeing how open she was about her personal journey, he decided to turn the camera lens on her. The film’s NSFW trailer is below.
Self-financed and funded through Kickstarter, Red Dog had Dick returning to Oklahoma City nearly a dozen times to set up interviews with his mother and former dancers, bouncers and bar staff from the strip club. While many led troubled lives of addiction and substance abuse, it was The Red Dog that often provided safety and a family unit. Dick’s mother ran away as a teenager and used a fake ID to get a job at the strip club to make ends meet.
“One thing that I learned about my mom is how open of a person she is. I always knew this, but to see her catharsis in action and to see how good of a storyteller she is, it's because she's in the moment,” Dick reasons. “She's truly at home with herself, which is, to me, one of the beautiful, beautiful things about my mom that I feel is singular about her.”
Kim’s bold character is at the forefront of the film and she is quick to assert that stripping shouldn’t be seen as demeaning. “It was like any other job,” she says in the film.
Many of the women who worked at The Red Dog were trying their best to make ends meet for their children as well as get away from bad home lives themselves. In turn, the staff at the strip club became family for many of the men and women who worked there. Old photos and footage of trips on the lake, Thanksgiving dinners and other celebrations with the staff are interspersed throughout the film alongside Dick’s original music.
“She only cares what her family thinks. To me, that’s the takeaway,” Dick explains. “I think this is a valuable project that is going to validate people that haven't been validated, and is also an interesting family piece, weirdly enough.”
He adds, “I got a bunch of emails after the [Nashville] film screening. [Many] heartfelt, about what it meant to them. That was a surprising thing to me, that it validates other people as much as it validated me. I didn't set out because I wanted to do something cathartic for myself; I found it to be an interesting story. But not until I sat down and started scoring to the film, that the gravity of it hit me, of what all of the little constituents of the stories, and the roots, and the junctures of life that are your path.”
While he is currently looking for a distributor for the documentary, Dick is quick to point out that Red Dog is not a movie for “stodgy grannies ... it’s a film that takes place in a strip club.” It’s also a film about a group of outsiders who navigate life on their own terms, creating their unique family unit in the process. “Relationships -- familial, love relationships, or just congenial relationships, the way that we gravitate toward those, and navigate those, and orient ourselves around those is similar,” he says. "We're different people, but I feel like I got that characteristic from my mom.”
In the film, Kim reflects on her life and admits that while she’s not proud of all her choices, it was most important that she showed her kids that she was happy along the way.
“If I’m not happy, I didn’t feel like I could make you guys happy,” she reasons. It is this statement that Dick himself reflects on at the film’s end.
“It seems like a long, rocky road to happiness starting where they started, and that’s OK,” he concedes. “Life’s long; you gotta do something with it.”
Dick has had a “long, rocky road” to happiness himself. The songwriter first moved to Nashville in 2006, and after little success relocated to New York where he got his master’s degree in philosophy and began teaching. He wrote jingles on the side and occasionally booked trips back to Nashville. After signing a publishing deal with BMG, he convinced his wife to move back to Music City before she gave birth to their first child.
A former philosophy professor, Dick says the idea of happiness was discussed a lot in his profession, and part of that concept inspired his Bentley hit “Burning Man,” which reached No. 2 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart and is a song Dick says deals with tension.
“[Greek philosopher] Heraclitus said that life is rife with duality or contraries. He likened it to a bow and a bow string -- that there is no real escape from that feeling of tension. You choose one thing at the behest of another,” he explains. “You're having impulses contrary to whatever you choose. There's something in me that would like to be a Deadhead, but I have chosen a life that is fairly grounded -- if you want to call the life of a partially traveling songwriter grounded. It's not the Deadhead life. It's somewhere in between. There's still a tension of what is it like to be completely free of possessions? Without getting too heady, I feel like 'Burning Man' has that aspect to it. I love that a conceptual song like that did so well.”
Many of the songs Dick writes are based on real concepts to him. Lambert’s “Pink Sunglasses” is a conceptual song that is tied to his personal life. “Have you ever felt like you wanted to put sunglasses on and tune out the fuckin' world? Yes! That is the idea. It is palatable -- not just commercially, but from a human perspective,” he explains.
The songwriter’s latest cut is Moore’s “The Bull,” which he penned with Jon Randall. The song’s premise is based on everyone’s desire to win and beat adversity. Dick cites the second verse as being self-reflective: “What if I turn the rhymes up in my mind into a hit/ Plays a hundred times a day on the radio/ And it gives a little broken heart somewhere some hope.”
“That’s true. That’s what I hope. I love the song and I’m proud of it,” he says. “We got lucky that day. Great songs are lucky too. Your brain is firing a million miles an hour on a good day. The images are coming, and the rhymes are coming right, and the phrases are coming right. Hopefully it works.”
The year continues to be a creative one for Dick, as he will join The Cadillac Three on the road with his band Republican Hair, who are set to release a new record in 2019. His latest collaboration with Musgraves, “Velvet Elvis,” is on her Grammy-winning album Golden Hour. And as far as directing films, it’s a skill Dick plans to pursue more in years to come.
“I'm sitting over here looking at this computer that's full of, maybe, thousands of songs by now, of which 25 have seen the light of day with an artist that people have listened to outside of my very small community. ... Maybe I’ve got another five, 10 years of good songs in me. Maybe I have 20 years of movies,” he says. “I hope the ideas keep coming and that I can stay inspired.”