Bird Dog Wheeler: At the intersection of music and beer
Catching up with musician Bird Dog Wheeler these days means finding him between music gigs and riding his bike or playing a round of golf.
In December 2017, the iconic Eastern Shore musician retired from his job as vice president of sales after 31 years with Kelly Distributors to spend more time doing what he loves most – writing and playing music with his band of over 40 years, Bird Dog and the Road Kings.
However, the intertwining of his two professional lives, beer sales and music, have lead him to where he is today.
“I am having as much fun as I have ever had,” he said.
Henry Byrd “Bird Dog” Wheeler was born in Dorchester County and raised in Easton. He was named after his Uncle Henry and his grandfather, both nicknamed Bird Dog, because they raised bird dogs. As a young person, Bird Dog listened to Elvis Presley, playing broom guitar in front of the mirror, as well as truck driving music. His father was a truck driver. But his biggest musical influence, and his favorite band to this day, is the Rolling Stones.
“The Beatles, who were also very popular then, were not gritty enough for me,” Wheeler said. “When I was 15 years old, I hitchhiked to the Baltimore Civic Center to hear the Rolling Stones play.”
After he graduated from high school in 1969, Bird Dog went to umpire school, becoming a minor league baseball umpire. Baseball had been a major part of his life. But music remained important to him and in 1974, he formed “Bird Dog and the Road Kings,” naming the band after a truck driving magazine his dad got called “Road King Magazine.”
The original lineup for Bird Dog and the Road Kings included local musicians Mike Veeck (with whome he once owned a minor league baseball team, the Sioux Falls Canaries), Allen Whiteley and Rick Hester. Through the years, the band’s members have changed, although the current group has been together since at least the 1980s. Bird Dog, who plays rhythm guitar and sings vocals, and Billy West, who plays lead guitar and sings vocals, have been performing together since 1975. In 1982 they were joined by singer-songwriter and bass guitar player Charlie Briddell. Roger Lewis became the band’s drummer in 1987.
In 1976, Bird Dog and the Road Kings performed on the road from New York City to Austin, Texas, in front of white-collar and blue-collar crowds in concert halls and honky-tonks, deck bars and outdoor arenas, as well as at private parties and weddings.
With the encouragement of musician Hank Cochran, Bird Dog moved to Nashville and lived there from 1984 to 1988, making many important connections in the music industry. During this time, he played with such greats as Willie Nelson, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Pride, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Tanya Tucker, Marshall Tucker, Hank Cochran, The Greaseman, Mel Tillis and the Seldom Scene.
“We have always played Americana music or Outlaw Country – music from our roots,” Wheeler said. “These are songs about the working man and are more of a mix of classic rock and country music.”
Wheeler returned to the Eastern Shore in 1988 when he and his wife were expecting their third child because he wanted a steadier job.
“I did a music gig with Clyde Kelly of Kelly Distributors and Budweiser,” Wheeler said. “Clyde had bought J.C. Dodd Distributors, where I had worked for two-and-a-half years as a truck driver after high school. Clyde approached me in 1989 about a job and told me ‘The last thing I want you to do is not to play music.’”
Kelly Distributors hired Wheeler to work in the warehouse, and from there he worked his way to vice president of sales.
“It was a great marriage between the beer industry and my music,” Wheeler said. “I was able to use my music as a springboard to promote Kelly Distributors’ products. It also was awesome to have both Kelly Distributors and Budweiser as backers of my music. We were a great team.”
Wheeler also had a hand in keeping the 10-ounce beer in the marketplace in Maryland. This past fall before he retired, Bird Dog worked with Clyde Kelly to lobby Anheuser Busch to keep producing the 10-ounce can sold in Maryland. The company agreed and the 10-ounce beer, sold as 12-pack Budweiser and Budweiser Light, continues to be a popular package beer among farmers and watermen on the Shore.
Today, Bird Dog and his band members are enjoying their music and camaraderie more than ever. The band plays about 70 gigs throughout the the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan region and from the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial (Bay) Bridge to the Delaware and Maryland beaches.
“It has been nice to have the continuity of our band over all these years,” Wheeler said. “Not many bands have played together as long as we have.”
Bird Dog and the Road Kings have released seven original albums to date, and their eighth album—a compilation of their greatest hits—is scheduled for release this summer.
He is also enjoying spending time with his four children, Adria, Kevin, Logan and Tater, who range in age from 26 to 36.
“Despite what I have done in music or the beer industry, I want to be remembered most for being a great dad,” Wheeler said.
The History of the 10-Ounce Budweiser
According to Bird Dog Wheeler, in 1956, Budweiser decided to promote a 10-ounce can to St. Mary’s County through George Guy Distributors in Leonardtown. It was Budweiser’s attempt to build beer sales in Maryland, where they were lagging at the time behind Pabst Blue Ribbon and other Baltimore beers. To entice Marylanders to buy the 10-ounce beer, it was priced the same as the 12-ounce Baltimore beers. The marketing worked, and the 10-ounce beer became popular with farmers and watermen in St. Mary’s County. The beer then became popular on the Mid-Shore, as well as in Calvert and Charles counties on the western shore. Because it is brewed in Houston, Texas, it also became popular among fishermen on the Gulf Coast.