Music: For Those About to Pick

Hayseed Dixie has turned a love of AC/DC into Bluegrass magic

Mar 8, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Cooking Vinyl

Though admittedly a "novelty" act, Hayseed Dixie skillfully connects the dots between Alice Cooper and Grandpa Jones.

"High concept" is a Hollywood term for a movie pitch that can be explained in a single sentence without exploring subtext and subtlety and nuance. Hayseed Dixie is a Bluegrass band that interprets classic Hard Rock through banjo, fiddle and mandolin. Hayseed Dixie is high concept.

Hayseed Dixie is not, however, a novelty, and that is how they have been erroneously viewed since they began nearly six years ago. It's a misconception that they've had a hand in creating and, while they would like to see it change at least a little, they understand their place in a long tradition.

"In the U.S. they've looked at us more as a novelty than in Britain," says Dixie frontman John Wheeler. "Maybe because we got primarily marketed in the U.S. on morning radio shows and they're sorta known for the comedy thing, and it was always the comedy side of the stuff that got more played up in the States. Whereas we got on the BBC in Britain, and that's their national radio. They think it's funny, but in the same way they think it's funny that Angus Young runs around in a schoolboy outfit or Gene Simmons dresses up like a demon and spits blood or Alice Cooper does his thing. That's a novelty, too.

There's a long history of precedent in Rock and in Hillbilly music of an element of comedy. A lot of the Hillbilly music, you always had the Grandpa Jones kind of character, telling jokes, singing funny songs and claw-hammering a banjo."

When Wheeler begins the tale of how Hayseed Dixie shimmered into existence, he slips easily into the persona of Barley Scotch, which he created for the band's 2001 debut, A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC.

"We got to listening to the AC/DC records and drinking some whiskey, and it became revealed to me that that 'Lost Highway' of Hank Williams and that 'Highway to Hell' were the same damn road, church say 'Amen,' " says Wheeler with tongue-in-cheek righteousness. "There's a good quote for you."

Back in 2000, session musician Wheeler was sitting in on a Nashville demo and when a need for banjo and mandolin arose, brothers Don and Dale Reno were brought in. Wheeler and the Renos hit it off and began getting together for impromptu jams, which led down an improbable path.

"One day we got to picking some AC/DC songs and thought, 'Hell, this is fun to play while drinking beer; chances are other beer drinkers will enjoy listening to it,' " says Wheeler. "We made the first record in two days. We never really thought a lot would come of it, not that we thought it couldn't, but that's not why we did it. We just burned a few copies on the computer and passed them around to some friends; you know, 'Here, play this at your party' kind of thing. Then it took on a life all its own."

The trio's party CD started making the industry rounds and attracted attention until the hastily christened Hayseed Dixie finally inked a deal with respected Nashville indie Dualtone. The label's strategy to work the record to radio morning shows largely determined the band's role-playing within the context of the album's concept; Wheeler would be Barley Scotch (Bon Scott) and the Renos would be Talcum and Enus Younger (Malcolm and Angus Young).

"The morning radio shows promptly played the dog shit out of it, and I did all these interviews for about two months with radio, pretending to be my granddad eventually," says Wheeler with a laugh.

Dualtone's marketing plan worked to perfection. "It sold about 50,000 pieces in the first three months, and we thought, 'Well, we better go play some shows,' " says Wheeler. "We hired a bass player and hit the road, and we've been doing it ever since. Non-stop, really; it's devoured our lives. Trust me, there's a lot more money to be made growing pot and making moonshine than there is in playing music."

Hayseed Dixie has been road-dogging pretty hard of late. Wheeler estimates the band has been home for a total of four weeks in the past year or so, much of the time spent in Europe and England, whose inhabitants were smitten with Hayseed Dixie after the 2004 release of Let There Be Rockgrass, a compilation of their AC/DC tribute, 2002's A Hillbilly Tribute to Mountain Love (featuring the band's first original song, "I'm Keeping Your Poop") and 2003's Kiss My Grass: A Hillbilly Tribute to KISS.

Hayseed Dixie's latest album is a shift in two new directions. Released late last year, Hot Piece of Grass finds the band now affiliated with Cooking Vinyl Records and is only half covers of established Rock songs (Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" among them); the remainder are Hayseed Dixie originals. It could be the first step toward an all-original Hayseed Dixie album.

"If we ever make another record, I think it will be all originals," says Wheeler. "We're thinking about calling it No Covers and having a chick on the front trying to hold the bedsheets up across her chest and a bunch of our hands trying to rip 'em off."

Wheeler admits it's a little early to think about next steps while further admitting there's little if any premeditation about what Hayseed Dixie does in the first place. Still, he knows what he doesn't want to do.

"People will say, 'Oh, man, there's lots of other great AC/DC songs you haven't done,' but it would essentially be repeating ourselves, and I can't see much reason to do that," says Wheeler. "It just becomes a factory job at that point, and I can't see the purpose. I'd rather keep doing stuff that I think is interesting and hopefully other people will think it's interesting too. Or at least think it's fun to drink beer to.

That's really the bottom line. You're never gonna see me cram my head up my butt and start trying to sing about the inside of my deep poetic soul/hole, because I don't have one. In the words of the great Bon Scott, about the only message any of us ever tried to send anyone was the number to our hotel room."

HAYSEED DIXIE plays the Southgate House Friday.