When the Hayseed Dixie caravan rolled back into Belfast for their gig in the The Empire on Saturday March 2nd, Lonesome Highway had the pleasure of hanging out with them for a few hours. Despite their public image of mayhem and madness, they are actually a bunch of serious multiinstrumentalists with backgrounds in country, bluegrass and rock music.
John Wheeler (aka Barley Scotch) is the mastermind behind the whole concept - one he devised 19 years ago with several other Nashville based musicians, and he has since been rightly credited with creating a new genre called ‘RockGrass’. Although they are best known for their breakneck bluegrass covers of AC/DC and other classic rock bands, John has also written original songs for their 15 studio albums. He ‘tries not to stand on a soap box politically’, but scratch the surface and you find he’s a deep thinker, intelligent, politically and socially aware - hence our interview ranged well beyond music to the state of the world (including of course the dreaded topic of Brexit). Although initially the band did well in the US, they tend to concentrate their touring these days in Europe, because it is more financially viable on the club circuit which they inhabit. As a prolific songwriter, John has another album’s worth of material ready to record but this time he’s road testing a few of them so that they can evolve naturally, until the band can organise some studio time. Always ready for a new challenge, John recorded a whole album of songs in Norwegian, just for the heck of it!
Jake Byers (aka Bakesnake) on acoustic bass is the next longest standing member of the band. He moved from his native Florida to Nashville in the 90s where he toured with several country bands and played many sessions. He has now found his niche with this band, and takes full part in his stage persona, hamming it up with the best of them. He credits their sound engineer with getting the huge sound out of the bass, which Jake plays with skill and complete abandon.
Surprisingly, Hippy Joe Hymas hails from Essex, where he’s been immersed in music “since the cot”. He started off playing guitar in metals bands as a teenager, but then he got turned on to bluegrass when he heard the Dillards, and never looked back. He is a monster on the mandolin, but also plays guitar, banjo and bass. When he’s not touring with Hayseed Dixie, he’s home in Essex teaching music. Well known to Irish audiences, Tim Carter has been the band’s resident banjo player for the last five years. Tim and brother Danny are NC natives but they now live in Nashville where Tim runs his TreeHouse studio. As well as their Carter Brothers Band, which is a musical fusion of their love of both rock and bluegrass, Tim has played banjo with well known artists like Alison Brown and Hank Williams III. He’s hoping to bring his band on the road soon and Ireland is one of his favourite places to play. Keep and eye on Lonesome Highway for news of that tour and for a review of Tim’s latest solo album, Wishes.
The sold out audience in the Empire (a lovely historic venue which started life as a Victorian theatre, was then used as a church in the 50s, until it was restored to its former glory in the 90s) left one in no doubt as to the continuing popularity of Hayseed Dixie. The loyal fans covered a wide age spectrum - from their 20’s to at least their 60’s - and all were up for the good natured fun which was emanating from the stage. The performance was full on, with no holds barred. The band demonstrated tremendous physical energy with hardly a gap between songs for the almost 2 hour set. The only breaks were for some testifying call and responses from John to the audience, who duly responded enthusiastically en masse - they knew the score. The AC/DC and Motörhead covers were greeted with the most enthusiasm, as also was the exhilarating version of Bohemian Rhapsody, complete with Hippy John Hymas’s unbelievable mandolin breaks and Tim Carter’s falsetto. Also particularly welcomed were the original songs Corn Liquor andPoop In A Jar, as well as Toto’s Eye Of The Tiger. And off the caravan rolled to continue their punishing six week tour of Ireland, England and mainland Europe. Never fear, they’ll be back in your area soon.
Review and photograph by Eilís Boland