Published On: Tue, Aug 15th, 2017

Interview: Hayseed Dixie – I wish I was in DC

Fourteen albums down the line, Hayseed Dixie continue to convert the masses to the ‘rockgrass’ cause via the gift of heavy rock. Frontman John Wheeler dishes the dirt to Joel McIver.

Hayseed Dixie

When the biggest pop star in the world sings one of your songs on prime-time TV, you know you’re doing something right – and when Hayseed Dixie singer John Wheeler saw Justin Timberlake do just that a few months ago, it felt pretty good.

“Justin sang I’m Keeping Your Poop (In A Jar) on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in America last October,” he chuckles. “That really impressed my eight-year-old daughter. I think that’s when she decided I was actually a legitimate musician!” Less difficult-to-impress audiences have known for years that Hayseed Dixie, featuring Wheeler on vocals, piano and guitars, Tim Carter (banjo), ‘Hippy’ Joe Hymas (mandolin, guitar) and Jake ‘Bakesnake’ Byers (upright bass), have earned that level of recognition several times over.

Since forming the band in 2000 as a vehicle for bluegrass versions of AC/DC songs, adapting its name from AC/Dixie to the current version after a legal warning from AC/DC’s label Sony, the group have played more than 1,000 concerts worldwide, recording albums at a prolific rate.

Hayseed Dixie’s new album, Free Your Mind… And Your Grass Will Follow, continues the band’s tradition of taking well-known songs, applying a fast-paced bluegrass adaptation to them and labelling the results ‘rockgrass’. You may have come across Dixie via their gobsmacking versions of rock classics such as AC/DC’s Highway To Hell, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades.

If this is the case you’ll know exactly where the new album is coming from: Heavy on humour but simultaneously serious in their delivery, these songs make a point that affects us all. “This is the closest to a socially-conscious record we’ve done,” says Wheeler. “I didn’t want it to be a topical or partisan record, because I don’t think of us that way as people: it’s more about the big picture.

We all live in a context, after all. For example, I’ve got a lot of respect for Billy Bragg. He’s a nice guy, and we were on the same record label for years, but I want to do the opposite of what he wants to do. He wants to take a real firm stance and be a Labour Party man and pro-unions, and he’s got a real topical message which he’s passionate about. I don’t want to tell you who you should and shouldn’t vote for.

“Politicians come and go, so I’m much more interested in the ideas behind the politics, because they’re much more powerful.
“When a lot of people are collectively feeling a whole lot of upheaval, it affects us too, because we’re living in that same world.”
He adds: “The two biggest lies that have been sold to working people since the Roman Empire are these. First, that there is such a thing as race, from a biological point of view.

“The pigment of your skin simply isn’t a fundamental biological trait. The second is that there is some kind of glorious national past that we could recapture if we could just get rid of the people who are screwing it up.
“Every country has some version of this – including the USA, believe me! The real enemy of the people is the guy who is telling the people to divide up among themselves. That’s what I want to sing about, not about any specific characters.”

Appropriately, a high point of Free Your Mind… is a cover of The O’Jays’ 1972 soul classic Love Train, a song too often relegated to student discos and weddings when its message is both deep and powerful. Hayseed Dixie’s version retains the slick vocal harmonies of the original, but beefs up the tempo, resulting in a barn dance stomper that would fit right in back home in Tennessee.

“That song fit the album theme perfectly,” says Wheeler. “I knew The O’Jays, but I didn’t know that song real well. Back Stabbers was my favourite song of theirs, because I like all the cheating songs, ha ha! “I think Love Train was a bigger hit in the UK than it was in America. It’s funny how certain songs are big in some places but not in others.”

When the World Gets Small
A college-educated man whose parents worked hard to give him an education – “but no-one can say I’m not a proletarian!” he jokingly warns – Wheeler got his inspiration for Hayseed Dixie from a variety of sources, as you’d expect for a band whose biggest hits are country renditions of hard rock songs.

“I was all over the place when I was a kid,” he recalls. “I played classical piano, and I liked singer-songwriters like Billy Joel and Randy Newman. “In high school I survived the hair-metal days by getting into bluegrass, as well as punk bands like Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. I was a huge fan of Tom T. Hall, too.”

If you’ve never heard Hall, the veteran Kentucky songwriter, fire up your Spotify or iTunes right now. His song (Old Dogs, Children And) Watermelon Wine sums up Wheeler’s attitude towards country music, as well as his deep love of the genre. “That song is genius,” he tells us. “It’s one of the best songs about race that’s ever been written. It’s just fabulous. Tom came from the storytelling balladeer tradition, and this song was one of the inspirations for the new Hayseed Dixie album – both its vibe and its message, as well as the fact that it’s kinda nuanced.

Tom isn’t preachy, or standing on a soapbox: he’s just telling you a story about his experience, with a message built into it. That’s country music to me: not pretending that you’re T.S. Eliot. You shouldn’t need 10 pages of footnotes to understand a country song.”

Ain’t No Country Big Enough
Once Hayseed Dixie were up and running, and the slightly sticky matter of the band name was resolved with Sony, AC/DC themselves were among the group’s biggest supporters. Dixie’s debut album, 2001’s A Hillbilly Tribute To AC/DC, went down a storm with Angus Young, recalls Wheeler.

“It was Sony, who controlled the AC/DC trademark at the time, whose lawyers said that we’d be sued for trademark infringement [if we used the name AC/Dixie],” he says. “The guys from AC/DC actually really liked our record and gave us a lot of support. They talked about us in the press and so on – and they really didn’t have to do that, they just liked it. The bass player, Cliff Williams, asked us to come and play at a party at his house, up in North Carolina, while they were on their Stiff Upper Lip Tour. We played there while they sat and drank beer and ate barbecue.”

Over the subsequent albums that his group have made, Wheeler has covered songs from more or less all genres of music, from metal to soul to classical. Is there a style that doesn’t suit Dixie’s rockgrass treatment, we ask? “The songs that are most difficult to do are shuffles, because the only way you can treat a shuffle without a drum kit is to swing it, like we did with the Kiss tune Detroit Rock City,” he muses.

“If it’s a gallop, those rock songs can be hard to translate to the rockgrass style without losing a lot of the fire. We did have a go at Iron Maiden’s Run To The Hills one time, but it sounded like a lounge tune, ha ha! That’s a fiery song and I didn’t want to strip it of all its fire. I liked it, because it’s a British guy singing about cowboys and Indians, but we couldn’t do it without making it sound kinda cartoony.

“It’s also hard to make rap songs work, because there’s not a lot of melody, and also not much harmony: they’ll sit on one note and it’s all about the groove. I like a lot of that music, but it’s all built around the lyrics, so we’d have to over-arrange the songs and take them a long way away from the originals. But for the most part you can play anything on a banjo that you can play on a guitar or piano.

“That’s the mark of a good song: you can play it on a flute or a banjo and it’ll still sound recognisable.” So which are the big hits in a given Hayseed Dixie set? “There are some songs that you know are going to have a pretty good crowd response, because they’re basically vehicles to entertain people with,” says Wheeler.

“I’ve probably sung AC/DC’s Highway To Hell a couple of thousand times by this point, and it always works, even though we’ve done almost 1,300 shows, and that’s not including all the radio appearances and rehearsals. In the UK, people respond to the old classic rock tunes – Ace Of Spades, Highway To Hell and War Pigs – but different countries have different takes on humour.

America is somewhere between France and the UK. There are obviously French people who get irony and multi-layered humour, but as a culture, it seems that they like it a bit more cut and dried.”

“You know,” he says, warming to his subject, “I’ve played shows where people come up to me and say, ‘I don’t understand. Is your music supposed to be good, or is it supposed to be funny?’ My reply is, ‘Can’t it be both?’ You see the wheels turning in their heads, and then they say, ‘You’re all really good musicians, and you play the songs really well, but there’s all this silly humour.

Are you trying to make a joke, or are you trying to make serious music?’ My answer is that we’re doing both. Have they never heard of Frank Zappa? If all we were was a joke, nobody would stick around for a 90-minute show – they’d get it after the first three songs!”



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