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Hayseed Dixie: A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC?! - Well Hell's Bells!

By Clarissa Sansone, June 2001

Clodhopper-shod "mountain folk" who call themselves Hayseed Dixie have stomped onto the scene with kountrified kovers of heretofore raucous AC/DC tunes. Mothers, lock up yourÉliquor.

"You want the official line or you want the truth? Aw, hell, it's all the same," replies frontman Barley Scotch, when asked to describe the birth of the project.

The band's name, which was originally "AC/Dixie" (but that got nixed for legal reasons, according to Scotch), is about the same as the original band's name. Barley Scotch's voice, furthermore, is surprisingly similar to that of Nashville musician and studio owner John Wheeler, and the downhome covers of AC/DC's tunes are surprisingly precise and, well, tasteful (as far as "tasteful" can apply to a band who based an entire song on a pun on "big balls").

"All of the arrangements are exactly the same as AC/DC did them," explains Wheeler.

The notable exception to this rule is, of course, the instrumentation, which includes the standard tools of mountain music: guitar, bass, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and dobro.

"The guys went out of their way to cop" exact melodies and well-known solos, Wheeler notes, pointing to the exceptionally good dobro work by Mike Daly (also known in Hayseed Dixie as Wilson Cook) on "Hell's Bells."

Wheeler considers said tune one of his favorites to record, because "the ring-for-service-bell in the hotel lobby was such a scream"; in fact, the tinny chimes were precisely timed to sound at the same intervals at which AC/DC rang their bell in the original.

Precision is all part of the reverent humor in "A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC." "Stuff is not funny if you just slop through it," says Wheeler. "If you're trying to do a knock-off of somebody," Wheeler's theory is to make the knock-off even better than the original. "It's gotta be convincing, or it's not funny."

The "official" story of Hayseed Dixie, as described in the cd's liner notes (penned by Mr. Wheeler-Scotch) and in the band's press release, is that the good old boys discovered some AC/DC records in a car that had crashed into an oak tree while speeding through their own Appalachian hamlet of Deer Lick Holler.

Spun on a 78-rpm victrola, the records produced "some mighty fine country music" to the boys' ears. As in any good country music myth, the band drove to Nashville, played the songs for a music executive and were instantly signed. Barley Scotch contends that the boys of Hayseed Dixie debuted their version of AC/DC at church, because "these (AC/DC) fellas were just doin' a different take on the same themes."

"Highway to Hell" was "a beacon" for the sinful, he says. Before that, the band played "just mountain music; a lot of things in the public domain," Scotch says. "We'd been pickin' together since we was younguns," and working together in the "refinement of fuels and beverages" he adds. "A feller's got a lot of time to sit and learn fiddle tunes when he's keeping an eye on the still."

The "truth" about Hayseed Dixie is only slightly less colorful. Erstwhile doctoral candidate in philosophy John Wheeler "got a guitar when (he) was six and started playing the piano when (he) was three."

Music of Sam Bush and the New Grass Revival turned him on to bluegrass, so he took up the violin and mandolin as well.

Wheeler, 31, says "guys my age learned a lot of AC/DC songs."

"'Back in Black' is a simple three-chord lick," he explains, and the simplicity of the tunes made them appealing to budding guitar players. In the late '80's and early '90's, says Wheeler, "I pretty much paid my way through college playing fraternity parties." He adds, "If I ever have to sing ÔDriver Eight' again - oh my God!"

The music of Hayseed Dixie began as a lark in Wheeler's recording studio after a session, Wheeler told the Oakland Press in a May interview; he started picking "Highway to Hell," to everyone's amusement, and they decided to record some AC/DC tracks.

In addition to Wheeler on fiddle and Daly on dobro, the group includes Rusty Horn ("Cooter Brown") on guitar, and Kurt Carrick ("Cletus Williamson"), who was a tech on the Faith Hill/Tim McGraw tour, on bass; the Reno brothers ("Talcum and Enus Younger") also appear, playing banjo and mandolin.

The songs' underground popularity in Nashville was unexpected. Daly, who plays steel for Alison Moorer and Hank Williams Jr., shopped the cd around and played it while bands set up at shows.

Wheeler says they got offers from Sony and Warner Brothers to distribute the album, but he "felt more comfortable" with DualTone Music Group, which is staffed by personnel from now-defunct Arista Austin.

Hayseed Dixie played Austin's South by Southwest music festival last month for DualTone's showcase. Scotch adds that they also "went out and did a bunch of shows with them Brooks & Dunn characters."

Where does rock end and country begin? Catching that slippery eel is as hard as pinpointing the voice of the band, which slides seamlessly from John Wheelerian to Barley Scotchesque. Hank Williams' lost highway and AC/DC's highway to hell, according to Wheeler - that is, Scotch - are one and the same road.

The melody lines of "three chords meat-and-potato rock" exported from the Australian rock group aren't too different from the Stanley Brothers' melodies that tumbled down the Appalachians, explains Barley Scotch.

Didn't the Louvin Brothers carry on about hellfire and brimstone as charismatically as those musical sinners from Down Under? Lyrically, both kinds of music carry the sentiments of "working-class and farm-taught folk when you get down to the essence of it," Wheeler says.

"I think Barley never expected to do 600 radio interviews," Wheeler remarks of his alter ego. He is surprised at the attention the album is getting because, he admits, "I don't think anybody even thought it would be released."

Does this mean the band will cash in on its current popularity and tour? "I don't think anybody has any great desire to," says Wheeler.

The members of Hayseed Dixie seem to have bigger fish to fry, and Wheeler says they have no plans to become "the Weird Al Yankovic of bluegrass."