Why there's a lot more to Hayseed Dixie than a bunch of funny covers

FOR a band who have made a career out of playing rollicking genre-bending bluegrass covers, it's perhaps surprising to hear the frontman waxing lyrical about their philosophical underpinning.

Saturday, 1st July 2017, 7:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 18th July 2017, 8:26 am
Hayseed Dixie
Hayseed Dixie

Hayseed Dixie started life in 2001, claiming to hail from Deer Lick Holler, Appalachia, with the self-explanatory album A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC. They quickly developed a sizable cult following, taking in dozens of covers, plus their own compositions.

They are now on their 14th album, Free Your Mind and Your Grass Will Follow, which includes covers of Bob Marley (Buffalo Soldier), Elvis Costello (Oliver’s Army) and The Temptations (Ball of Confusion) among its number.

Frontman and co-founder John Wheeler, now lives in the UK, but still has his studio back in Nashville, where the band usually record.

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‘It’s a comfortable place,’ he says of Nashville. ‘I know where everything is, I grew up there, and if something breaks, I know who to call, but it kind of feels like where I’m from, not where I’m at, you know?

‘It’s something I spend a lot of time contemplating in my head.’

Clearly a deep thinker, John tells The Guide how he spends a fair bit of time in airport lounges mulling over some of life’s big questions.

He started the band when he was 30, after gaining a degree in philosophy and history and playing in numerous other bands, ‘mostly as a sideman for somebody else.’

He viewed university and grad school as somewhere to learn (and ‘drink beer and chase girls’ admittedly) not a place to gain a vocation. And this approach has stuck with him.

‘I was just trying to not be a stupid person – I went because I wanted to know how to think and have some historical context for that.’

And with that, he’s off: ‘Part of the problem in the Anglo world, is that we’ve been listening to the wrong philosophers since about 1880, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham and their descendants, people like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman who tell us that humanity and we as individuals are basically just seeking to maximise our pleasure and maximise our agency, and we’re always in a competition to do that, as opposed to listening to people like Hegel and Martin Berber, who tell us that what we actually are is spirit in search of a meaning and a context.

‘I don’t mean spirit in a religious sense, more like a geist. Nationalism is a very distorted and perverted view of seeking a context in which you can hang a meaning.

‘The big picture is something we’re all confronting at a very acute level right now, you can try to figure that out right now, what is the basis for us operating from a place of so much fear - what are you afraid of?

‘If we’re told that somebody is ripping away our profit and agency to maximise our pleasure, we start to view ourselves as nothing but a bunch of little disconnected entities with no sense of community, rather we’re trying to pile up as much in our stack-money and gas, that kind of thing.

‘If that’s the way we view the world, it’s going to be a pretty damn empty place and we’re all going to end up shooting at each other.

‘That’s where we end up.’

And rather neatly, from airport lounges, John has circled neatly back to Free Your Mind...

‘That’s what the new album is actually about. I didn’t just pick the songs about race and nationality because it randomly happened that way. Like we didn’t just pick War Pigs because it’s a great black Sabbath song – there are other great Black Sabbath songs, but that’s one kind of relevant to our times, sadly. I sing that song every night on stage, and if all you want to do is jump up and down and dance along to a song you know done in a different way then that’s totally cool – I’m not going to beat you over the head with what I think you ought to get out of it, but if you want the subtext it’s there.’

And as he explains, this is nothing new – the Dixies have always operated on both of these levels.

‘Every single album we’ve ever done has a theme, it’s not always overt. I don’t really like having to talk about and explain a piece of art – like if I got the Tate Modern, and I see some artwork, and then there’s a whole book you have to read to get it – I always think if you have to spend more time explaining it than you did creating it, then maybe you didn’t create it right.

‘But who am I to say what is or isn’t valid?

‘You get a lot of songwriters who will tell you for 20 minutes why they wrote a particular song – I don’t just mean a personal story, I get that, and I’m interested in that, but explaining line-by-line what this means - like they’re annotating their work. That shouldn’t be necessary. A great song, you should be able to get it just by listening to it.’

And then he’s off into poetry – it’s safe to say though that he’s not a fan of TS Eliot.

‘That’s why all this stuff about TS Eliot... I mean what a miserable bank teller, you know? Give me Dylan Thomas any day. This guy’s just sitting there getting frustrated, not getting laid, thinks he’s more important than he feels he is. The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is one of the most pathetic pieces of poetry I’ve ever read in my life. Totally pathetic. What a miserable guy!

‘Get out there drink, chase chicks and get on with it, man. Living’s a process, live instead of being so goal-oriented all of the time.’

It’s this approach to life that John and the band apply to life on tour – so it’s not just about the next hotel room and driving to the next show.

‘It’s the stuff that me and Jake the bass player go down the road thinking about. We try to find out something interesting in that town and talk to people.

‘This is my life – I don’t want to just turn up a gig and: “Hello, Cleveland!” I want to learn about the place, a little about what’s going on there and what they used to do, their concerns, their economics.

‘I’m just trying to be as present in my own life as I can be while I’m living it. And it ain’t going to be forever – people have been dropping like flies in the last couple of years.

‘I’m only 47 but you just don’t ever know.’

The Brook, Southampton

Sunday, July 2