Darwin Lee Hill, 2007
Darwin Lee Hill is the host of “Darwin Lee’s Real Hillbilly Music Hour,” a vintage country show on AM radio station WHVW in Poughkeepsie, New York. He has hosted the Sunday afternoon show for over fourteen years. He has been a country music collector almost all his life.
WHVW is locally owned and operated, profoundly original, and, in an era of corporate ownership and formula programming, entirely unlikely. Since its sale in 1992 to “Pirate” Joe Ferraro, this self-proclaimed “hip spot on your dial” and “best station in the nation” features a line-up of American roots music rarely heard elsewhere, much of it spun from old 78-rpm recordings. The Real Hillbilly Music Hour fits nicely into the station’s eclectic mix of early rock and roll, classic R&B, doo-wop, gospel, and country. Darwin Lee is himself contemptuous of “what passes for country music” these days, let alone what passes for country radio. His show, like WHVW itself, is a last stand against musical homogenization, a bittersweet reminder of days when radio might be idiosyncratic, spontaneous, intensely local, and, even, sometimes, downright strange.
Darwin Lee still lives in the house in which he grew up; today he occupies the upper level, his mother the downstairs. “You’ll get a kick out of this place,” he says: “it’s a regular little hillbilly museum.” And it is. One wall is covered with 8-by-10 framed glossy photos of classic country music stars (Little Jimmy Dickens, George Jones), many of the photos signed. Although you couldn’t tell by looking, most of the photos are digital reproductions; the originals are stored away in scrapbooks to avoid exposure to sunlight or other damaging elements. There is a Jimmie Rodgers corner, crammed with songbooks and framed photos of the country-music legend; there’s a Hank Williams section, a Jimmy Martin section. (A favorite Hank shot: Williams shaking hands with a young, beaming, cowboy-suited boy whose first name, coincidentally, was Darwin.) Rebel flags hang over radiator units. Both the double doors which open into the den from the bedroom are covered with old songbooks from Ernest Tubb and others. In one corner of the room there’s a typewriter. In several places there are racks and leaning stacks of CDs.
There’s a large space devoted to Elvis, and in the back room an impressive chunk of Darwin Lee’s record collection. Records are arranged by genre (Western Swing, Brother Duets) and in some places by subject matter (Drinking Songs, Trucking, Broken Hearts).
For several years Darwin Lee made his living driving a truck; now he’s a courier for an area health system. His evenings are often spent putting together the coming Sunday’s show. (The radio work is all volunteer.) For a number of years now, he has been interviewing for the program old-timers from the country trenches, dusty names most of the world has forgotten: Chester Smith; Norma Jean; Yodeling Kenny Robertson; Red Simpson; Braxton Shuffert; Slim Bryant. He has coaxed remarkable interviews from the legendarily closed-lipped Bill Bollick (half of the classic brother-duo the Blue Sky Boys) and Big Bill Lister (a Hank Williams compatriot and one of the great performers of country beer songs).
Darwin Lee Hill is a wild, breathing encyclopedia of country music esoterica, his three hours on Sunday a refreshing reminder of what radio can be. The interview below was conducted in 2002. In 2009, he is still going strong behind the mic.
I’m from Poughkeepsie. My band used to do–are you familiar with the song, “Are You From Dixie?”–we used to do “Are You From Poughkeepsie?” Complete with mentioning local bums and everything in it. But, yeah, I’m from Poughkeepsie: born and raised here, went to public schools here, graduated in ’77 from Poughkeepsie High School. Didn’t wind up going to college, just–well, I was working. I worked semi-fulltime when I was in high school, so … there really wasn’t money for it, and I never applied myself to school enough to get a scholarship at anything, and I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do, anyway–I was seventeen. So I went to work for the local newspaper, loading trucks at night and things like that-that lasted long enough till I rode a bicycle through the press room when they were running the newspaper off one evening, and I got fired. It worked out well, though, because a couple weeks later I went to work at a local record store chain called the Book and Record, down on Main Street. Number 315 Main Street. It’s right across the street from where WHVW is now, so I’ve come full cycle.
My dad worked for the wholesaler that used to stock those stores; he was the record buyer for them. So it was kind of neat, I could get my stuff wholesale. When albums were $6.98, they cost me about three and a quarter. That works pretty good when you’re working for a step up above minimum wage.
I’d been collecting records long before that. I started when I was maybe twelve or thirteen, something like that. I can remember–in fact, I told Merle Haggard this when I met him, and I didn’t make it up, either. That lawnmower outside reminds me of it. That girl’s over there mowing my next-door neighbor’s lawn; I used to do that for the people that owned that house. I did that, and I used to do it for the people across the street, and the doctor that lived way over there … I saved up the money and I’d get the new Merle Haggard album or something. We’re talking probably 1970, 1971. They were three or four bucks. But it meant something to me, and it also taught me to take care of records. Worst thing you can do is scratch one and have to buy it over–that meant mowing two lawns to get one record.
With Merle Haggard on Haggard's tour bus; Long Island, 1991
I’m more of a music collector than I am a record collector. I’m not always choosey, you know. Say it’s a choice between the 78 or CD, well, I’d like to have both but, you know: whichever it’s easier to get at the time.
When did you get your first 78s?
I started picking them up at flea markets and stuff like that. I used to have a little battery-operated record player to play em on. I was probably thirteen, fourteen–no, maybe even closer to fifteen when I started buying 78s. I’d pick em up here and there. And what got me into 78s and 45s in particular was: I don’t remember what artist it was, but it was somebody that only made a handful of albums and so I got em all. I was like, “Yay. I finally got the whole collection on him.” Dad says, “What about the B-sides?”
“Oh, well, there’s B-sides, there’s probably some special promotional interviews they put out-you don’t have it all!” So that got me curious into all the other stuff.
Then I started buying 78s here and there, and then–the turning point with the 78s, what got me going on them, I can tell you. It was the spring of 1976. It was an ad I caught on the radio. One of our local stations had a thing where you could call if you had stuff for sale. And this lady, I can still remember her name: Frances Bruin, and she lived in New Windsor, and she had 78s for sale she wanted to get rid of. She had about, oh, probably seven or eight hundred all together. So I went over to look at em, and it was mostly big band and pop stuff-a lot of stuff that if I’d bought, to this day I probably never would’ve done anything with or bothered with, you know. And there was a definite year range there. She started buying em about 1938 or ’39, and stopped about 1952. But. They were all in their original sleeves, not one of em even had a fingerprint on it. Some of them might be worn, but none of them were scratched or cracked. Every one had been taken perfect care of properly, the way they should have been. If a record like, for instance “Cattle Call” by Eddy Arnold, got to be a bit worn-buy another copy. Or, if it’s a record that she knew she was gonna put some wear on, she’d buy two, or maybe three of them. So, no matter what, there was always at least one copy in there that was clean as a whistle.
I went and looked at em, figured out what the country stuff was. It was a little over 200 of em. She said, “Well, make me an offer.” I offered her 50 bucks and almost got thrown out of her house. I wound up giving her–what the hell did I give her?–a hundred. For about 220 of em, 230 of em, something like that. About a week later she called me up and she goes, “Wait a minute. I found more country records out in my garage. The price includes them, too, just come out and get em.” This was the 78 album sets, like Bob Wills, and all that cool stuff. In there was a nice run of Hank Williams on MGM. You never find Hank Williams records clean; these were like brand new. Lots of Bluebird stuff, lots of Elton Britt; there was Delmore Brothers, Blue Sky Blues, plus Eddy Arnold, tons of Roy Acuff … I always refer to that as: “That was my 78 starter kit.” Because now I had 250 there, plus probably 50 or so I already had. I said, “All right, let’s get to town. Let’s see how many more…” Cause now I had something to build around. I had a real nice helping of ’40s stuff, early ’50s stuff, a smattering of ’30s stuff. Ok, let’s go backwards; let’s get some of this stuff from the ’20s.
In fact, I can remember-you’ll get a kick out of this; it’s a good story, too-Eck Robertson, “Sally Gooden.” 1922, Victor. I found that at the Maybrook Flea Market for fifty cents. I must have went through a thousand records–I was like, “Well, if that’s there, what else is in there?” And there wasn’t another record in there that was worth bringing home! But that’s the first-recorded country record. Fiddlin’ John Carson’s was the first one released, but Eck’s was the first one actually recorded. And I found it for fifty cents, in the original Victor sleeve, and everything.
On Hank Snow's tour bus, August 14, 1976: "two days before my eighteenth birthday."
My collection’s spread all over this house. There’s some of my rock collection in a special basement room with a dehumidifier so nothing happens to it, I’ve got stuff down in my mother’s apartment, I’ve got stuff here–I don’t have anything in the attic, but–. And I don’t really have any idea how many records I actually have, either.
Yeah, I was about to ask–
I’ll give you the same answer I give everybody else: I’m too busy buyin’ em and grabbin’ em to count em. Listenin’ to em. It’s true: the count would change every day. I mean, today I went up to the station to pick up my mail and I had four CDs. That’s seven so far this week, and it’s Wednesday.
Do you still come across a fair amount of 78s?
Not really, not really. I mostly get them out of record auctions now. But–I knew it would come one day, too–the old country stuff, the kind of stuff that interests me and that I like to collect, is getting real pricey now. And I think there’s two things that make that. This is just my opinion, but the two things I think that are making it: number one is the internet, there’s more people have access to the stuff, and number two, ever since Nashville and the powers that be destroyed real country music, where else does it exist? Nashville–well, we can get to Nashville later on. When I think of all that … Next question.
How did you become a DJ in the first place? How did that get started?
By accident, kinda like a lot of things in my life. Let me think back … standard answer I always give is VKR [Vassar College radio station WVKR], but that’s not exactly true. I think it was WEOK, I’m not sure; it was one of our local stations that was programming country in the ’70s. There was a guy there by the name of Jim King. And there was also a guy there by the name of Ted “The Rebel” Jones, who-I kind of half-assed model my show, the whole concept of it, on this guy Ted “The Rebel” Jones. Because he always featured people he heard from–“I got this hot new record for you”; “Here’s a country classic”; “Here’s one to crack open an adult beverage to”–he did all that stuff, and it always stuck with me, if I was going to do a country show, I like his concept better than any of the other ones I heard. And the whole idea of doing a set of songs that are somehow all interrelated. You know, cause actually you have to take some time and think about it. I like that. Anybody–come on–any asshole can just sit and spin records and read a weather report; that doesn’t take any particular talent.
But this guy, Jim King: he was fun. He invited me up, I think it was the first time ever done in the Hudson Valley, at least until I did it again a couple months ago, where somebody decided to do all thirteen of Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodels in a row, uninterrupted, on the air. Just seemed like a good concept, you know. But he didn’t have all the blue yodels. I did, so…
Then we came up with–“Hey, Dar, what do you think: you want to do two hours of Jerry Lee Lewis? You bring your records, I’ll bring mine.” And he gave me a little hands-on experience with cueing up the records. “Here, I’ll show you. There’s nothing to this, kid, just read this,” you know. And when I was in high school I was interested in English and stuff like that, in writing; I took debate classes, elocution lessons. Even took a course up at Dutchess Community College in communications and broadcasting. What a waste of time that was-because I never really needed any of that knowledge in later years, especially how I came into radio. Kind of fell into that.
Anyway, he gave me the idea, I thought it might be a cool thing to do when I got out of school. Till I started asking around and found out what these guys made. You hear this guy, big booming voice; you ride by the station later on at night, the guy’s out there emptying the garbage. I was like, “Some radio personality! What is this shit?” You know? And to a fifteen-, sixteen-year-old kid, that just wrecked the illusion of that. No, no, no, no, no. No, I’ll go work in a store or drive a truck or something; at least that’s honest and people know, what they see you doing is what you’re doing.
About twelve, thirteen years ago, my buddy Stewart I went to high school with–he’s probably got as many records as I do. His tastes are a little different, so his collection varies. But he got a show on WVKR. I don’t remember, I’ll have to ask him sometime; I forgot how he got that show. But he got it, and it’s the Jukebox Jamboree. It’s a good show. It’s an open-ended concept, so you can do damn near anything with it, you’re not locked into any particular kind of music, as long as it’s something that would hold somebody’s interest on a Friday night while they’re partying. That’s a good concept. So, it didn’t take him long, he started dragging my ass up there. He’d come over here and start going through my records and borrowing records off me to use for his show. I was like, “Why don’t I just come up and do the show for you?” “Oh. Ok.” In fact, we’re doing one on Elvis’ death anniversary, August sixteenth. Cause it’s the twenty-fifth anniversary this year. That’s also my birthday-Elvis died right on my birthday.
So he’s like, “Let’s do an Elvis show together. Can you come up with something?” He kept calling me: “Can you come up with something?” So I remembered that over the years I collected a lot of the original newscasts when Elvis was discovered dead, and then the funeral and stuff. So what I’m gonna do for the twenty-fifth anniversary, the concept is: “Elvis is Still Dead.” I’m just gonna run all these interview clips with the family, the newscasts, the bulletins, and then splice it with his records. No commentary needed.
I’ve done other Elvis shows with Stewart, too. We did one five-hour Elvis show, was nothing but songs from his movies. The last Elvis show we did about five years ago, we didn’t play anything by Elvis. We just put together two solid hours of all the songs he covered, starting with “That’s All Right, Mama,” running up to “My Way,” by Frank Sinatra. And we just documented his whole career without playing anything by him. That was the hardest show to put together; that took us about a week to pull all those records, and sequence it in a way that would make sense. [Laughs] So that you would have everything from Bill Monroe, to Arthur Crudup, to Wayne Newton and everything, all in there, and have it make some kind of musical sense. It wasn’t easy.
But I started going up there and doing shows with him and, I don’t know, we come up with some wild-ass concepts. We were doing these goofy shows from time to time. Then Pirate Joe took over WHVW and made it all country. So me and Stewart used to sit around and go, “Why don’t we show them what a real country music show would sound like?” So we went up there one night, we picked out the most hillbilly-sounding, outrageous country records imaginable. Stuff like-one was this guy imitating Alfalfa singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Troy Hess doing “Mama, Please Don’t Go Topless.” This song about a guy killing his dog, called “Psycho.” Along with red-hot rockabilly and everything else, you know. And in between the sets and in between the songs we were making fun of everybody that worked for WHVW. Pirate Joe was dubbed Pirate Schmoe, and everything.
Pirate Joe heard the show. I already knew him at that point, not too well. And he said, “Whose records were they?” I said, “They were mine.” He goes, “Did you ever think about working for WHVW?” I was like, “Sure!” He goes, “No, not with the schtick! That’s gotta go.” [Laughs]
At WHVW studios, 1990s
So, yeah. That’s how I came here, by a series of goofs and mishaps. I wasn’t at all serious about it.
Can you describe the format of your show at WHVW?
Kind of evolved over time. Took about a year and a half before I figured out what in hell I was doing. I used to just go up there and spin records, say, throw the phone lines open and see–people tell me what they like and don’t like. They’ve always been good at that. Still are. And I decided there were certain things I needed to play. There needed to be a place for some bluegrass in the show. One thing the guy that does the German hour insisted on, he said, “You got to have a portion of the show set aside for Western music. Nobody plays Gene Autry or Tex Ritter or anything anymore.” So that got me thinking, let’s just have Western music period, both old and new.
I’ve got one record right now, I haven’t figured out where it’s gonna go yet, but I got Bing Crosby doing “Y’all Come.” Don’t laugh, it’s a hot record, but people are gonna go, “What the hell is he playing that for?” when I do play it.
Yeah, it just kind of evolved over time. I just wanted to touch on a little bit of all the genres, subgenres, of country music in the space of the show, and go from the old to the new, and hopefully present a whole bunch of stuff that’s not easy to hear. Not just old records but also there’s a lot of independent artists, not only in this country but other countries, make great music, needs to be heard. And so, over time–like, now I start with bluegrass. Then I got–the latest new feature–the Hillbilly News. It’s news about people in the industry, the old-timers, stuff like that. Requests. “Here’s something new I want to lay on you.” Bad-a-bing, that’s first hour.
Hour number two used to start out with a yodeling set, but I just got burned out putting that together, so I went to the old-timey set, which is stuff from the ’20s and ’30s. But after a while that all sounds alike to me, too, so I alternate–basically I put the show together now like a Chinese menu: pick some from Column A, pick some from Column B. All right, what are we going to have this week? All right, yeah: let’s have a train set, a trucker set, you know … But there’s certain essentials that always need to be there: you always got to have some songs about love gone wrong, and drinkin’. Gotta be in there. And you gotta end with a song for our sick and shut-in friends who like a good inspirational tune. Other than that, anymore, the show’s getting to be pretty freestyle. Best way I could describe it. But I keep switching up on it, because I don’t want the listeners to get bored with it, and I don’t want to get bored with it, either. When you tune in every Sunday, you know I’m gonna start with some bluegrass, but other than that it’s really hard to tell where I’m gonna go with the show.
What about your listeners? Do you have a sense of who they are?
Very demanding. They know what they like; they really know what they don’t like. They’re not afraid to express themselves. And there ain’t no simple demographic for it, either. I thought when I first started doing it, it’s gonna be all older people listening to it, anyway. Nope. All age groups seem to like it. And I’ve gotten to be friends with some of them. They’re funny, you know. One time I was just riffin’ away on the air. I was playing drinkin’ numbers. “Yeah, boy, man, my liquor cabinet could use restocking.” This guy Don from Newburg calls me up: “Whaddaya like?”
So I was being smart: “Why don’t you bring me a bottle of Johnny Walker Black?” About three days later it comes to the station. [Laughs] I was only kidding with the guy, you know. Then he calls me up the following Sunday: “Did you get it?” I was like, “Well, damn, that was awful nice.” He says, “Well, you played my request a month ago.” Hm. Ok.
Are there any especially memorable shows that you’ve put together over the years? Memorable to you or otherwise really popular with the listeners?
I can tell you one they hated: I did an all female one. I figured it’d be fun, just to trace the evolution of the female in country music history. “Where’s the Hank Williams?” And I think the kicker was: “I ain’t playin’ Hank today, but I’m playin’ his wife!” You ever heard his wife’s records? [Laughs] ‘Nuff said? They weren’t amused by that. You know, I was playing yodelers and all sorts of stuff, I thought I was doing great–the Dezourik Sisters–I was playing stuff that you’d never hear!
Nope, they didn’t like that.
With Jim and Jesse McReynolds, 1997
The shows kind of all run together after a while. But since I’ve started doing the taped phone interviews with country musicians and country music legends-now, those things on their own merit are all extremely memorable. I think Big Bill Lister was the first one. He’s kind of burned out on talking about his buddy Hank Williams. That’s all anybody ever asked him about-that’s why he has an unlisted phone number, that’s why you sent him registered letters and they’d come back and everything.
When I finally did get in touch with him, I explained to him that I didn’t want to bug him about Hank, I wanted to talk to him about what he had done and all the people he’d crossed paths with. He thought that was fabulous-nobody ever approached him about him. They just wanted to know about the people he worked with, they didn’t care nothing about the records he made or anything. And the guy’s a great storyteller, one of the best storytellers I ever had on this show. I got a fabulous interview out of him.
I talked to Jett Williams a couple weeks ago, Hank’s daughter. Oh, she had a great Hank story-you’ll like this one. This is one of the best Hank stories I heard in a long time.
Hank was working out in California with Freddy Hart. Freddy Hart’s the guy that did “Easy Lovin'” in the ’70s. But this story happened early on.
Freddy Hart had bought a brand new Martin guitar. You know, they’ve never been cheap, and I’m sure for a guy just starting out in the music business it was quite an investment, back in the early ’50s. Freddy’s opening for Hank. Hank keeps bitching that his guitar don’t sound right: it must be out of tune or something wrong with it, maybe it’s defective. And Hank puzzled over this and then finally he figured it out: he says it didn’t have that country soul. It didn’t have the right ring to it.
“Freddy, I can fix that for you.”
Freddy: “Well, ok, Hank.” He respected him, you know; figured some little trick …
So what Hank did was took his brand new Martin guitar; he opened up a Jack’s beer; he poured the entire contents of the beer into the guitar; sloshed it around; poured it out; and then started pickin’ on it. And he goes, “There. Now it has country soul. Now it’s a real, hillbilly-sounding guitar.”
I think most people who had a new Martin would be upset if somebody did that to em. Certain people, Hank would of wound up wearin’ that guitar after that.
Have you ever had people over the years get in touch with you, looking for a record?
You mean, listeners or artists?
Yeah. Sometimes some of these people move around a lot and they didn’t keep a lot of their stuff. Like Red River Dave, he’s since passed away, but I can remember calling him up, cause I’d made a recording of a song he wrote called “The California Hippie Murders.” It’s about Charles Manson. It’s done to the tune of “Never No More Blues” by Jimmie Rodgers; it’s got yodeling and everything in it, it’s classic. It’s one of these things Dr. Demento would cream over, it’s just so bizarre. And so I contacted him and said, “Hey, guess what, we do one of your songs: ‘California Hippie Murders.'” He’s like, “Really? Well, I’ll take your word for it, I don’t remember it. I don’t have it.” [Laughs] So I sent him a tape of it, along with a tape of our version of it. He says, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I remember that now.” He says, “Yeah, I put that record out and the DJ’s were just horrified, nobody’d play it.” Said, “I don’t even know-how the hell did you get a copy of it?”
So then we started talking about other things. It turned out–now here’s a guy, probably made six, seven hundred sides over the years–he maybe had a hundred of em when I talked to him. So I put as much of his stuff as I had on tape for him. And he in turn put on tape for me a bunch of demo recordings and stuff that he recorded for release but never did get released. And now that he’s gone, God knows what happened to his masters of them, but at least I have copies of them.
And Liz Anderson, she had a house fire about twenty years ago and lost all of–all of her stuff. Her awards and everything. The thing that really bothered her was she lost all of these recordings that she had of dozens and dozens of artists, their recordings of songs she had written for them. That’s one of the projects I’ve got going on right now: finding those records. When I find em, I just send em to her. I figure that’s my way of giving something back to these people that have provided me with so much entertainment over the years. Like, Liz Anderson is an example of somebody who I’ve always really admired. Always went out of my way to buy her old records and stuff. Then I get to know her and she’s a real sweetheart, she’d do anything for you. Calls me up on my birthday, calls me up on the holidays and stuff. Drop me a note at least once a month: “How you doing? What, have you been sick; why haven’t I heard from you?” You know, it’s like-this is pretty damn cool. Somebody that I admire that’s that nice, you know. And most of the people I deal with are pretty nice. The ones that aren’t, I don’t deal with. I haven’t run into any real scumbags yet, knock on wood. I’m sure I will, somewhere along the line.
You’ve mentioned your own band. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Don’t have it no more! Which one? I had a bunch of different ones over an eighteen-year period. My first one was a punk band–it was called the Pukes. We sought to invade Dutchess County with this new phenomenon called “Puke Rock.” Even had a song called “Going to a Puke Party.” The locals that hung out and drank in the park, we called em pukes–that’s where it all came from. Cause invariably you got these assholes together and that’s what one of em would do. So we were covering Sex Pistols and rockabilly and stuff, and then–I had a bunch of bands over the years. I had a Southern Rock band. Bunch of rock bands.
I had one band, the only one that made any money, was called “Filler.” Cause that’s all they were. We played ’70s rock and disco. I had those shirts and flared jeans-I used to go to the Salvation Army to shop for stuff like that, to wear for that band. We would only do songs from K-Tel albums that cost less than 50 cents; I mean, we had real guidelines for this band. We did a lot of Grand Funk tunes, and James Brown rave-ups; “Kung Fu Fighting,” we used to do that.
See, we’d take something like “Kung Fu Fighting,” right? You know how hippie bands, the big thing was they’d have an extended jam on something, they’d take some song and flog it for five to ten minutes? Well, we took that concept-we’d take a song like “Kung Fu Fighting” and play it for fifteen minutes! And just as irritating as we could be. And … people liked us. I never understood it.
We had a song called “Do the James Brown.” Where all it was, was the guys would just play one riff over and over and I’d be going: “Umphh! Good-God! Ain’t it funky now! Get back! How bout everybody way back there!” You know, and stuff like that. We had some ballads we did, too. We used to do that song Styx did, “Lady.” Except I’d sing it in a Jerry Lewis voice-so I’d come out: “LAAAADYYYY!!” Stuff like that.
We just tore em up with that band. And it actually made money. I could not understand it, cause the more horrible we got, the more people seemed to like it. Nobody got the joke. So you can never underestimate the tastes of the average music fan.
Then there was the hillbilly band: there was the Higgins Brothers Gang. Originally–let’s see–that grew out of a rockabilly band. Called Dixie Refried. Not to be confused with Dixie Fried, because that had another front-man. That guy moved–Chip–moved back down to Mississippi, I became the front-man, then it became Dixie Refried. Then the guys got good and sick of me, so then it evolved into the Higgins Brothers Gang. Then it evolved into a full hillbilly band. Again–way ahead of our time. Except, that band, I couldn’t sell that band for shit. Dixie Refried I remember playing at a bowling alley down in Wappingers; I think we made eight dollars and thirteen cents apiece after playing two sets. I was like, you know, I love playing music, but not that much.
Darwin Lee Hill, center, with Dixie Refried, 1992
But the Higgins Brothers Gang, we had some pretty good gigs. We played for the Moonies over around Port Jervis–that was real interesting. That was weird. We got that gig cause some other guy had booked it, he canceled out and got us. Said, “Oh, no, I got a conflict, I got another gig that day; you guys will have to take it!” And once we got there I saw why. But we went up there and did our usual nonsense, you know. Everything from “Everybody’s Truckin'” to “Okie from Muskogee” and back. The killer, “Yodeling Song.” We had a fiddler and everything. Our fiddler was a classically trained violinist, it was hard to get her to play bad enough to match the rest of us. And we had a few personnel changes here and there and eventually that just went by the wayside. I wouldn’t have gotten so disgusted with it, but I wasn’t making any money off it, and it was taking up what little time I had left that wasn’t taken up by the radio show and collecting records. So.
Well, maybe should we talk a little bit about the industry now; about Nashville?
Oh! Where do I begin. “The industry now.” Oh, they’ve done the industry up righteously. Around Christmastime–you must know about that, right?–the original Coutnry Music Hall of Fame, down around 16th Avenue? It’s now the Country Hole of Fame. They bulldozed it, the day after Christmas.
It was nice. One thing they had, all around the perimeter of the building and in through the lobby, was called the Walkway of the Stars, and it was set up like down in Hollywood Boulevard, where the stars would have their star and their name and everything. The goddamn Country Music Association didn’t pay for that, the fans paid for them. Bulldozers tore that all to pieces. And that stuff–I put out money for the Lefty Frizzell one myself. But they have no respect for anything down there. The music business is so frigged up anymore–well, Nashville got out of the country music business about twenty years ago, anyway. But they finally had to get rid of that stinkin’ embarrassment that was 16th Avenue.
That’s where I always used to go. Now there’s no reason for me to even go back to Nashville. They had the wax museum, they had the Family Tradition Museum. Hank, Jr. ran that. Big sign out front: “Come in and see: Hank’s Death Car!” [Laughs] That was my idea of–that’s Nashville. And lower Broadway, they cleaned that up; they put a Planet Holywood in there. But you’d go block after block and it was nothing but strip clubs, gin joints, and honky-tonks where live bands played. Whatever kind of basic entertainment you wanted, it was there, and it was cheap. Half of these bars that had live bands didn’t even have a cover charge to get in. You just tipped the band if you liked something.
My dad called this one years and years ago. My dad’s been gone thirteen years. And he said, “The time’s gonna come when the music business–all types of music–they’re gonna run it like they ran the pop music industry years ago. Everything’s gonna be geared to the lowest common denominator. There’s gonna be no such thing as quality. And as far as artists-back in the ’60s they called em eighteen-month wonders, cause that was the shelf-life of an artist. Like an American Bandstand artist. Well today it’s, what, a three-year wonder. Cause they make their first album, it takes two or three years to get the second one out. Say the first album sells ten million, second one sells five. Second one only sold five, it’s a failure. You’re gone. Plus, you owe us all this money off of whatever royalties you had coming for what we spent to promote this freakin’ thing that didn’t sell to our expectations. That’s the way it’s run today.
And radio–Clear Channel owns 75% of the radio stations in this country today, you know, so what you hear on the air–on FM, anyway–is dictated by probably no more than a dozen people. And it doesn’t matter. They’re either in Los Angeles or New York City, they don’t give a damn what somebody in Arkansas wants to hear. Because their demographic is-I think it’s 20- to 30-year-old now-female. That’s their target audience. And I don’t want this to be perceived as a knock against women or anything, or age. But damn it, there’s older people, there’s younger people, there’s men, there’s every–you know, there’s people out there that have more interest than just that. They don’t give a shit, that’s not what they’re in business for. They got their target audience.
Look at country music. When’s the last time you heard a regional accent on somebody on a major label? On a major label, or on CMT or something? Never.
That’s why now I’m damn glad I call it “Darwin Lee’s Real Hillbilly Music Show.” So people don’t tune in thinking they’re gonna hear that crappy Nashville corporate country. I started calling it that cause I got tired of people calling up for Garth Brooks and shit like that. [Laughs] “Come on, man, it’s a hillbilly show, you know I don’t play that.” Or Anne Murray or any of that stuff you see on Late Night.
No, they’ve ruined it. But there is hope. I mean, there’s great stuff I get; every week I get stuff, some of it’s outstanding. But it’s only on little pissant labels that people ain’t gonna get to hear, unless they hear it on my show. And as far as country music in Nashville, it’s doomed. But, not to worry: there’s great country music coming out of Texas, out of California, out of Chicago, out of North Carolina. The Two Dollar Pistols, they’re the best honky-tonk band on the scene right now, and their home base is Chapel Hill.
As far as real country music goes, I say give it a generation or two in this country and it’ll disappear altogether, anyways. Not overseas. They love it. In Japan they have country-western bars and stuff. And it’s just so bizarre: go in there and have a T-bone steak, and listen to a honky-tonk band. And they dig it. Well, America’s always been big on basically shitting on its own culture anyway. People all around the world love our culture better than we love it anymore. It ain’t just country. Look at what R&B used to be and soul music used to be, and look at what it is now.
Country was just one of the last things that hadn’t been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.
Webb Pierce's car--in the old Country Music Hall of Fame--1997
Note: To the disappointment of its far-off fans, WHVW does not, yet, stream its programming online. To hear the show, visit the Poughkeepsie area and tune to 950 AM. The “Real Hillbilly Music Hour” airs Sundays.
All photos are courtesy Darwin Lee Hill.