Local Wire

Hick Hop

"My meals are ravioli out of the can, and ramen. I came in here tonight with eight dollars in my pocket. I am so white trash."

Keith Mallette's telling me all this to drive home that he's not making any money with Hillgrass Bluebilly Entertainment, a local roots music promotion company he started in November of 2004 with his friend Ryan Tackett.

On this gorgeous, clear Thursday night at local blues club the Rhythm Room, Hillgrass Bluebilly is presenting Austin-based bluegrass band The Weary Boys.

Hillgrass has presented 32 bluegrass and alt-country shows in the Valley since its inception, including hot national acts like Scott H. Biram, Wayne "The Train" Hancock, Hillstomp, Jesse Dayton, and Th' Legendary Shack Shakers, as well as lauded locals, including Flathead, Busted Hearts, and Tucson's Hacienda Brothers and Bob Log III.

The atmosphere in the Rhythm Room tonight is cozy with lowbrow Christmas cheer.

Two strands of colored lights hang above the barrier that separates the bar from the dance floor, and the five-foot Christmas tree by the sound boards has an empty keg for a base and a crumpled Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can for a star.

The crowd looks like something from one of those surreal, mishmash European music festivals that book people like Marilyn Manson and James Taylor for back-to-back slots. There are rockabilly boys with greasy pompadours; rockabilly chicks with Bettie Page bangs; old cowboys with less than half their teeth; thugs with baseball caps over their bandannas; busty "business casual" babes; tattooed, grizzly bikers; skinny white guys with dreadlocks; even an attractive black couple in club clothes.

And nobody looks lost.

Mallette's manning The Weary Boys' merch table before the show, and a few fans of his own stop by. "I brought you the best carrot cake you'll ever have," says a robust fellow in red flannel, handing Mallette a red aluminum tin.

"Hey, dude, I'll get you into any show at the Marquee Theatre you want to go to," says a young rockabilly guy, who apparently works security at the Tempe venue.

"I'm gonna snap tons of pictures tonight and send them to you for the Hillgrass Web site," says a thin guy with a scraggly goatee.

Mallette's not making any money, he doesn't look like a rock star (nor does he hang out with any), and he has no problem shit-talking people — even the people who think he's the shit (Mallette calls the Marquee guy "kind of a poser" seconds after he walks off).

So why does Hillgrass Bluebilly Entertainment consistently have great attendance at all its shows and a large enough support base to form Hillgrass' extended "Dirty Foot Family" (i.e., street team/fan club)?

Because Hillgrass Bluebilly puts on great shows. And Mallette's not above cutting his own throat to do it.

"I only want the best," Mallette explains, "so if a national act is touring with a buddy band and I don't think the other band is up to standard, fine — I'll pay them $250 not to play."

But there was no need to pay off the opening act for The Weary Boys tonight. Los Angeles band Rose's Pawn Shop is a big enough draw on its own, and when the band takes the stage around 9 p.m., there's not an empty seat in the house.

Bass player Derek Asuan-O'Brien is thumping away on his glittery red, double-king-size upright bass, which is adorned with a Hillgrass Bluebilly sticker. RPS's banjo player, "Captain John" Kraus, is not here ("He got scurvy," singer Paul Givant jokes from the stage), but fiddle player Sebastian St. John more than makes up for Captain John's absence, playing a furious fiddle that sounds like the devil went to down to Georgia, started a riot, lit the state on fire, and then ran back to hell laughing with all the virgins in the South tucked under his arms.

Although Rose's Pawn Shop is an alt-country band, they play so fast that you could literally bang your head to the rhythms. Aside from strange, fiddle-riddled covers of Another Bad Creation's "Iesha" and The Misfits' "Skulls," RPS's set was met with a roar of applause.

"Hillgrass Bluebilly are good people," Givant says into the mic. "Thanks for bringing us out."

After Rose's Pawn Shop plays, Mallette heads outside to help The Weary Boys unload their instruments and set up on stage. When they start playing around 10 p.m., he finds a spot on the dance floor. A few guys from the Dirty Foot Family are here in their Hillgrass Bluebilly shirts, and one of them is dancing across the floor like a madman — kicking up his feet, throwing his elbows around, and running in circles. An attractive brunette in a tight red dress ducks him a few times, then takes picture after picture of the band on her cell phone, while screaming lustily at singer/guitarist Mario Matteoli.

When The Weary Boys play their version of Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man" — which has gotten some airplay on XM satellite radio — several people start line-dancing.

In between songs, Matteoli asks for "a whiskey on the rocks with no salt" from the stage, and Mallette sets it down on the monitor in front of him less than 30 seconds later. It's an example of Hillgrass hospitality; one of many things Mallette does to try to please the bands he books into an exclusive routing relationship (he also points out that he's paid bands out of his own pocket on more than one occasion). Tonight's show is the fourth time he's booked The Weary Boys in Phoenix.

When the band's done playing, the sweaty, smoke-covered audience sends them off with whistles, cheers, and applause. Mallette helps them pack and load their gear while the 200-or-so people in the club continue laughing, drinking, and dancing to Mallette's music mix, which puts Johnny Cash's "Cry, Cry, Cry" back-to-back with James Brown's "Please, Please, Please."

But it's not even 1 a.m. yet. Where's the hay straw mistletoe?

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea