In explaining the Hooten Hallers, it's best to begin with what this three-piece is not. The band, despite frequent media references to the contrary, is not a hillbilly band. It is from Missouri, not Appalachia.
"You know, I don't know," says drummer Andy Rehm by phone from a roadside pullout west of Kansas City. "We are from a section of rural America, but I don't think any of us really identifies with the term hillbilly all that much. It's not a shameful term, but we were not raised in a traditional rural setting. More specifically, in an Appalachian setting, which is where the term, I think, comes from. The hillbilly word is strangely used."
The Hooten Hallers also are not whiskey-soaked, another oft-applied term. In fact, Rehm, who does enjoy a touch of whiskey now and then, sees no value in performing drunk.
"And the whiskey thing," he says, his voice trailing off in thought. "I know, everyone uses the term 'whiskey-something' to describe music nowadays. I do like to drink whiskey. I don't think it's positive or negative. People will use [the term] to describe music however they can. If it gets somebody who really likes whiskey to come watch us one time and likes us, then it's worth it. But I don't necessarily want to be known as the world's drunkest band or anything like that. I think that's kinda fucked up. We're not like that."
If anything, the Hooten Hallers' sound begins with Delta blues and builds upon that foundation, adding elements of everything from folk, country, and rock to soul, jazz, and marches to create a distinctly flamboyant sound. The music can be dark and lonely, wild and raucous, or just as easily breezy and carefree.
"Really, the roots of the music we play come from that rural culture, that African-American culture in the South," Rehm says.
The Hooten Hallers stumbled into existence in late 2006 when guitarist/vocalist John Randall and Rehm began jamming together. The popularity of the guitar/drum thing, à la White Stripes and Black Keys, was building, and the two began playing open mics and house parties around Columbia, Missouri. Thus, as is wont to happen, the pair made a few albums (bringing in a rotating cast of friends to provide added depth to the songs) and expanded their reach with several out-of-state tours. Amazingly, the pair discovered there was more than just a passing interest in a band of two mixing guttural blues, deep soul, unconventional jazz structures, country flair, psychedelic overtones, a stand-up slap drummer, and a truly crazed vocal style recalling latter-day Tom Waits meets vintage George Thorogood.
"It's definitely the sum of a lot different influences, for sure," Rehm says with a laugh. "There might an idea or a little sketch for a song that might be easiest explained to the band by saying, 'This is going to be a weird, jazzy blues song,' or whatever. But a lot of our stuff is kinda like that. I don't know if it's inherent in our music to delve into some weird jag here or there with a different stylistic approach, or if we discuss it subconsciously. But, it's never like we're trying to do a specific type of song. It usually develops on its own."
The band's latest effort, Chillicothe Fireball (Big Money Records), reflects that songwriting philosophy, taking it one step further with the permanent addition of Paul Weber on harmonica and tuba. Weber had performed on previous Hooten Hallers albums and tours, yet the tuba remained a hidden feature when he was asked to join the band.
"It wasn't on the table originally. We hadn't talked about it or even discussed it at all," Rehm says. "Basically, Paul moved back to Missouri to join the band full time and brought this tuba. 'Oh, you guys didn't know I played the tuba? Yeah, I play tuba,' was his response. Now we had a tuba in the band. Let's try it. We did, and it's great. "People love the tuba," he adds. "They surely do."
A versatile instrument, the tuba not only fills in the bottom end, but it adds some creep factor to the dark dirge of "Grinding the Bones."
"Yeah, that's a creepy song. It's a true story, actually," Rehm says of one of the two Weber-penned songs on the new album. "He was doing some work on a farm that was right next to a graveyard in northern Illinois or southern Wisconsin. He embellished the facts a little bit, but basically he met these guys who disposed of the bodies, and they were creepy."
Chillicothe Fireball has other firsts as well in the search for "a little more exploration, stylistically." Baritone and bass saxophones, piano, and pedal steel made their way onto certain tracks, while Weber's songwriting skills gave Rehm and Randall a new foil to bounce ideas off. The album was also recorded live in the studio. Yet, perhaps the most telling addition is that an outsider producer was brought in for the first time to awaken the Hooten Hallers' full potential.
"A lot of times it's hard to judge the merit of something when you're too close to it, you know?" Rehm says. "Having somebody in there to beat you up over a few things to make sure it's done right is a huge factor. The slightest change here or there can change the course of the whole song."
Sadly, most of that bonus instrumentation -- tuba excepted, of course -- won't make it on the road with the band. The economic realities require the band tour as the raw, energy-infused, stripped down three-piece that exists outside the studio.
"It's fun to be able to do that sort of thing in the studio and have some extra personnel," Rehm says. "When we play live, it's gonna be not a different thing entirely from the album, but we play all rock 'n' roll. Live, we might play a little faster or more aggressive. There are a lot of different things you get out of the record you never get from a live show, and vice versa, but I don't think we're missing any parts on stage."
If anything, the Hooten Hallers work harder as a three-piece. Their full-tilt live shows are something of legend around the Midwest. Even in the middle of long tours, when plenty of musicians just phone it in, the Hooten Hallers' go-hard-or-go-home attitude never wavers.
"Oh yeah! There's a lot of sweat, and occasionally blood or vomit that goes into our live shows," Rehm says enthusiastically, as if already in the middle of performance. "We really put our all into it as much as we can -- even when were 40 days on the road and really tired. You gotta put it all out there."
The Hooten Hallers are scheduled to perform Wednesday, August 6, at the Rhythm Room.
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