Interview – Keith of Hillgrass Bluebilly Records

As the name implies, Hillgrass Bluebilly Records defines the nexus of where hillbilly, country, bluegrass, and blues meet. This rich and diverse environment that has been created in the independent/underground music world embodies all roots music as unified expressions of purity and soul, regardless of the origins.

With a catalog that includes artists like Possessed by Paul James, The Boomswagglers, Ten Foot Polecats, Tom Vandenavond, Left Lane Cruiser, Larry & His Flask, Soda, and various other collaborators, Keith Mallette and co-founder Ryan Tackett have created a burgeoning homespun record label that is getting international attention. Their award-winning double disc compilation Hiram & Huddie bridged the music of Hank Williams and Leadbelly together with tribute songs from people like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Scott H. Biram, William Elliot Whitmore, Bob Log III, and many more, and made a small concert promotion company to a force in the record label business.

Hillgrass Bluebilly has also given rise to what is called “The Dirtyfoot Family”; a rabid and loyal group of devoted music fans who embrace the same open mind approach to the broad roots music movement.

I sat down with Keith last weekend right before a Hillgrass concert at Ruta Maya in Austin, TX to talk about the formation of the record label, his philosophies on music, future plans, and how he became the point man in the opposition to Shooter Jennings’ XXX music movement. Full audio can be found below as well as a transcription of the meat of the interview. But let me tell you, this is one you’ll want to listen to.

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Triggerman: Hillgrass Bluebilly. How did you get involved in this music, which as the name implies is like a crux between country and bluegrass and blues and hillbilly music. Did you listen to it growing up?

Hillgrass Keith: Partly. Nothing really outside of your greatest hits albums, well up into my mid to late 20’s. To answer your question I guess, guilty by association, when I finally met a group of friends that knew more, that’s when I really got into it. A few of them boys started up a concert promotions business in Phoenix called “Roots and Boots” and kinda brought me in on it. They were wanting to do shows where I was working, at this little bar. So I included myself and they brought out some shows at the beginning with folks like Jesse Dayton. That was short lived but great, and I took what I knew I could do with it and it was born.

I always knew I was a salesman or a closer and the best at no matter what I did. This was all heart. This was something that grabbed a hold of me musically and I saw how it wasn’t getting done, and these little signs were like “Do this Keith, do this.” So I presented it to my buddy, Ryan Tackett the co-founder. He said, “Yeah Keith, I believe in you, let’s do it.” And here we are.

Triggerman: I think a lot of people would think of Hillgrass Bluebilly as a record label, but it got its start in promotions and still promotions is a large part of what you do.

Hillgrass Keith: I wouldn’t say a large part. Honestly after the first couple of years of Hillgrass, after I left Phoenix and came here (Austin) we didn’t think we were gonna be a record label. I thought I was going to be able to push through the promotions end of it, and make things work. We founded the record label through the promotions. Hiram & Huddie was strictly a promotional tool to introduce people to these bands that we love with something that they could reference, being Hank Williams and Leadbelly. After it was all said and done, I don’t know who told us we were a record label but someone whispered it to us, and that’s our fight now.

Triggerman: Hiram and Huddie has won quite a few awards, it’s been really successful, I’ve seen write-ups for it all over the place. Did you see when you were putting this compilation together, this parallel between old school country and old school blues? Was the idea to try to bridge those two? Brother of different mothers as far as the music, or was more the differences that made it appealing?

Hillgrass Keith: I would say the brothers of different mothers. We take “man” approach to things. And for what we want to do as people, we want to keep it as genuine and real as possible. In the instrumentation of roots music, that’s where we found our love for Uncle Tom (VandenAvond), PPJ (Possessed by Paul James), Scott Biram, these guys that spit a lot of soul out, it’s just really moving. That’s our fight.

Triggerman: So you kind of embrace the idea of being a stepping stone.

Hillgrass Keith: It’s cutthroat. We have yet to see all the things that are going to happen in the music industry as far as our slot when that comes. That’s why these record labels have to stand by their folks and treat them good, and not take advantage of them. It almost seems like the older we get, the more we’re stripping it down.

Hillgrass Keith, w/ T Model Ford & Possessed by Paul James

Triggerman: Right now one of your up-and-coming artists is The Boomswagglers. Let’s say they get a song in a Ralph Lauren underwear commercial and they just explode.

Hillgrass Keith: Then I would expect them to move on to another label. We succeed when they get the fuck away from us, and they don’t need us anymore. And we don’t want to be up there with them. We don’t want to pay more than $500 for a guarantee to someone. That ain’t us. That ain’t our people. And we’re gonna stay like that.

Triggerman: Whenever you’re trying to work through something, regardless of what it is, you need hardliners. People look at me as a country music hardliner. You embodied the hardline stance against XXX, and I appreciate that. But at the same time, I want to ask you some devil’s advocate questions. If you or somebody else is afraid of what XXX might become, if you have issues with something, there’s two ways you can take it. Either you can come out steadfast against it, or you could try to be a part of it and try to resolve whatever issues you have with it. If you’re afraid that XXX is going to become something that is going to be adverse to what you’re doing in music, why would would you not want to be a part of it in a way to be part of the dialogue so you can try to influence what it might become? Or is it even worth it?

Hillgrass Keith: It’s not. It’s a shiny coin trick. It’s confusing. Hillgrass Bluebilly spells it out. We came up with that genuinely because that’s what it is. It’s all those: hillbilly, blues, bluegrass, country summed up. XXX is nothing. It’s a bunch of bullshit. It’s something to go make some patches and shirts out of. I don’t want anything to do with it, I don’t even want it to be there. So that’s why I opened my mouth. I guess a better man would just watch it die on its own because he realizes that Shooter’s an anchor. I’m just more mouthy than that.

Triggerman: Do you think that the idea behind it, just the idea, take away Shooter Jennings, take away XXX. The idea that everyone is fighting their own individual fights, the artists, the record labels, the promoters. Do you see any benefit in trying to make at least a little bit more collaboration between these elements?

Hillgrass Keith: No. It’s pretty much you’re fighting over there, make sure it’s on the sidewalk. Because when we come rolling through the street, don’t get in our fucking way.

Triggerman: Let’s say Goliath comes and you’re David, and the only way you can take Goliath down is if Hillgrass Bluebilly bands with XXX?

Hillgrass Keith: My rock is an Uncle Tom CD, a PPJ (Possessed by Paul James) CD to that Goliath, you know what I mean? If I could just tell everyone to shut up, take everything out of their hearts and minds, and sit there with their fuckin’ gut and listen, then stone to the fuckin’ eye. Goliath down.

As long as people know that I don’t like it. And we’re not going to try to confuse people with shitty branding.

Triggerman: What projects to you have coming up on Hillgrass Bluebilly that people should know about?

Hillgrass Keith: Boomswagglers. America’s country. Texas. They’re our answer to country music. And I’m country, out of my heart. Ryan’s (the co-founder) blues, and I’m a blues guy too, but not before country. I’m really happy for the Boomswagglers album to be coming, I love them. Would take a bullet for them. There’s actually going to be a couple things. We’re going to have some garage-ee recordings, really nice ones to have available really soon. And then the big Hillgrass release, to be safe before Summer, the release date. It’s probably going to be in April, more than likely. May at the latest.

Triggerman: You refer to your merch as flags. You sell hats, you sell shirts . . .

Hillgrass Keith: No actually, we sell flags! (laughing) Hillgrass Bluebilly is the flag, “Dirtyfoot Family” is the people. When we stick our flag in the ground, you know it’s there. You can over to it, or you can stay away from it. We probably will have some “flags” one day but for now in forms of shirts and hats. You don’t have to like me to like Hillgrass.

Triggerman: Do you think roots music is under siege in Austin?

Hillgrass Keith: I think the baby boomer era ruined that. I think music has been taken out of the home. I don’t think families are laying on their bellies listening to music that they can all enjoy and like. Instead parents have given up the TV to Walt Disney and Nickelodeon instead of productive music time, which the kids don’t have to like. It must have been taken out of the homes. It has to have been because living here in Austin, TX and watching the country music scene is one of the most disheartening things I’ve ever been a part of. If you go to see a Roger Wallace show or a James Hand show. There has been no community for it, until the Muddy Roots and Hillgrass and Farmageddon. Now there’s homes for this. There’s been big progress I think.

Triggerman: How do you feel about people (record labels) like Fat Possum and Bloodshot?

Hillgrass Keith: I love them. I look up to Fat Possum, I look up to Alive, I look up to Bloodshot. And I look up to them in a lot of ways. I pick things apart and I analyze everything that I’m a part of. We’re not a record label, we’re people that are helping our artists get to places like that. We’re the stepping stone to places like Bloodshot and Alive.

Triggerman: What is your favorite non-Hillgrass Bluebilly band or artist?

Hillgrass Keith: Scott H. Biram. I don’t even need to think about it. He’s never done a bad recording. When it comes down to it, pound for pound, he’s Roy Jones Jr. 1998, man you ain’t touching that dude. He’s hard traveling, he’s hard working, and that’s his business. I admire the support of his mother and dad. They’re like at every show of his.