In the mid 1990’s, the Lower Broadway portion of downtown Nashville was one of the toughest parts of town. Now it’s arguably the epicenter of Nashville tourism nestled between The Ryman, The Country Music Hall of Fame, and many other Nashville landmarks. One of the reasons for the revitalization of the area was the strong group of young musicians who arrived in the mid 90’s and set up shop there, some traditional country, some rockabilly, some more punk, and some a hybrid of all three.
One of the last remaining bands that still holds onto that spirit that revitalized Lower Broadway and still plays there on a regular basis is Hillbilly Casino. Nearing their 10-year anniversary, the band that can regularly be seen playing Layla’s Bluegrass Inn has released a live album recorded at the Exit Inn called Live in the USA. Known for their wild and raucous shows spearheaded by the ridiculous energy and antics of frontman Nic Roulette, Hillbilly Casino is the perfect fit for a live album, and fans of the band have finally been rewarded for their long wait.
Upon the occasion of the new release, I spoke to the Hillbilly Casino bass player Geoff Firebaugh—a fixture of Lower Broadway who once played bass in BR549, and now constitutes one of the bridges between the revitalization of the area and today. We spoke about Hillbilly Casino, their new album, and Lower Broadway lore.
When did you start playing on Lower Broadway in Nashville?
I’m from Bellingham, Washington originally, and officially moved to Nashville in the early Spring of 1992. I was stationed at Fort Campbell which is an hour from Nashville after I joined the army to get away from stuff in the Northwest. I played in crappy punk and metal bands in high School, and continued to play in punk bands in Nashville, and was really involved in that scene and still support it as much as I can.
I stared going down to Lower Broadway before I started playing down there. Jay McDowell who was the original bass player for BR549 was a friend of mine and he used to play in a rockabilly punk band called Hellbilly, and I would go see that band a lot. I was very involved in the Nashville punk scene in the 90’s. And when he left Hellbilly to start playing with BR549, a couple of my friends and I would go to see what he was doing down there. We would see Greg Garing, Harry Fontana, Paul Birch, and those guys that really did revitalize Lower Broadway because in the mid 90’s Lower Broadway was a ghost town. It was a few honky tonks, a pawn shop, and couple of porno shops. It was not the tourist destination that it is now. Then about 1999 I started playing upright [bass], and started taking any gig I could get my hands on, and got to play with some cool artists and see a lot of stuff. I watched Lower Broadway evolve from being the wrong side of the tracks to being sort of the focal point of tourism in Nashville.
That was really directly due to BR549 playing down there. One of the great things about their shows is I would go down there in cutoffs and a punk band T-shirt, and sit next to an old man in a trucker hat, and on the other side of me is some chick with blue hair, and we’re all just having a good time listening to this music. As the area started to develop, more bands started to play down there. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, their early incarnations were pretty regular on Lower Broadway at The Bluegrass Inn, and I think even before that when Layla’s was The Wagon Burner and Legend’s Corner. The Blue Moon Boys which is Nic Roulette’s former band would come and play there as part of their touring circuit.
Now some talk about Lower Broadway as being a tourist trap. Is it a fair representation of the area to say, “You can’t see anything cool there anymore,” or are people just not digging deep enough?
People are too busy with their own preconceptions. Lower Broadway is still a very cool place. Yes it is touristy, and yes it is a little disheartening to walk down Lower Broadway and hear bands playing Journey and AC/DC songs. Nothing against those bands, but when you’re walking by Tootsie’s and you hear “You Shook Me All Night Long” coming out of it, it’s not what you envision when you think of downtown Nashville. But there are bars down there—Robert’s Western World, Layla’s Bluegrass Inn, The Wheel, Full Moon Saloon, that still maintain a lot of integrity with the music they have. Robert’s has traditional country, and maybe a little rockabilly, and that’s all they do. Layla’s is not as consistent in that, but Layla will consistently have good bands in there, and she’s given us a home and a place to play for ten years. It doesn’t happen as much anymore, but back in the 2000’s, touring bands would play shows there like The Planet Rockers and Hank3. Sarah Gayle Meech plays down there all the time, The Eskimo Brothers, and you can still go down there and hear really good music.
Yeah you’re going to have to park a little farther away and walk past some idiots, but bands and musicians are actually going down there and are able to make a decent living these days. I can remember going down there and playing for two shifts and eight hours and walking away with $30. There’s a lot of people who begrudge the pop country side of Nashville and I’m not a fan of that stuff, but on the other hand, the improvements and people that it brings to Nashville, it means I have friends who get to make livings. People complain about [CMA] Fan Fest, but if you don’t like it just don’t go downtown during that week. Hundreds of thousands of people come to town and bring their money and help support the area and keep all of that going. And part of keeping that going means the stuff you do like gets supported as a sidebar.
Did country punks save Lower Broadway?
It was not the country punks per se, but younger people are what brought Lower Broadway back. And that was a direct result of bands like BR549 and Paul Birch, and Greg Garing, because they were down there, and they were taking old music in an old form and being very faithful to the spirit of it, but the way they were doing it was it was dynamic and exciting to watch, which is what brought the younger people down.
And is Hillbilly Casino sort of the band that is still carrying that on? I remember talking to JD Wilkes of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and he said the reason they put on such a wild show with all the Vaudevillian schtick similar to what Hillbilly Casino has with Nic Roulette is because that is what you had to do. If you weren’t extremely entertaining to people, then there was five bands waiting outside ready to take your place. But with Hillbilly Casino, you can still see the wild animal in its element. You can still see Hillbilly Casino at Layla’s like it was in the past.
Yeah, that’s definitely true. Lower Broadway is tough. You will not find a higher caliber of musicianship in one location anywhere in the world, and I will back that up with the one possible exception of the East Village in the 60’s. You might not like what everyone is playing, but the caliber of musicianship is just insane. The Don Kelley Band has been playing on Lower Broadway for the last 30 years at least. And pretty much Don Kelley’s band is the primary school for hot shit Tele [guitar] players in Nashville. The guys that are on all the country records like Dan Huff, Brent Mason, Redd Volkaert from Merle Haggard’s band, Johnny Hiland, they all played with Don Kelley. They guy playing for him now is I think 18, and can play circles around the best nine guitar players you can name. And I’ve seen musicians go down there and you get put to the test. Either you get good or you go home. When the Shack Shakers were playing every weekend on Lower Broadway, it was mayhem. I mean, it was mayhem. I’ve seen JD Wilkes swinging from the rafters, with his shirt ripped half off. There was no rules for their shows when they played, but the shows were always completely on point musically. You don’t have to be insane to keep a crowd, but you do have to be engaging.
When you watch a Hillbilly Casino show, you’re watching a country band, a rockabilly band, and a punk band all at the same time, right?
We’ll do punk shows and bring punk bands to town with us. We’re not at all willing to pigeon hole ourselves into the shows that we book or the bands that we bring. I like to see a show with three completely different style bands on it. I don’t need to hear three bands that sound exactly like each other playing all night long. One of the jokes is in one tour, the first night we opened for David Allan Coe, and the last night we opened for Rancid, and did well on both shows. Obviously we don’t play the same exact set, but you know.
Hillbilly Casino has release multiple albums, but for a lot of fans, nothing can match the wild experience of seeing Hillbilly Casino live. So was that the idea, to make a live album and capture that essence that people can take home with them?
This record has been the better part of ten years in the making. The end of May 2015 will be what we’ll count as our official 10 year anniversary. But probably before even our first record was out, people were already like, “You guys should make a live record!” Because the show is over the top. That’s part of the reason we’ve produced and recorded our own records is because we’ve never come across the person that could capture what we do because we’re so all over the board musically. We recorded a few shows over the years but just never had anything that was exactly quite right. We got a new drummer Matthew Arnn two years ago, and it took the better part of that two years for everybody to get comfortable again. We had a few new songs and so we decided we should do this live record. The engineer at the Exit Inn is a friend of ours so he set up to do live multi-track. Then we went on our Facebook and asked folks what songs they wanted us to do, and then we took the list of songs we knew we wanted to do, and crafted a set, and then just went in and did it.
It was a blast. We did some special things like we brought in some horn players from Milwaukee and had a horn section for a couple of songs. And then we had Yelawolf who’s a friend of ours and completely by accident I was like, “Hey were doing a live record next week, do you want to guest on it?” Just because anything we can do to throw a monkey wrench in people’s preconceptions is cool with me. It was really cool to see him come out there and just really ramp stuff up, kind of take the crazy level and crank it up a couple of notches. And there’s three new original songs that haven’t been released on anything, and then a bunch of old favorites that we do, and couple of covers, including a Nick Curran song for our friend that passed away a couple of years ago.
What is the goal of Hillbilly Casino?
World domination. No, honestly we’ve always been of the opinion that if we’re taking care of our bills, and taking care of our families by playing music, that is success. Anything beyond that is gravy. We work out butts off. We do 175 to 200 shows a year, and we do it without doing extensive touring because most of us have families. I’ve done the bus, or being in the van and being gone for 16 weeks. Extended touring is really really tough financially. So we do long weekends, which is good for us because our kids know what we look like. The way we’ve been able to run our business, we’re able to make a modest living and we have complete control over everything we do. We’re self-managed, we do our own booking. We don’t have to answer to a label. We do it all ourselves.