Songwriter Interviews

John Wheeler of Hayseed Dixie

by Jess Grant

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Like many future axemen of his era, Angus Young learnt to play music on the banjo. Had he persevered, rather than switch to the Gibson SG at the age of 12, then maybe, just maybe, he would have resembled John Wheeler, front man of Hayseed Dixie.

Wheeler and co rose to prominence in 2001 when they carved - heck, invented - a niche in the bluegrass market with A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC - 10 AC/DC hits, refashioned with a banjo, mandolin, dobro and a good dose of satire. Kiss, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Queen are just some of the artists who have undergone the Hayseed Dixie treatment since.

Comically crude as their "rockgrass" covers may be, the Tennessee band's indisputable technical ability, combined with their rollicking and revered live show, has won the flat-picking faux-hicks a warm place in hearts the world over.

In February, Wheeler will ditch his dungarees and turn his attention towards an arguably more sedate solo venture when he releases his inspiring debut album, Un-American Gothic, on Cooking Vinyl. The album introduces listeners to the charming and socially conscious man who has hid behind the Dixie's blue collar for over a decade – a man who we were lucky enough to chat with.
Jess Grant (Songfacts): In February, you will release your first full length solo album, Un-American Gothic. What prompted you to go solo now?

John Wheeler: Well, the band had decided that 11 years of over 100 shows each year had worn us pretty thin of inspiration and energy and so we all mutually decided to take a year or two off from it. And I had written a bunch of songs over the past couple of years that didn't really fit with the style and direction of the band. So this seemed like a great opportunity to record them without it needing to feel like I was putting the band on a back burner.

Songfacts: The album's lead single, "Deeper in Debt," tackles the problematic economy. Why were you personally inspired to write about this?

John: Specifically, I was talking to Dave Pegg (of Fairport Convention) backstage at the Cropredy Festival a couple of summers ago and we both expressed how outraged we were that nobody seemed to be going to jail over the banking stuff. It was just a little slab of righteous indignation that I wrote down on the back of an old set list... basically a conversation with myself to try to cheer myself up. It's meant to be a rather humorous song.

Songfacts: So, tell me... was Obama the right guy to fix the economy?

John: No one man can fix anything global. Putting Bob Diamond and the entire upper-level management of HSBC in jail, along with David Lesar of Haliburton, would be a decent start though. Hell, just having court systems that would actually prosecute these sorts of people would be an even better start.

Eton College is an elite school located in Windsor, England. The Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, attended Eton, as did many other members of the right-wing Conservative Party. The school has also educated members of the British Royal Family, including Princes William and Harry. Paul Weller of The Jam wrote "The Eton Rifles" about the rivalry between Eton pupils and the neighboring working class school children. The song has since been adopted by the left-wing as an anti-Conservative anthem. Consequently, when Cameron named "The Eton Rifles" as one of his favorite tracks in 2008, Weller was unsurprisingly appalled: "Which part of the song didn't he get? Did he think it was a celebration of being at Eton or something? It's a shame really that someone didn't listen to that song and get something else from it and become a socialist leader instead."
Songfacts: You cover two very political songs on Un-American Gothic - "The Eton Rifles" by The Jam and "Masters of War" by Bob Dylan. Why did you choose these two songs?

John: Well, when I heard that David Cameron had named "The Eton Rifles" as his favorite song of all time, it occurred to me that maybe Dave had never actually listened to the words. So I figured I'd do a version where the words couldn't possibly be misunderstood. I also wanted to do it in the spirit of the current day.

"Masters of War" is, in my opinion, the greatest song ever written on the subject, and while I know that the world isn't exactly demanding more covers of Bob Dylan songs (let alone from me) I just really like the song... on a 12-track album, I figure I can have a couple of tracks just for me!

Songfacts: Would you call Un-American Gothic a political album? "Down at the Exit" and "Doomsday Dance" in particular appear to carry a rather pessimistic political message!

John: Well... I don't want to preach to anybody or tell them what they should think. I certainly don't want to be a partisan. I mean, I very much respect Billy Bragg and folks like him but I don't want to be Billy Bragg. I wasn't trying to comment on specific topical events or political parties as I was trying to make observations about the bigger picture. I would call the record a collection of socio-political stories from a generally populist point of view, but I wouldn't call it a "political record."

Songfacts: I love "Street Sweeper Lullaby," which tells the story of a tragic street sweeper who is down on his luck. Is this based on a real life character?

John: I was walking my daughter down Mill Road in Cambridge to the playground at the end of the road one day. We passed a couple of girls in their early 20's in short summer dresses. I saw a fellow of about 50 driving the street sweeping machine down the street look at the girls and give them a broad smile. They looked at him like he was dirt, giggled and strutted off. The look on his face melted from a grin to the bitterest of bottled rage. At the playground, while my daughter was swinging, I started singing the lyrics into my phone. Just trying to imagine myself as the street sweeper and trying to voice what he might have been feeling.

Songfacts: What is your favorite track on the new album and why, John?

John: Probably "Walk Between the Raindrops" because I wrote it to cheer myself up and I still smile whenever I hear it or play it. It's not the world's deepest song, but I don't think every song has to be hyper-intellectual. Actually, I sometimes don't want to work that hard!

Songfacts: I'd like to talk about Hayseed Dixie, who rose to prominence in 2001 with the AC/DC cover album, A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC. Would you call AC/DC a genuine influence? I understand you once played for Cliff Williams?

John: I think AC/DC, at least in spirit, is some sort of influence on everyone who grew up in the '70s and '80s. They were absolutely everywhere. And they remain, in my opinion, the template for meat and potatoes straight-ahead rock and roll. Most of the songs I write don't sound much like AC/DC, but I'm sure there are little bits of the attitude in there.

Songfacts: Hayseed Dixie are famous for their rollicking "rockgrass" covers. What is your favorite song to cover with the band and why?

John: Probably "Ace of Spades" because it's just a shot in the face of blunt, unrestrained energy. It's quite a blast to deliver that.

Songfacts: Hayseed Dixie have penned some pretty unforgettable originals - "I'm Keeping Your Poop in a Jar" and "She Was Skinny When I Met Her," to name a humble few! For those who only know the band for their covers, what original Hayseed Dixie track would you turn them onto first and why?

John: "Born To Die In France" is probably my favorite self-written Hayseed song. I think it's the closest thing the band did to what I actually sound like, left entirely to my own devices. BUT, Hayseed Dixie was never intended to be a band that one had to think about too deeply; in fact, quite the contrary. So I'd probably recommend "Corn Liquor" or "Kirby Hill." I think those are well-written and fun songs and lots of folks seem to like them live at shows.

Songfacts: A LOT of people say Hayseed Dixie are one of the best live acts that they have ever seen. What do you think it is about the Hayseed Dixie live experience that makes it so memorable?

John: I don't honestly know. You would have to ask them. But I will say that we're all pretty genuine people. Even though I'm essentially playing a character in Hayseed Dixie, I'm still 100% genuine about doing a fun and entertaining show. And the show is intrinsically very high-energy. So I reckon it's a good night out for just about anybody.

Songfacts: Finally, what is next for you, John? Will you be continuing with your solo ventures, or are you planning on heading back to the studio with Hayseed Dixie?

John: Well, the solo album comes out on February 4, so I'll do some solo dates around the UK and Europe this spring. Then Hayseed is going to play a few weeks worth of festivals this summer. Then I hope to do more solo dates in the fall. I'd like to continue to do both if that's possible.

January 15, 2013. Get more from John Wheeler at
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