Interview:An Interview with John Wheeler of Hayseed Dixie
by Don Dawson
A couple of friends get together in a home studio and lay down some tracks for kicks, reworking the material of a famous rock band in a hillbilly, bluegrass style - complete with fiddle and mandolin. A bunch of radio station morning disc jockeys - no strangers to wacky behavior - pick up on the remakes, and the band has a surprise hit on its hands. Trouble is, there was no band: A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC had been recorded by guitarist John Wheeler in his living room. Wheeler then invited a couple buddies over to add their two-cents, so to speak.
Pretty dern quick Wheeler - who took on the persona of Barley Scotch to promote the disc - brought the boys back together and set to capitalizing on their sudden "success." And following the trail of success - or the smell of money - Wheeler and his musical partners-in-crime returned with Mountain Love, another collection of rock tunes reworked in a bluegrass-y kinda way, and now, in 2003, with A Hillbilly Tribute to Kiss. And it's actually pretty killer music, too.
But really, Barley - uh, Wheeler - has it goin' on. He worked himself a sweet record deal in which he keeps all rights to his recordings and splits the profits with the record label 50/50! And for the education of our loyal readers who may be considering their own careers in the music biz, Wheeler spells it all out for you: How he shopped the record, how the contract was written, how he makes money from Internet sales and sales at live performances. This fun and most excellent interview is really a primer in Music Biz Success, 101. So read on, all the way to the end, now, y'all hear?
Guitar.com: Hey John, welcome to world of Guitar.com. Do you consider yourself internet savvy or are you familiar with Guitar.com?
Wheeler: Well, I've never really checked out your site but I do see check out music sites every now and then.
Guitar.com: We're an online guitar community with a strong background in rock, metal, and blues. I've always been a big fan of acoustic guitar and the many flavors that come along with that, including fingerstyle, bluegrass, pop, and on and on. How about helping our readers out with a little background on Hayseed Dixie....
Wheeler: Well, let's start with - I'm 33. I was born here in Nashville, Tennessee. I think that probably most people my age, especially Southern ones but probably most people that learned to play guitar in say, junior high, probably learned to play a bunch of AC/DC songs. I mean that was the popular stuff at the time and it was simple enough that you could learn how to play it.
Guitar.com: I agree with that.
Wheeler: Yeah, I mean, the first album I think I ever bought was the Whiskey Bent and Hellbound record by Hank Williams Jr.. The second one was Highway to Hell. I remember by Dad giving me a guitar for Christmas. It was a little cheap Fender acoustic. I don't think it had a solid top or anything like that. I was like 9 or 10. I never really saw much difference between them honestly, as far as what they were about. They both seemed pretty straight forward three chord rebel rock kind of things. They were both talking about the same things, in a way. Certainly coming from the same spirit. I do this bit where I say that "A Lost Highway" (Hank Williams song) and "Highway to Hell" (AC/DC song) are the same road.
Guitar.com: Right, right....
Wheeler: It always elicits some laughs but I think it's also true. That's part of the reason why people laugh at it - the truth is funnier than fiction, ya know? Our brother Hank Williams was 29 when he drank himself to death and it took Bon Scott an additional 5 years to accomplish that exact same thing (laughs) so you tell me who was more personally committed. So, I went through high school - I always listened to a lot of traditional hillbilly music and rock at the same time. I was never a big fan of any '80s hair bands or anything but when I say 'hillbilly' I mean The Stanley Brothers or whatever. I'd use the word Bluegrass but I've never really like the word or term much. I always thought it was a bit limiting.
Guitar.com: I think nowadays given the nature of music critics or aficionados, if I may use the trite term, everyone feels overly compelled to label or segment a form of music.
Wheeler: Yeah, they have to draw some box or line around it, exactly. If we're trying to make fun of or parody anything, that's what we're trying parody; people's perception of genre.
Guitar.com: Right, I can see it.
Wheeler: When we got the first record done, nobody even thought it would get released. I mean, I paid my way through college playing at fraternity parties and college bars and all
Guitar.com: Me too, oddly enough!
Wheeler: Did you really?
Wheeler: We probably had a similar experience.
Guitar.com: Yeah probably and odder still - about five years ago, I was working for a music manufacturer at the time, we put together this trio called "Acousti-KISS." It was the brainchild of this killer guitar player who worked with me there. I played Mandolin. We had an upright bass player. The three of us played weird acoustic KISS covers.
Guitar.com: And it totally didn't catch on. We'd be up there playing "Detroit Rock City" and people were looking at us like we had three heads. But I sang it more like Paul Stanley did. The orchestration was a little different but it was pretty straight up. So when I saw that you released Kiss My Grass - A Hillbilly Tribute to KISS, I immediately called the guitar player and left him a message of your version of "Detroit Rock City" on his answering machine.
Wheeler: That's cool. I started doing this in the late '80s.
Guitar.com: It's brilliant.
Wheeler: Not so much KISS. I didn't really know that many KISS songs but I used to play a lot of AC/DC songs at this college bar we played at.
Guitar.com: Isn't that a prerequisite?
Wheeler: (laughing) Yes I think it is. When we made the first record, we were really just got together to do something that we thought would be fun to do, one weekend. We made the first record in two days.
Guitar.com: That's really fast by anyone's standard today.
Wheeler: Nobody ever thought it would be released. That wasn't why we did it. I mean, after college - I got my Master in Philosophy. They just kept giving me assistant-ships, so I just going.
Guitar.com: Well, the good news is that your putting it to good use (laughing).
Wheeler: Yeah, exactly (laughing) - what else do you do with a degree in Philosophy (laughing some more), so long as it helps my interests.
Guitar.com: That's it. That's it in a nutshell.
Wheeler: So played with all these bands and I was always kind of the side guy, you know. I never played with anyone that was all that notable. But I started buying a bunch of recording gear and over the next three or four years, sort of started built out this studio. I really didn't have a plan to do so, it sort of just worked out that way.
Guitar.com: You recorded the first record at Renaissance (John's Home Studio).
Wheeler: Yeah, which is essentially my living room but I had to give it a name. It's a little more involved than what most people think of as a home studio. I mean I've got some Neve mic pre's and Neuman mics. I've amassed some pretty good gear. But when we did this, we figured we'd burn like twenty copies and pass it around to some buddies. And that's basically what we did.
Wheeler: Next thing I knew, well maybe not the next thing. It was about two or three months later or so.
Guitar.com: Which is still pretty quick in the world of recorded music.
Wheeler: Yeah, I guess that's true. Well, I find out that it's made it's way around Music Row (famous stretch in Nashville that contains all the major music makers from music publishers to record labels). First I get these phone calls from all these record labels saying that they want to put it out. I had like this minor bidding war going on, completely accidentally. It was just kind of fun. And I ended up going with the label that I did because they wanted to license it, instead of doing a traditional record deal.
Wheeler: So that's we I did. Licensed it and I kept ownership of the masters. So now I got this record getting put out and I'm thinking that it might move like, 5,000 pieces or something. I thought it would be the curious little underground thing. I think I also didn't have any idea of the power of the radio morning shows.
Guitar.com: Yeah I did hear one radio interview that you did. I think it was with a station in St. Louis. I think the main thing I got from it was that, in that format, they get it. That's part of what they do. They have a sense of humor and understand the impetus behind your efforts.
Wheeler: Yeah, exactly. And they were the people who really did at first. The record label called me and said "Do you want to do this radio interviews?" And I was "Sure, I had never done any before." So I kinda threw this whole character together, Barley Scotch, who's basically just my granddad. My granddad was a hog farming moonshiner from East Tennessee. He was.
Guitar.com: So Barley is him personified?
Wheeler: Essentially. I'm just playing my Granddad. I mean, you've seen the old Foghorn Leghorn cartoons
Guitar.com: Absolutely. He's one of my favorites.
Wheeler: When I was a little kid, I used to think that somebody from the cartoon studio had gone and met my granddad and based this character on my granddad (laughs). I mean that's how he talked. Sounded just like him. "Listen to me boy. I say boy, c'mere boy." I used to ask my Dad, "How come Foghorn doesn't have a still?" (laughing)
Guitar.com: What did your Dad say?
Wheeler: He said that they didn't want to draw too much attention to that. Don't want the revenu'ers looking around. He just played along with the gag. So I figured I do a couple of these interviews and that would be that. Well, six weeks later, I'm still getting up at five o'clock in the morning and doing interviews for the better part of the day. That's when I started to realize....
Guitar.com: Yeah, something else was going on....
Wheeler: Yeah, I'm going to have to re-examine how I was thinking about this. So I went out and put a band together. Cuz we never really were a band before. We never played any gigs or anything, it was just a studio experience. We all knew each other. I played guitar and most of the bass and the fiddle and some of the mandolin on the first record. Then Don Wayne Reno (son of Banjo Legend Don Reno) played the banjo and the rest of mandolin. A guy named Mike Bailey played Dobro on it. So there never was a real 'band' to speak of. But the record took off, all the same, with or without a band. We sold some 25,000 or 30,000 pieces in the first month.
Guitar.com: That's incredible. How many have you sold now?
Wheeler: Oh 100,000 and a little bit of change.
Guitar.com: That's great.
Wheeler: Well, now I'm thinking we might as well go out and play. So I called around to bunch of my buddies and found booking agent that I thought was a pretty cool guy and I'm still with. Never got a manager. Never saw the need to. Never saw the need to give somebody 15% of my gross. So we went out and started playing on weekends and just kept on. I mean the second record, the Mountain Love record. That was songs we worked up to play along side the AC/DC ones.
Guitar.com: Right, to sort of round out the set....
Wheeler: Yeah, because it would have been a pretty short show if all we did was play the ten AC/DC songs. We also played a bunch of traditionals. We still do.
Guitar.com: Yeah but that's the really great part of this project, at least for me. You're turning on, for lack of a better term, a whole new market to what may be, a new musical experience for them.
Wheeler: Oh, I think we definitely are. That was a complete accidental effect. It kind of makes the whole thing more valid to me really but I wish I could say I planned it out that way. I'd be lying if I did.
Guitar.com: Yeah but sometimes the best laid plans are the ones you don't make.
Wheeler: That's very true. I always talk about the Stanley Brothers cause they're one of my favorite acts. I get these kids with Metallica T-shirts and stuff coming up to me saying "We checked out some of that Stanley Brothers stuff, man, that's badder than hell." (laughing)
Guitar.com: And that's just incredible - it goes back to the fact that your exposing a new generation to a whole new legacy of music.
Wheeler: Yeah, I think you said it very well, that we are maybe "turning-on" a lot of people to, to at least give it a chance - to a style of music that really is a part of our collective American heritage.
Guitar.com: As much as I like Rock and Blues and other styles of music, I've always found traditional music or Bluegrass compelling. I'm looking to do an interview with Bryan Sutton and Nickel Creek and a few of the other flatpickers that are out there. In my guesstimation - I mean, I've met many of them a half dozen times or so, I've been to all the major festivals and I truly enjoy their music. Their playing and technique is amazing. But every now and then you see or hear something that makes you believe that they had to have listened to straight up rock'n roll. It's that sense of flatpicking that's just all out burn - raw energy.
Wheeler: Yeah, there's truth in that. There's nobody that I know that I would ever wanna drink any beer with that only has one type of music in his record collection (laughs). If I was running a commercial radio station and I was trying to sell advertising time to whoever, car companies, whatever. I mean, maybe it would be useful to show them a piece of paper that says, here's my main demographic. Here's my main listening audience. I'm a country station and everyone who listens to this station is a middle-aged housewife. But I don't think from a musical perspective that's useful at all. I never met a musician in my life that was a serious dedicated musician who wasn't interested in all styles of music.
Guitar.com: Right, I agree with that. I'm frustrated by players who denigrate others because they like this type of music over another.
Wheeler: Yeah, that's so narrow-minded. I mean, I know players that have the largest collection of music you'd ever dreamed and a lot of it really obscure.
Guitar.com: I think you're right about that. Things like the term "Bluegrass" like you mentioned before. When you speak with a traditional Bluegrass player, it's like they put this box in place and don't want to stray too far outside of that box because they'll get shunned or maybe get labeled as something other then "traditional."
Wheeler: I think that's very true. I mean the guys that play banjo and mandolin with me were kind of considered bluegrass royalty in a way because of their Dad.
Guitar.com: Absolutely. I've had the pleasure of meeting both Don Wayne and Dale.
Wheeler: Well then you may know that a lot of people in the traditional bluegrass camp have been calling them Judas' and everything else.
Guitar.com: I'll bet, I'll bet. That's a real shame, though.
Wheeler: We've gotten a much more violent reaction from the bluegrass camp then from any rock 'n' roll people.
Guitar.com: I'm not surprised. But that same relationship can get pinned on all the different hardcore camps. If John Scofield did a bluegrass record, the jazzers would probably be equally opposed or if Metallica did a tribute to acoustic blues. I would hope that there would be more open-minded thought in that regard but...
Wheeler: Yeah, the more I think about it, I'm not that surprised by it anymore either. When it first started to happening it surprised me a lot. But when I stepped by after time, I said, "What do these people really like?" It doesn't really surprise me anymore either. It's sad really.
Guitar.com: Well, yeah...
Wheeler: I don't know any people that say rock 'n' roll oughta sound like Buddy Holly still (laughing).
Guitar.com: That's a good analogy.
Wheeler: Well that's the equivalent of what they're saying. If it doesn't sound like it did when (Bill) Monroe stepped out on stage at the Opry in 1942 and said, "This is Bluegrass," well then it's not valid. Oh man, I just don't understand that kind of thinking at all. We're not the first to do something like this, in this vein. Flatt and Scruggs were cutting bluegrass versions of rock songs back in the '60s.
Wheeler: I mean, they didn't dedicate whole albums to it but they were doing versions of tunes.
Guitar.com: I think it's really important for the growth of the music. Not only as a genre but from a fan base. If you're going to keep the youth in the music as a form, you need to compel them to listen. And you're going to need new ways to get them to listen. The level of distraction now versus 1953 is beyond comparison. A band like Nickel Creek has the traditional orchestration and has played the traditionals but I think you'd be hard pressed to call the straight up Bluegrass.
Wheeler: No, not even close. And man, they can all really play, really.
Guitar.com: And it's not about whether the traditionalists like it or not but it would be nice to think that bands like Nickel Creek are fostering the genre for future generations to discover.
Wheeler: They probably are. People who don't even know what a Mandolin was, wouldn't know otherwise. We get that all the time with Don Wayne. These kids at rock 'n' roll clubs, with Mohawks and stuff, they come up and say "Banjo, man I want to play one of them." I mean, it seems like a radical concept to them. They never seen anything like that before plus with the songs that we're playing.
Guitar.com: The meeting of those two cultures must be an amazing experience. See that, your Masters in Philosophy is finally paying off.
Wheeler: Maybe, accidentally. The extreme edge of rock and the extreme edge of hillbilly music really have a lot in common. They're both rough music, made by rough people about really rough lives.
Wheeler: Nothing against the more traditional players but I mean there is some confusion between hillbilly music and the Southern Gospel tradition. Not to grouse about genres or anything, I'm the last guy to do that but there's a huge part of the whole hillbilly music tradition that really isn't being represented out there by many of the acts that call themselves Bluegrass acts today. That's what I'm saying. They come out and sing all the gospel songs and they sing a few of the standards. Play a few of the classic instrumentals that everyone recognizes. Play a few new tunes that are all gospel oriented and that's it. They're all singing the same thing, so to speak. I have this contention that there are only four key elements to any song worth singing; drinking, cheating, killing and hell. Those are the only songs I love. Love isn't one of the key elements Love is one of the underlying causes of all the drinking, cheating, killing and hell. That's kind of been part of our comedy bit but I also think it's kinda true. We're representing part of that in a New Grass tradition in a way or however you want to put it.
Guitar.com: But I think a lot of people that purport to be playing 'hillbilly music' use that as sort of a catch-all phrase because it's either seems clever or trendy, given the times. Not meant with disrespect but it puts them in some might fine company, mighty quickly.
Wheeler: Well there's been a few that have done that in country music. Soon as the sales start dropping, they all start getting back to their roots.
Guitar.com: That's true.
Wheeler: I mean I can't recall the last time I actually went out and purchased something that was on the charts, be it country, pop or whatever. I'm not saying it's not any good. I just don't find it much of it very interesting.
Guitar.com: I can see that. I think that's valid. I consider myself fortunate in the sense that by being the music industry for the last fifteen, twenty years, I've had a great deal of music go across my desk and occasionally you'll stumble onto something that you may have never had the chance to hear. I actually stumbled onto Hayseed Dixie on "Acoustic Cafe." It's a radio show hosted by Rob Reinhardt.
Wheeler: I didn't know he ever played any of it.
Guitar.com: Yeah, I've heard a few tracks on his show since.
Wheeler: Oh, that's pretty cool.
Guitar.com: Yeah, it actually compelled me to seek you out.
Wheeler: Very cool.
Guitar.com: I think another element that's compelling and it kind of goes back to an earlier part of our conversation, you ever heard of that game, Degrees of separation - it's basically a game of connect the dots of movie actor to movie actor. You have a very impressive collection of players sittin' in on all three of the Hayseed Dixie recordings - that lead to an even more impressive list of players - The Brothers Reno and the entire Reno family, you got the The Osborne Brothers, Red Smiley (Reno & Smiley), Bill Monroe's son Ronnie ended up playing for Merle Haggard. The legacy of music that is connected with project is quite striking.
Wheeler: Yeah, I know, it really is. I mean Don Reno was kind of a pioneer himself. He wasn't the guy who'd walk out there and do it the way that everyone had already done it. That's why he pioneered a new banjo style. So I feel it's really quite appropriate that they're some of guys that are doing something that's a bit more on the edge. Last week and the week before last we had all three records on the Billboard Bluegrass Charts.
Guitar.com: Now that's a feat.
Wheeler: Especially when they only chart 15 records. It doesn't represent millions of sales but I mean the fact that we had all three of our records on the charts at the same time, which was historic. No one had ever done that before in Bluegrass.
Guitar.com: That's like 20% of the chart solely owned by Hayseed Dixie.
Wheeler: Exactly. I thought that was pretty funny.
Guitar.com: You're like the Beatles.
Wheeler: Well, they can call us whatever they want to but the truth is we really are more sort of missionaries more than anything else.
Guitar.com: I think your statement about the fact that Cliff Williams came up to you and said that AC/DC thought Hayseed Dixie was exceptional and you even got to play an AC/DC Tour wrap-up party. Who else matters?
Wheeler: That's kind of how I felt, honestly. At the time, I didn't really care what the critics said, not any more. The horse's mouth actually enjoyed what we did.
Guitar.com: And that validates why you were doing it anyway, I would think.
Wheeler: Exactly. And again, there wasn't really any grand plan. This is all by accident that took off. Now have you heard all three records?
Guitar.com: I have A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC and Kiss My Grass - A Hillbilly Tribute to KISS.
Wheeler: I'll send you the Mountain Love CD. Have you heard anything from the Kerosene Brothers CD?
Guitar.com: No, I saw that on the website though.
Wheeler: That came out on the same day that the KISS tribute came out. And it's kind of like, I guess you could call it Hayseed Dixie in the opposite direction. Or you maybe the next logical extension of what we're doing. It's a bunch of old hillbilly tunes and a bunch of originals that might as well be hillbilly tunes, done up very rock 'n' roll. We added a drum kit and I pickup a Les Paul. The banjo and mandolin still have a prominent role in the mix but it's the next logical extension, whichever way you want to look at it.
Guitar.com: Now is that all the same players?
Wheeler: Yeah, it's the same band. What we've been doing all year is opening for ourselves.
Guitar.com: That's convenient.
Wheeler: Well, maybe I shouldn't saying opening for ourselves. We've been playing one big joint show really. It's been going over pretty well actually. The Kerosene record has been outselling any of the Hayseed records at every show but some of that is because the Kerosene record is less available at retail, than the Hayseed records. The distribution deal we had signed for it was going to be great. And then February 2nd the distributor went bankrupt, which I know happens in the indie world. Luckily we hadn't shipped them any actual product. So at least they didn't break us off from any money.
Guitar.com: That's really unfortunate.
Wheeler: Unlike some of my friends who lost plenty of cash that they were owed.
Guitar.com: That happens far too often, from what I'm told, especially internationally.
Wheeler: Yeah, that's a tough market. Well, we just got the first one released in Australia. I don't think they're going to go broke. They're owned by the Fox Corporation. That labeled mushroomed.
Guitar.com: I can't recall where I saw it actually. Maybe it was on one of the AC/DC discussion groups or something similar. There was a review of it, telling everyone to go check it out. I think it actually was an AC/DC Tribute site based in Australia.
Wheeler: huh...how about that.
Guitar.com: Yeah, it had a review on how good different tribute bands were. How good of a Bon Scott this band had or how great this Brian Johnson impersonation was. But then there was this post that said, you really have to check this out because it's not like anything you've ever heard before.
Guitar.com: I thought that was great because this is in the Motherland. That's the place that CD needs to score. When did you release it in Australia?
Wheeler: I think it was on March 24th. I've been doing a ton of radio press down there.
Wheeler: Yeah, more then I did in the states.
Guitar.com: Obviously phone interviews?
Wheeler: Man, they set me up with these teleconferencing companies and they call me and they keep shuffling one after the other, you know. It's wild. It gets a little tiring after a while. They all ask similar questions and I pretty much say the same thing. I should just write all this up on a four or five-page statement and say, 'Here you go.' Not that I want to be snotty or anything, I'm a pretty friendly guy.
Guitar.com: I think so.
Wheeler: Right? But I mean...
Guitar.com: I guess that thirtieth time you have to deliver that one-liner. It probably doesn't come off quite a good as it did the first few.
Wheeler: Yeah, exactly. I mean how many different ways can I say the same content. I've done a lot of interviews in the U.S. but they've been spaced out a bit more. I had to cover the entire continent of Australia in one big lump, really. We'll see how it goes in Australia. I mean 35,000 pieces is gold there so nobody is going to be driving a Ferrari based on Australian sales. My main hope is that is does well enough down there....
Guitar.com: To put together a tour, down under?
Wheeler: Yeah and be reasonably profitable and get to see the whole place. It's someplace I've always wanted to go.
Guitar.com: That would be great. It's a beautiful place. So the KISS tribute hit the streets in February and I think the orchestration and arrangements were really clever for the songs chosen. You've got the Bluegrass instrumentation but, I mean, how long did it take for you to decide on a particular arrangement. You're not doing "Calling Dr. Love" the way the KISS did it. Slow versus fast, type of beat, etc....
Wheeler: I sat down with a friend's KISS Greatest Hits record and a live record. I listened to both of them. The Live record was a double record. I think it was KISS Alive II. And I just picked out the songs that I thought would be the most fun to do that way. I called up a couple of my friends who were bigger KISS fans then I was and said "Which ones do you think I should put on the record?" (laughing) I wasn't really sure. I didn't really want to do their radio hits. I knew there weren't too many of those. There was "Beth" and "I Was Made for Loving You" and I wasn't a big fan of those songs anyway.
Guitar.com: And real KISS fans aren't either.
Wheeler: That's what I figured. They just seemed like these throw-away commercial songs to me. It really didn't sound like the rest of their stuff. So there were a couple of songs that I really wanted to do but we couldn't make room for. "King of the Night Time World"
Guitar.com: Oh that would have been a great one to do.
Wheeler: "Two-timer" I thought would have been a great one as well. Bunch of friends thought that that was a pretty obscure one to do though.
Guitar.com: Yeah, that's a pretty deep cut for non-fans.
Wheeler: I thought the lyrics were really funny done that way, though.
uitar.com: "King of the Night Time world" was a great choice.
Wheeler: I don't think that "Christine 16" was one of the better known tunes, was it?
Guitar.com: It is. It was kind of a more bubble-gummy number for them. But it was one of their more popular songs, post Rock and Roll Over.
Wheeler: Well those lyrics are pretty extreme.
Guitar.com: You could say that for a bunch of guys who were probably in the early 30's.
Wheeler: That's part of the reason why I picked the song. There was nothing funnier than hearing hillbillies sing "Christine, Sixteen" (laughing). Cause there is one thing that happens whenever you take a song out of its familiar presentation. I do think you kind of call attention to the lyrics.
Guitar.com: Well with your stripped down instrumentation, you can understand them quite a bit clearer.
Wheeler: Yeah, I can't tell you during the Mountain Love tour, how many radio stations that we were doing live sessions in, would say "please whatever you do, don't play "Walk This Way." And we were like "Why Not?" They've been playing the song for 25 years. And they were like, 'Well you can understand the words, when you do it."
Guitar.com: No doubt. There's a couple of songs, especially on the KISS record, that puts major emphasis on the lyrical presentation. I think I left KISS right after Destroyer or Rock and Roll Over. That was the end of my KISS phase.
Wheeler: Yeah, I think that was the end for a lot of people.
Guitar.com: What went on afterwards was incidental attention, mostly due to anything that might have brought them into the mainstream. I know some of the later hits or maybe even some of the secondary hits but it wasn't like before, where you knew every word. And now, hearing them in this new format, you had me cracking up because the lyrics are so pronounced and I really had no clue as to what some of them were.
Wheeler: You just had to think that KISS when they were - in the late '70s and they had all these grade school kids in the audience. They must have been nudging each other, that they were getting away it. Some of the stuff that they were saying and they largely had a pre-adult audience. They must have been saying "How did this happen?"
Guitar.com: Right (laughing)
Wheeler: (laughs) I don't think that they planned on that happening. I don't think that they originally were planning on marketing themselves to kids, it just kind of worked out that way.
Guitar.com: Well I think like a lot of acts, who thinks they're going to last 25 years.
Wheeler: Yeah, that too.
Guitar.com: They've become so much larger than life.
Wheeler: Well, you know we never thought that we'd be making a third record (laughs), I'll tell you that. The whole reason we did the KISS record was because we started playing "Calling Dr. Love" in the live set, way back, early on. It was like the only KISS song I really knew. And people would always come up to me after the show and say, "Man you've got to do a whole album of these KISS songs." And I'd say that I didn't really know that many KISS songs. I never hated them or anything. I just never was a big KISS-head when I was a kid. So when I finally borrowed some records from a guy - I put down the guitar, bass, fiddle and some vocal stuff in like, two days. Just by myself - you know, just played the tracks. That's how I did Mountain Love too. Then the Renos came over and put down banjo and mandolin and they all sang some harmonies and there it was. Took all of about three days.
Guitar.com: Now you didn't find it tough to lock into an orchestration and a meter for the different songs?
Wheeler: Oh yeah, I just sat down with an acoustic guitar and did it. I didn't even play to a click track for the most part. A couple of the songs I did because the timing so was strange. A lot of the guitar playing on the stuff is real syncopated and against the beat. And I didn't want to straighten any of that out. I did straighten it out when it came to say, the bass and the mandolin because something in hillbilly music, when you don't have a drum kit, the bass is essentially taking the role of the kick drum and the bass guitar. And the mandolin is taking the place of the snare drum, really, what it traditionally considered the backbeat. Now in a lot of traditional hillbilly songs, the acoustic guitar is playing that sort of thing too. I really didn't do that so much in these songs because if I had done that it would have taken a lot of that rock 'n' roll edge out of them. The KISS and AC/DC material alike, I've found are signature guitar riffs that tended to be this syncopated, against the beat, sorts of patterns. It's not really on the downbeat or the upbeat, either. It kind of just sits in between and that's what gives the whole track the tension, you know what I mean. So that's kind of what I just did. I looked at the mandolin and bass as being the kick and the snare and keeping them really straight. Much like they would do in traditional hillbilly music, 'cause you got to have some of that 'boom-chick-boom-chick' for things to be funky against. Then we treated the acoustic guitar like the signature riff carrier.
Guitar.com: And it works.
Wheeler: I think so - well that's what we're doing essentially. We were changing chords against the beat a lot. So there a few songs that I had to do to a click mainly because I couldn't maintain my timing reference, at first. If I had been able to put down bass and mandolin first, it might have been different. But it's pretty ridiculous to try and play a bass track in isolation. I think I played three or four of them to a click, just to keep that timing reference. And the rest of them didn't take long at all. It took longer to actually chart the tunes up and get the chord progressions then it did to play them. Plus I've always believed that if you spent too much time making a record, you're over thinking it. It's probably not going to have any soul. Your first impression is usually the correct one.
Guitar.com: I think that's too true and more artists should learn that or adhere to that.
Wheeler: The Kerosene record was the same way. We cut all the basic tracks in two afternoons. We cut the bass and all the electric guitar - we played all that to a scratch vocal. Don Wayne was playing a scratch banjo track while we were doing it. We got all the bass, drum and guitar parts down in two days. We did five songs the first day and six the next. Most of them or either first or second takes. We'd run them down once or twice to get the arrangement before we'd roll tape on them. But if nobody train wrecked and everything was pretty much right, we kept it. With every successive take, you start to lose some of that energy level. By the time you get to fourth take, it's just over. Everyone's just trying to get to the end, you know.
Guitar.com: That's such a simple philosophy, when you think about it. But isn't it the antithesis of what goes on in popular music.
Wheeler: But you've got to have some really skilled players to do that.
Guitar.com: That's really true.
Wheeler: You can't be sloppy mother-*******, man. You've got to be playing twenty-five years or truly have command of your instrument to be able to do that. Otherwise, you're going to spend forever just trying to get the notes right. And then finally when you get something that isn't train-wrecking, if you're not a pretty good picker, you're just going to end up with this piece of crap. No emotion, no soul. No one is going to want to shake their ass to it.
Guitar.com: Regurgitation isn't what it's all about.
Wheeler: Yeah, and we're getting to an era now, where anybody with three or four grand can buy a computer and some software and cut and paste themselves into something that sounds pretty respectable, as far as technically speaking. But how many of them can actually go out and pull it off live. I've never been that afraid of the whole MP3 downloading thing. None of that really scares me that much. I mean, I do think it's going to cut into retail records sales a little bit. But it doesn't effect me that much at all because people like me have always made most of our money playing live, anyways
Guitar.com: I also think that the music that you play, the fan-base would be more interested in seeing you live on a week night, rather then sitting in their living room on a Saturday night listening to your CD.
Wheeler: I think that that's true, for sure. It definitely music to be experienced live and I also think that we're better live then we are on any of the recordings. I think most bands that can really play, that's the case. The Who Live at Leeds, they never captured that kind of energy on any of their recordings in the studio.
Guitar.com: That's a great example, that's true.
Wheeler: Not even close, how could they? We have recorded shows and people have sent me bootlegs a lot. All these tapers - we somehow got cool with those folks, all the jam band people. We've got some of those people, especially up in the mid-West, like up in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. This guy from Ohio came to all three shows - he taped them all. Real cool guy - they've got this real cool ethic. They don't sell the shows. They just trade them and the end up with these massive libraries of all these different bands live shows. He got to reading me all the bands that he had a while back. I had met the guy like a year ago, when we were playing Columbus. And he had like half of our shows that we had done in the past two years. I mean, in varying quality. I mean like eighty-five or ninety shows. And had them alphabetized and in chronological order, I mean that's impressive no matter how you want to look at.
Guitar.com: That's the jam band feel though, going back to like the Grateful Dead.
Wheeler: Yeah, I mean it wasn't just us. He had shows of all sorts of bands.
Guitar.com: I'm sure. Widespread Panic...
Wheeler: Right, He must have had over 500 Widespread shows. I asked him, "Do you break these things out and listen to them. Are you a collector or what?" He said "no I listen to them all, on and off." He sent me copies of our shows about fifteen of them. The ones that he thought were the best shows. There really was a vibe on every one of them, even the ones that were worse. I still thought they were better then the albums. There's an energy level happening.
Guitar.com: Isn't the Bonnaroo Festival down your way? I think it's held in Manchester, Tennessee?
Wheeler: Oh yeah, yeah, that is out in our direction. For whatever reason, we didn't get on that. Our booking agent pitched them. I think that whoever put that festival on, didn't think we were jammy enough for that audience. We did play the Telluride Bluegrass Festival last year.
Guitar.com: That's such a great festival. Very cool.
Wheeler: Yeah, it's really turning into a roots festival. They had all sorts of band on the line-up. Cake closed the show the night we played. Keb 'Mo played the next day, who I think is great.
Guitar.com: Yeah, they've clearly diversified their line-up from what it used to be but they still have some of the favorites.
Wheeler: Yeah, I mean Del McCoury was there and Ralph Stanley, Sam Bush and Bela Fleck doing their jazz thing. It's really becoming a jam thing. I wish there were more festivals around the country that were that way. We're not going back there this year. They really don't like having the same bands twice in a row, which I understand..
Guitar.com: I agree with that. I would be very cool if some of the shows would diversify. But I suppose they all have their core audiences and they don't want to jeopardize that. Like Merlefest - it's a great festival of Americana but it would be interesting to see some other artists come out and do some acoustic-formatted material, that normally would be in that environment. Sort of like MTV's "Unplugged" was, once upon a time.
Wheeler: Yeah, they've never invited us to play that one, man. I doubt they would. People ask me about that one all the time. They say "How come you guys haven't played Merlefest?" Well, I say, you got to be invited.
Guitar.com: And I think you'd have a rough time there.
Wheeler: I think we would too. I don't know if we'd go over very well.
Guitar.com: I was with Hootie and the Blowfish there, at the peak of the popularity. I don't believe they were advertised on the bill, so much as they just showed up. And I was surprised how they went over. They took a few of their more popular songs and attempted to "Bluegrass" them up a bit. It was a luke-warm event as far as I could tell. They were good but it was a break even response. It didn't really serve the good of the festival, even though they were extremely popular at the time.
Wheeler: Right, they didn't get boo'ed of the stage but it was a pretty luke-warm reception.
Guitar.com: Well it's one of the things about Bluegrass music I always liked. You don't have a wah-wah. You don't have a chorus. Hell, you don't have an amp. If you can't deliver the goods when you set up to the mic, there's nothing to hide behind.
Wheeler: No nothing at all. Very well said.
Guitar.com: You have to rip, right from the get-go. And the audience, that's the best part about acoustic music as a whole. The fans are players as well. And they can tell who sucks and who doesn't, real quick.
Wheeler: Oh yeah, real quick.
Guitar.com: So deliver the goods or please leave the stage.
Wheeler: Pretty much. I get the advantage of being able to hide behind Dale and Don Wayne a lot. I'm really not that great of an acoustic lead player. It's not really what I do. I play fiddle alright. We kind of just trade it back and forth on stage. Dale plays acoustic guitar on some of the songs and mandolin on some of them.
Guitar.com: Right. You know there's some video footage of you guys performing online?
Wheeler: Is there?
Guitar.com: Yeah, on FoundryMusic.com.
Wheeler: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah - that's when we were up in New York City, playing for that radio show.
Guitar.com: You played the "Opie and Anthony" show.
Wheeler: Yeah it's like a minute-long clip of us playing.
Guitar.com: Right. You were playing some AC/DC songs.
Wheeler: That's been up there since last fall, I think.
Guitar.com: Well, they've been booted off the air since then.
Wheeler: Yeah I heard that. We had done their show like three different times. We did the Stern show as well.
Wheeler: Yeah, we did it right after the first record. It's interesting. I never knew much about all these morning shows or the drive time shows and they ended up becoming part of my platform for a while. If I was ever up that early I was probably listening to "The Morning Edition" on NPR. I mean, really. When I finally go to do NPR's "All Things Considered" last fall, that was a real big deal to me. They called me out of the blue. They said had gotten the record in the store. No one had even pitched them. They had to track me down. They said that they wanted to a piece on me and I said "Great, lets do it." To have the host call me at the house was just great. I had asked the publicist to get with them and she had said that they were unpitchable. So go figure.
Guitar.com: Right....so do you know the guys in Reckless Kelly?
Wheeler: I know who they are. I don't know any of them personally. They've been around a while.
Guitar.com: I've seen them once or twice. I'm not sure that anyone would connect the dots between the two of you but they do a couple of rave-ups of some AC/DC songs. Sort of in a similar blend of what you've done.
Wheeler: Really, which songs.
Guitar.com: They do "Highway to Hell," I think, and "You Shook Me All Night Long." Sort of in a more countrified flavor.
Guitar.com: So now you're on your third release. Where do you go from here? It sounds as though the first exceeded your expectations.
Wheeler: Yeah, I'd say that's fair.
Guitar.com: I've got a interesting question for you. A number of people have asked me, "What do I think the next business model for record labels is going to be, because obviously the current model can't stand under its own weight for much longer." The house of cards is going to start tumbling down.
Wheeler: Yeah, it's already started tumbling down. Have you looked at the Soundscans lately? Record sales at retail are down like 30% from what they were just this time last year. The Turtles Warehouse music chain just went belly-up. Retail is hurting and when retail all starts falling out - the wholesalers are certainly feeling it. Then the one-stops will begin to drop. That's bad for us as well. It's hard for us then to get to the smaller shops nationally. I don't think that retail records sales is ever going to be what it once was at one point. I think things are going to become much more focused on the live stuff in the next five to ten years. After that, who knows what's going to happen.
Guitar.com: Well I think that one of the things that's kept me from leaning one way or the other is that until the dust settles from the majors and a few have fallen. I don't think anyone knows. The thought of Internet record labels or independent record labels - they all have to start adjusting.
Wheeler: Yeah, the bottom line is you have to get it on the radio in some fashion. You still have to get it in print and you have to get the word-of-mouth buzz going. And it's nearly impossible to generate that just from a website.
Guitar.com: There's a bunch online that have been doing that online and it's really hard to tell if they're successful at this point. They have been around a while but they haven't broken anyone, so far. I'm not sure if that's a measure of success or not.
Wheeler: Websites are just a resource. I can tell you all the stats of how many visitors I get in a month or a day, whatever. I have a really good situation with Dualtone (Records). I buy my records directly from them for $4, through my licensing deal. They're still making a few bucks on them. I mean they're not just giving them to me for free. If I were on any major label, I would have to pay wholesale, which is much higher. The bottom line on that is my profit margin would be next to nothing. As it is, if I sell a CD for $15, on the net I'm making nearly $10.
Guitar.com: Which no one is getting on a major label, at this point.
Wheeler: Not even if you're doing a P&D on something like Red or something, one of major distributors. They wouldn't let you do this.
Guitar.com: No way.
Wheeler: Yeah, I'm actually competing with the retail sales. It suits me fine. I go in on every radio show I do and tell them that's how the numbers break down. If they walk into Wal-Mart and buy one of my records, a little over a year later, I'll see about $2. Which is still about three times as much as somebody on a major label is going to see. AND I don't have to recoup anything, that's from the record deal because we have a 50/50 net deal. But, if they come to my website or to a live show and buy the thing, I'm going to put $10 in my pocket, right then. Well, I'm actually going to split it with the Reno's first (laughing). The reality is we're going to be making the money right then and a lot more of it, like four to five times more of it. And the record label gets so mad, they go "Why are you trying to screw us." And I'm like "I'm not - you should have put a clause in the about what I could and could not say during promotional activities, if you didn't want me to tell them the truth."
Guitar.com: That's brilliant. What an interesting turn. To hear that a label didn't negotiate themselves into the stronger position.
Wheeler: I wrote my own deal and said that this is the deal I'm willing to accept. I walked around to all of them, to Sony, Warner Brothers, MCA. I talked to all of them. They all called me and Sony was the only major label that was even vaguely willing to license the thing. They called me again on the second record. Nobody else called me after the second record. They all knew what I was going to say. I already had that conversation with them. I said I either want to license it to you for like 5 years with a pretty equitable royalty split. Preferably by just splitting the net down the middle, or no thanks. Or why would I want to do it? I'd have no incentive. Had they given me that same routine - 'Well, we'll put you on the map so you can make a lot more live.' I'm like, 'You know what guys, if I thought I had a record here, that might sell a half a million pieces, given the proper promotion - then I could go out and headline reasonable sized sheds, you know three or four-thousand seat venues, then I might be willing to sacrifice the record money and keep everything - just to have you spend enough to get me on the map to that degree. But you have to punch your weight. And this record I've got right here, it ain't gonna do that. Couple of hundred thousand pieces per release would be the absolute best, we could hope for in any five-year period. And under your business model, I'm not going make any money selling two-hundred thousand records.'
Guitar.com: Right -
Wheeler: Nor would I be in control of my own destiny and then you'll own the master for the life plus 50 years.
Guitar.com: And if it does end up selling a half a million copies, they own all the rights and get everything on the back end as well.
Wheeler: Precisely, so I just said - well the Sony guys just said that they didn't have the authority to make these deal over out of our Nashville office. Why don't you call, so and so, which I did. You know, I'm actually glad that none of the bands that I was in when I was in my 20's ever got an offer from a major because I would have been snow-blinded enough by the fame and fortune dangling carrot that would I have probably bit on it. And ended up being horribly disillusioned with music and ended up never picking up a guitar again.
Guitar.com: Certainly by letting the label on the other side of the table know your intentions right up front, you seem to have separated the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.
Wheeler: Absolutely. You find out right away, who is seriously interested and who's not. And the majority of them won't be at that point because there's a few more people lined up right outside their door who are more than willing to sign away everything for their chance to be on MTV. That's really what it comes down to.
Guitar.com: If they're not going to make their nut on you, they'll find someone else that will.
Wheeler: Exactly. So that's what I'm saying. No hard feelings. We didn't really have any kind of antagonist conversation or anything. There was no hard feelings, I just wanted to check on their interest level and if not, that's cool. I think people should be aware that if they really want to make any dough and be in control of your own destiny in the music business, you're going to have to start small and build it or luck into something that you managed to find a niche with and that's kind of what happened to us. None of us are under any illusion that this Hayseed Dixie thing is going to last 20 years. I mean if it does, okay. But I mean, we're already planning to try to and transaction into this Kerosene Brothers thing because we think we can have a longer run with it.
Guitar.com: I had actually heard rumor that you guys were planning another record. It was going to be a Metallica Tribute. I think I read it somewhere online. Any truth to that?
Wheeler: No, I'm not really working on any other concept for Hayseed, right now. And I think if there's going to be another Hayseed Dixie record, and I can tell you this right now, it'll be at least two-years from February the 18th. The reason being because Dualtone, the label I licensed the masters to in the U.S. has a two-year non-compete clause for the name Hayseed Dixie. That's the only thing that they really did get on me that I didn't want to give up. I had to give that up to get my records for four bucks. We met in the middle a little bit but it means that if I put out another record called Hayseed Dixie, I have to give it to them first. And I don't want to. If I'm going to do another Hayseed Dixie records I'm going to distribute them myself. At this point, I can get a vendor number and call Wal-Mart myself. Retail is getting so consolidated. I can call them myself. There would only be a small number of accounts I have to call at the point. And then call the one-stops to get to the handful of ma and pa stores. I can go to Amazon.com myself. I sold like 10,000 pieces on Amazon, I reckon they'll speak to me.
Guitar.com: Not to mention that there's enough market depth with the name Hayseed Dixie, people should be starting to seek your name out on the web and you could start doing some fulfillment through your website.
Wheeler: Well, I already do that. That's why I brought up the four-dollars a piece thing. I wanted to let you know that even with me getting on the radio and the kind of schpiel I'm doing on national radio, doing a big campaign and saying it in all the press. Even given that, in the past month since the KISS records been released, I've only moved....
Guitar.com: This is just off your site?
Wheeler: Right....I've moved about 400 pieces.
Guitar.com: Wow, that's it? I would have said considerably more.
Wheeler: That's in the first month. And that's not of just the KISS record, that's of all four of them put together. I get 25,000 or 30,000 unique users hitting per month. And that's how many records I've sold? I realize a lot of them are probably coming to check for tour dates and you also have to factor in that you can buy these at retail. So if you couldn't walk into a Wal-Mart and buy them, how many more would I be selling on my site then I am now? Definitely some more. How many more? Hard to say - there's no way to tell that. I've got a good 'brand' here, if you want to call it that. With a good model for it and a dedicated fan base at this point. And the thing is that number is going to start to drop in coming months because that was the launch point. Granted at $10 a piece, I knocked down a pretty good chunk of money that month. What I'm saying is that if I didn't have anything but just the Internet - I mean I could make some money but...
Guitar.com: It becomes a different game.
Wheeler: I'd have to go out and hire the radio promoter and a publicist myself. Radio promoter is two grand a month. Publicist is twenty-five hundred. So I would have made nothing that month after doing all the work, if I didn't have retail to go with it, along with live dates. We sell a good many from the stage as well. We average probably 85, 90 pieces per show. That's the average, maybe as many as 100. We're going fine but were I trapped by a major label confines, we'd be making nothing. We couldn't even afford to do this.
Guitar.com: Have you heard about all these indie artists that have begun selling CD's specifically at the live shows and nowhere else? Sort of as a means to compel fans to come out to the shows. A couple of the artists even said that they had been contacted by fans, searching for a specific show CD and asked if they could purchase it through their website and the artists said no, that they were only available at the gig.
Guitar.com: Yeah, I thought so. It's not a mass produced piece so their label has no qualms about it. They pocket the entire amount. The CD might contain new material, novelty songs, some live material. It varies but I'm sure that's the point.
Wheeler: Right, right...or does it end up getting downloaded.
Guitar.com: Well, that's the question. But what they claim is that it's like a badge of honor to not do that. Much like the tapers you were talking about earlier. There's an unwritten code of ethics between these fans. Does it hold up? I'm not sure.
Wheeler: I've heard the same thing about people who are really into us. I look at it like that and that's why I'm not scared about the whole downloading thing. People understand that if I can't make a certain amount of profit, then I won't be able to continue to make a living and if they like what I'm doing, they won't be getting too many more records because I simply won't be able to afford to make them.
Guitar.com: Makes sense.
Wheeler: I think the consumers out there aren't that stupid. They understand that.
Guitar.com: I want to support the bands that I like fully understanding that if you don't on some level, they won't be around for long. They just couldn't afford to.
Wheeler: I always tell people you're always better off buying the CD's directly from the band. Even if they have a crappy record deal. They're not making near as much off the record that I do but at least if you buy directly from them, they're making a little bit more. Hey I'm not trying to hamstring retail but that's the reality of it.
Guitar.com: No, you're right. Well, let me ask you this. Has anyone from KISS said anything about your new release or have you heard anything from their camp?
Wheeler: The only thing that I've heard was from a Dallas radio station, they had Paul on for an interview and also on one in Chicago. Don't know what he was promoting exactly but anyway they played him a few clips from the record. A guy from Chicago told me about it. The guy from Dallas actually sent me an MP3 file of it. And they started out by playing a little clip of "Rock and Roll All Night" and he said "That's Hayseed Dixie, right?" And they were like "Yeah" and Paul said, "See, I'm up on this stuff."
Guitar.com: That's pretty cool, that he knew who you were.
Wheeler: So they asked what he thought of it and he said "You know we're getting paid royalties so God bless 'em." And then they asked him which song do you think would make the best country song. And he said "Oh I don't know, "Lick It Up?" And the radio guy goes "NO - It's "Love Gun" and they broke into our version of "Love Gun." He kind of chuckled saying, you didn't know I could write country did you. See I'm a little country - a little bit rock 'n roll (laughing). Then he said, that this was how they were going to announce the next tour (in his finest deep southern accent) "Y'all want ta git the best. Y'all said we'd git the best. We're gonna bring out KISS." (laughs) So it was really funny. He took exactly the right way, which was cool.
Guitar.com: They've headed back out on tour this summer. I thought they were done.
Wheeler: Apparently so. They've supposedly been done for years now. We put on the press release for the KISS record - one final outing. This is the last Hayseed Dixie record. And nobody picked up on it. It was supposed to a knock-off on their whole farewell tour for the nineteenth time. I really don't really plan on making any rock 'n roll playing Bluegrass type records. I mean, I done it three times now. Why make the same record over and over and over? I've had some interviewers ask if I was getting bored with it. And it's not that I'm getting bored with it. It's just that it's just what I said. I've made the same record three times and I don't know that I could do that same thing with the same spirit. If it just becomes a formula, it just doesn't become all that interesting to me about that.
Guitar.com: I think you said it best when you said you didn't want to become the Weird "Al" Yankovic of....
Wheeler: (laughing) of Bluegrass...
Guitar.com: Yeah, of Bluegrass. I think that's somewhat true but it's not as though you're dabbling in parody. The spirit and intent are not in the same sense.
Wheeler: Yeah, that's true. We didn't rewrite the words. We didn't change to You Shook Me to You Shook Me Til You Fed Me or something other silly thing.
Guitar.com: Right but he tends to live in the more comedic realm whereas what you were doing was a bit more serious from a musical standpoint but with your tongue planted firmly in your cheek.
Wheeler: It would be really easy to do keep grinding them out. I think I've got the formula down at this point. I think I understand both forms of music well enough to do that. Shuffles are the toughest. The tunes that have kind of a shuffle kind of feel are really tough to turn to a bluegrass feel. That's why on "Detroit Rock City" we just kind of turned it into a more jazzy kind of feel.
Guitar.com: Yeah, almost a swing kind of thing. I think that's my favorite on the record.
Wheeler: Yeah, that's my favorite as well. It's the more interesting musical arrangement.
Guitar.com: Well, John I have to say this has been one of the more fascinating interviews that I've been privy too. I appreciate the time and energy.
Wheeler: I do appreciate it. If we're ever up in the Boston area, I'll make sure we get in touch.
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