Jimmy Pitts's favorite Hilltops song, "Mary Jane."
During the late '80s in Oxford, Mississippi, a cover band called The Hi-Tops was making a name for themselves playing songs from the '60s and college radio at frat parties and bars. Tiring of this, the band began penning their own music and changed their name. Made up of John and Laurie Stirratt (they are brother-and-sister twins) and Cary Hudson, they recorded their first album on cassette in '89, titled Holler, in Jackson, Mississippi, followed by Big Black River in '90 at Easley Studio in Memphis, Tennessee.
Their music was and is an influence of sounds. Imagine what would happen if The Sex Pistols and Robert Johnson crossed DNA, were raised in a shanty shack upon the back roads of Mississippi, and honed their skills in an old barn or a juke joint managed by Junior Kimbrough. The Hilltops combined old-time country blues, folky-singer/songwriter lyrics, and a garagesque style of punk.
The sound was labeled alt-country but the band, though short-lived, was renamed The Hilltops and they would later contribute to a renaissance of Americana music in Oxford, Mississippi.
The Hilltops scribed tunes of morose melancholy. Sketched shapes of the downtrodden, drew on the mystery of memories from a burnt-out blue-collar America through a new rhythm of words. No other tune says this better than "Broke Down and Busted," where Cary Hudson's whine holds its weight in bourbon and Marlboros as he digs deep to sing of a woman walking down a road lined by weeds, eyes to the ground, hand in hand with a fatherless child. He then draws a picture of a "dirty old town" with "a dirty old man, digging his dinner from a garbage can, sitting on the sidewalk with bottle in hand."
Cary keeps this snapshot of the struggling in the listener's mind. As the bluesy guitar is picked and the harmonica is blown, he sings of a person "standing in the shadows on the edge of night, with open hands and hungry eyes."
Turn your head and walk on by
Yeah, just walk on by
Like a wild wind blowing from town to town
Sleeping under bridges when the rain came down
With a head full of dreams, shoes full of sand,
Broke-down and busted in the promised land.
The last part of the song offers a glimpse of how people like to pretend this ugly doesn't exist, so long as they turn away from it. Pretend it's not there. But it is. It's a tome for the everyday man, woman, and child, haunted by splintered dreams, trying to find some hope in an America that once was but may never be.
After two albums, The Hilltops tenor would disband. Cary and his wife, Laurie, split from her brother, John, who went on to play with Uncle Tupelo and then Wilco. Cary and Laurie formed Blue Mountain, a group that was voted "Oxford's Most Legendary Band" by The Local Voice. Blue Mountain released six albums and a single, then Cary and Laurie divorced. Cary went on to release several solo albums, The Phoenix (2002), Cold Breeze (2004), and Bitter Sweet Blues (2006). Laurie released an album with her brother titled Arabella. She became a member of two bands, Healthy White Baby and The Blacks.
The alt-country movement fired up throughout the U.S. with other bands like Son Volt, The Bottle Rockets, Drive-By Truckers, Slobberbone, Old 97's, The Jayhawks, and Whiskeytown. Son Volt, Wilco, and Drive-By Truckers have built lasting careers and toured all over the world. Whiskeytown's frontman, Ryan Adams, began a solo career, fronted a new band, The Cardinals, and has had much mainstream success.
The bridge that connects these bands is their ability to write about where they come from. What they've felt, seen, and know and relating it through their music without sugar-coating it. Hence, like the soil-stained scribes of Mississippi—Faulkner, Brown, and Hannah—their words come from a real place that holds the pulse of the land, the people, and the times.
The Hilltops are a great place to start if you're interested in the alt-country movement and wanna get that slow bark of adrenaline moving through your veins with some down-and-out Americana while you socialize, sing, stomp your feet, and have a few drinks with an old friend and catch up on the dog days.
Holler album art by Lawrence Wells.