The Hilltops

By  |  November 21, 2011

1988. "Seafoam, seafoam green, it's not like any other thing"

John Stirratt—best known today as the bassist in Wilco—is in his last year at the University of Mississippi. He had decided to enroll when, on a pre-college tour, he entered Ron Shapiro's Hoka theater and saw writer and editor Willie Morris in the Moonlight Café, sitting at a table, holding court. During his first two years at Ole Miss, Stirratt played with The Hi-Tops, a cover band he formed with another student musician, bassist Chris Hudson. When Hudson quit to focus on his studies, Cary Hudson (Chris's cousin) joined Stirratt on vocals and guitar.

Cary and John have become The Hilltops and started writing original material. They just need a bassist to replace Chris.

John calls his twin sister, Laurie, who still lives in their hometown of New Orleans. He asks her to move up to Oxford to play bass with the band, maybe do some backup vocals. She agrees.

Now the twins—the youngest of five Stirratt siblings—are standing in John's bedroom in a rental bungalow on Van Buren Avenue. Laurie has just moved in. John's vintage guitars fill the room, one of them a 1961 Fender P-Bass in seafoam green. Under normal circumstances, Laurie, who learned to play guitar before her brother (he picked up the banjo first), would be noodling on one of the instruments. Instead, she's staring at John's bed, which is buried in so much cash she can't see the bedspread. It is one weekend's take from playing on the fraternity and college-bar circuit.

1989. "I'd like to see you hangin' around"

 The newly formed Hilltops—John, Laurie, Cary Hudson (whom Laurie will eventually marry; the two of them will later form the alt-country/roots-rock-band Blue Mountain), and drummer Hank Sossaman—live together in the rented house on Van Buren. The house sits at the top of a gently sloping hill in a row of similarly constructed 1920s bungalows. Front porches, low-slung rooflines, attic dormers—a quiet neighborhood of college students and professionals, until the band heads up to the attic to rehearse.

Their next-door neighbor, Barry Hannah, doesn't mind the noise. He likes The Hilltops' scrappy mix of country and punk, the head-banging velocity of Hüsker Dü's New Day Rising fused with the melodic jangle of R.E.M. and The Replacements. He sits in on their rehearsals, often inviting his buddy Larry Brown to come along. Hannah tells the band they're badass, and—shyly, graciously—gives them signed copies of his latest books. Some nights he brings his trumpet over and blows along with them, doing his best Miles Davis; other nights, in the stillness after rehearsals, he goes home and discharges his gun, over and over, firing well past midnight. (As if the wild, drunken Hannah of legend couldn't bear the sudden silence.)

The house on Van Buren becomes Oxford's crash house for visiting bands. Some of the Flat Duo Jets stay over. One night, while The Hilltops are on a road trip, their roommates decide to throw a party. The band arrives at home to meet Alex Chilton, who's hanging out in their living room.

1990. "I got things that'll make you wish/You had thought it over"

By now, The Hilltops have released a cassette, Holler, and are recording their follow-up album Big Black River at Easley Studios in Memphis. They're also opening for Alex Chilton at Syd & Harry's and The Hoka and touring with their friends Uncle Tupelo. Their roots-meets-modernity ethos—Cary's contributions maintaining a more overtly country sensibility, John's veering steadily toward the modern/punk—is symptomatic of a movement that will arguably flourish, a few years later, with the rock/blues-jam-band North Mississippi Allstars.

But The Hilltops' originality isn't catching on with audiences. It's the cusp of the '90s jam-band renaissance. Beanland is in town (in which Hannah's son Po later plays guitar; keyboardist JoJo Hermann will go on to join Widespread Panic).

The Hilltops find themselves fighting for rock & roll at a time when the local crowds want cross-genre fusion, extended improvisational riffs, rhythmic grooves.

To muster a living, the Stirratts take on various jobs around town—John works at Oxford's Harvest Café. Still, the vintage guitars begin to disappear—one per month—to pay the rent. The figurative pile of cash on the bed seems to dwindle in direct proportion to the number of originals The Hilltops perform.

1991. "I heard a phone ring in a booth today/The old man told me he was gonna come and take it all away"

In some respects, however, the money doesn't matter. The Hilltops, still in their early twenties, are riding the crest of Oxford's Golden Age. The town has become a creative Mecca of sorts—"The Vatican City of Southern Letters," according to Pat Conroy. The literary Big Dogs are in plain sight: Hannah, Brown, Grisham, Morris. The music scene is thriving. Fat Possum Records is recording hill-country bluesmen R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough (the music writer and musician Robert Palmer will record and produce Kimbrough's All Night Long the following year); bands like Mud Boy & The Neutrons and The Grifters come through Oxford to perform. The Memphis photographer William Eggleston can sometimes be seen lurking around The Square, which is still the locus of business in Oxford. Folks from the county's outskirts still walk into town every so often, to pay their electric bills, visit the bank, shop at James Food Center.

The irony: At the apex of Oxford's renown as a Southern-Town-of-the-Old-Order—a place managing to dig in and preserve The Local while still attracting national attention—John Stirratt has anticipated its demise. The seven songs he contributes to Big Black River—three of which originally appeared on the cassette Holler—contain preternaturally nostalgic lyrics belied by the buoyant vibe of the music itself.

Though abstract, "Walk a Mile" and "Blue" eulogize the characters from the outlying countryside populating The Square. "Old House" memorializes The Hippie Hotel, a Victorian boarding house that purportedly was the setting for Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily."

"Sidewalk" and "I Might Be the Last One" ache with nostalgia for lost relationships.

And then there's "Seafoam Green"—a color belonging almost exclusively to the provenance of The Vintage—the memorable chorus and upbeat jangle disguises what is, in part, a lament for the guitars that are paying the rent.

1992. "The more I'm thinkin', the more I don't wanna kiss this town goodbye"

The Hilltops aren't getting along. They're having difficulties with their label (Big Black River won't be released until Fishtone buys the recordings from Easley in 1993). The band breaks up; Laurie and Cary move to Los Angeles and form Blue Mountain; John stays in Oxford and records original material, briefly returning to New Orleans before touring with Jeff Tweedy and Uncle Tupelo, first as a guitar tech, then as bassist/guitarist on their final album, Anodyne, in 1993. In 1994, he'll move to Chicago to join Tweedy as a founding member of Wilco—one of the most stylistically diverse, consistently experimental indie-rock bands in American music history.

Stirratt will also form a side project, The Autumn Defense, releasing four full-length albums with his friend Pat Sansone, who will join Wilco's lineup in 2004.

Back in Oxford, it isn't long before The Hippie Hotel will be torn down, along with The Hoka, Ice House, The Gin, and Syd & Harry's. Uncle Buck's and the original James Food Center will close.

One by one, the music and literary voices will disappear: Kimbrough, Burnside, Chilton. Morris, Brown.

Barry Hannah.

1985. "I miss the old house"

It's John Stirratt's second year at Ole Miss. One night, just for kicks, he and some buddies sneak into the basement of The Hippie Hotel, where they find crates filled with dozens of mildewed copies of a book. It's an evangelical tract of sorts, an eschatological study of the apocalypse from the early part of the century: The End of This World and the World to Come.

It seems fitting—piles of them left to rot in the basement of this particular house.

Stirratt steals a copy.

Jamie Quatro is the author of the story collection I Want to Show You More. Her writing has also appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013, the New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Ploughshares, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Her forthcoming debut novel, Fire Sermon, will be published in early 2018.