Somewhere with Ned Hill, But Not There
Ned Hill lets out an explosion of chuckles and leans forward a bit after commenting on a question about Nashville that I’ve side stepped into what turned out to be a four hour conversation slash interview. He rebounds back into a totally serious tone that still manages to ring of some humor. It’s a gesture I’ve seen him do countless hundreds of times during the course of our friendship. His natural way of responding in more than one way to anything, captured me as friend and that same enduring quality in his songwriting has always held me fast as a fan. Ned Hill, is the Ned of East Nashville’s self proclaimed ‘bastard sons’ roots rock band, Ned Van Go. The question that had been sent across the room to him as we sat in the practice room of his East Nashville home, had been along the lines of why the cynicism in regards to Nashville?
From the line in the song “Somewhere Not There” off the CD Heartbroke City – ‘Oh Nashville you never liked us much. Oh Nashville we’re your bastard sons’ – to the cover art of the CD that shows a trudging musician crossing a bridge with the obvious Nashville skyline in the background – to Ned’s serious reluctance to play out anywhere in Nashville other than East Nashville’s 5 Spot – his love / hate relationship with Nashville glows like lambent light on the horizon. It’s not truly defining but it’s enough to betray one’s position. I had also added, just as I had in the written interview he and I had been sending back forth via e-mail, “You had to have known what it was like. I mean between growing up so close to Nashville and then your brother’s experiences (Billy ‘Mack’ Hill of Government Cheese). “I did. I don’t know… (and again with the gesture of laughing and leaning forward and the return to stern)…. We grew up and absorbed the music from this part of the country so of course we were influenced by it. The country, rock, even bluegrass and gospel – everything we listened to as kids. So, of course, it’s in the music we play and write, not because we think it’s cool but because hell, we’re from around here. That’s why it seems like we’re “bastard sons” that no one wants to acknowledge! I just feel like the Nashville establishment (press, publications, and radio) knows what made us but they don’t acknowledge us publicly.”
A Horse Cave, KY native himself, Ned Hill refers to a whole genre of music pushing it’s way out of Nashville and so he purposely uses the word ‘we’ not ‘me’ when he’s involved in the topic. It is a community that he speaks for and about and without knowing it or trying to be that person, he has become a quiet champion for them all.
Ned Hill is tall and thin, the very dream that so many Kentuckians have in hopes of being the parents of the next UK Wildcat superstar. He did play college ball, just not in Lexington. It was in Memphis. However, somewhere between the Mississippi and the Cumberland, the Green River called him home and sung of being true to one’s heart. He had watched his younger brother, Billy, race towards success as a member of the famed punk/rock band Government Cheese, but not with the type of envy that corrupts the soul. Instead, it pushed Ned to the decision to find his own voice. To this day Ned will claim GC as one of his main influences. I’ve watched him more than once encounter people that have him confused with his brother and that same dual response of laughter and seriousness has always won the admiration of the person caught in the faux pas. Yet still there’s that moment where his eyes flicker the tiniest bit of angst so I had to ask.
FRANNE: Did you ever feel like you were stuck in their (Government Cheese) shadow? Or get irritated over the connection?
NED: I never felt irritated by the connection but yes, we were stuck in their shadow…hell, we still are!
If you’ve ever gone to a Ned Van Go show chances are you’ve most likely heard Ned launch into the story about his first show and the response he got from local music legend, Kenny Smith or now Kenny Lee. You know Kenny told Ned to buy a tuner and to learn Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ ‘because the girls love it.’ If you became a fan than you know he bought the tuner but has never played that song.
FRANNE: Now I’ve heard you tell the story about playing your first show at age 30 and all the rest, but if you didn’t play that song what did you play? Who was with you then? What was racing through your head when you took the stage that night?
NED: Wow, I couldn’t tell ya’ what we (The Blue Cha-Chas) played that night at Picasso’s. I think it was about half originals and half covers. The original Blue Cha-Chas was, myself (rhythm guitar, lead vocals), Dan Dilamarter (lead guitar, backing vocals), Steve Anderson (bass), and Rob Hatcher (drums). I remember I was very nervous and very funny. I think it was more of a comedy act than a rock show. I also remember we opened up for a local band called The Blind Pilots (always liked that name). They got mad at me ‘cause I announced a party that was happening after our set at so and so’s house. Quite a few people left for the party after that announcement… it was an innocent mistake on my part but I would have been pissed too! Government Cheese was very much still on the scene at the time and I was still a big fan. We opened a couple of shows for them.
FRANNE: I heard you tell Brian Minks (Those Cross Town Rivals) something about NVG ‘s first CD. Like it was something that you just kind of mizz-mashed together. Care to expand on that please. Who all is on that first CD?
NED: Well after The Cowards (my first band I played in when I move to Nashville) disbanded in late 2000, I decided that would be my last democratic band. I didn’t want the next thing I was involved in to fall apart after a lot of time and work. So I started NVG as my band. If somebody wanted to quit, I’d get someone else and continue on. So to get the thing started I decided to put together some earlier recordings I had done at David Barrick’s studio in Glasgow, Ky with some Cowards recordings that I written; and immediately got a record out. I called it In Stereo and printed 50. I sold those and printed 50 more…and 50 more…and 50 more…you get the idea. I sold 800 units before Rain, Trains, and The Lord Almighty came out and just hadn’t had any more reprinted…I have been thinking about doing 50 more, we’ll see. There were so many people on that first recording from the usual suspects to old Blue Cha-Cha members to Tommy Womack and Will Kimbrough. I really like the first record and I think there is some decent stuff on it. “Ever Closer” will every once in while get into the set list even though a few people have requested that we bring back “Hanging Out at Walmart”. And yeah, “Laid” was on Rain, Trains… as well. I gave the producer for that record (Paul Hart) control over what was going to go on it and he wanted to do that song again. I would have never done it myself but it did come out pretty good the second time around and later found its’ way on the HBO series “Cathouse” which was great exposure. The one story that comes to mind about In Stereo, was recording at David Barrick’s and trying to get my ideas across to him. I was being extremely picky and obsessive about something or other and I remember him throwing his head and hands on the studio board and screamed ‘I just don’t know what you want!’ I said, ‘It’ll be alright Tiger’… and we got back to work.”
FRANNE: So CD #2 is called Rain, Trains, and the Lord Almighty. Where did that title come from anyway?
NED: I wanted the second record to have a little more Americana feel so I wanted a title to go along with it, for some reason, that title just came to me. It seemed Americana to me.
FRANNE: It seems to me that with this CD that you started coming into your own style or your own sound, past the Cowards and with a signature that spoke of being exclusively yours. Having said that, I think it does stand to reason that you would with the time under your belt. So compared to the first CD how much of the writing and arranging did you do?
NED: I wrote the entire record with exceptions of “Sweet Rebecca” and “Bartender”, which were written by ex-bandmate, Jeff Davis. They are two great songs written by a great songwriter. The arrangements were pretty much done by myself and Jeff and then tweaked by the rest of the band and/or producer Paul Hart.
FRANNE: Jeff Davis is known by quite a few people around here. How did you and Jeff meet? He was a ‘Coward’ right?
NED: I met Jeff in Bowling Green, KY in 1990. He fronted The Lunacats and I fronted The Blue Cha-Chas. We did quite a few shows together and I always admired his writing and overall talent. Jeff moved to Nashville in the early 90’s and I followed a couple years later to start a band with him. That band was The Cowards.
FRANNE: You seem to have quite a bit of regard for him. Did he write with you on Marry a Waitress?
NED: He left the band after that record and was not involved in Marry A Waitress.
FRANNE: What are the main differences from your stand point the creator between In Stereo and Rain, Trains, and the Lord Almighty and Marry a Waitress?
NED: The difference to me is the slow progression from a pop rock thing to a more Americana rock, blue collar feel in the later records.
I’ve never listened to him and thought of it as a progression from Pop to Americana; it’s only been the revelation to the rest of the world of the artist I’ve always known him to be. It’s his observations about people and his ability to respond in more than one way to their humanity, be it with humor, morose, or compassion, as stated before, is his lure. I hear something else in Heartbroke City though, the 4th CD released by Ned Van Go.
FRANNE: As much fun as there is in this CD there seems to be an equal part of melancholy or reflection. Care to comment?
NED: To me it’s melancholy than fun. To me there is a certain sadness to this record. It’s just what came out.
So we talked about some of the songs on Heartbroke City….
FRANNE: Of course I’ve heard your schtick in regards to the song “Me and Jesus” but how and why did it strike you as something you could successfully pull off?
NED: I was going through a lot of songs from an old Sony catalogue looking for a cool, new cover to do and this Tom T. Hall song just really caught my ear as something that could be rocked up nicely and that I’d never heard anyone do it. Not only that, but I knew my mother would like it!
FRANNE: You wrote “Mountain Top Removal” with Johnny Mark Miller. Now he plays with you often. How did that friendship get started?
NED: I’ve known Johnny Mark for over 10 years now. My old band, The Cowards, use to do shows with Les Honky More Tonkies when we were both getting started here in town. He’s one of my good friends and a very good writer. I brought him in on ‘Mountain Top Removal’ because he grew up in East Tennessee and could help me get it right.
FRANNE: Favorite’s on this CD? Torn….I’m totally torn. It’s either “One More Round” or “Breakin’ Down”. Whose idea was the guttural primal scream thing? Did you have trouble doing it on stage the first time?
NED: That was my idea – to just scream the word “LOVE” as if it was something that ripped you in two; as if to say, why do you hurt me? And yes, it is a challenge to scream that in pitch…most of the time, I don’t.
FRANNE: “Save Me From This World” …something shook you to the core to inspire you. What was the original emotion that was invoked? Does this happen often and fierce enough to inspire you to write something so serious?
NED: The inspiration for this was recently released Tennessee death row inmate Paul House who after over 20 years in prison was released on suspicious circumstantial evidence and DNA that did not match his. It looks as though he should have been released a few years ago but the powers that be kept him locked up…until they could no longer. I just wanted to try to put myself in his shoes or anyone shoes that’s been wrongly convicted. What it feels like if you’ve been abandoned and taken from the free world. Subject matter like this does capture me and inspire me to write a song. Mountain Top Removal is another one gotta hold of me!
Just recently I heard one of the songs Ned’s been working on for his fifth trip into the studio. For now I believe he’s going with the title Hard Rock Road. It’s his reaction to a trend in country music that talks about having fun and such on back country roads and in general all the good things that can be experienced or has been experienced during youth. I teased him about the punk rock coming out in him again. I even sent music reporter and critic, Tia Fleitz, a message that the punk rock star in Ned Hill had been woke up, but considering the subject matter of the song…there is no other choice than fast and furious. I asked him about the line ‘this ain’t no Junior’s Farm’ and he said he haggled over pulling it out of the song or changing the line. I said, “NO WAY, it’s perfect.” The song is a commentary on what Ned sees as a hard truth of rural life, that being the presence of ‘meth’ and all it entails, and that truth being ignored or white washed by a deluge of country pop songs. The insertion of a Paul McCartney reference that refers to a song written at a time when McCartney was working and living in and around Nashville, basically hiding out, is the brilliance of Ned Hill’s ability to convey his absolutely ridiculous flippant humor and is testimony that verifies that he is the rock n roll hero he’s always been to a whole bunch us folks. Long may he rant.
Originally published in my home publication.. http://www.bgdailynews.com/amplifier/