Guitarist Kev Wright announced this week that he has parted ways with The Righteous Hillbillies, the band he co-founded eight years ago with Brent James.
In a Feb. 11 Facebook post, Wright said “with a heavy heart” that the split was mutual and “for personal and creative reasons.” A post on the Hillbillies’ Facebook page signed by Brent, bassist Jeff Bella, and drummer Barret Harvey said “with regret” that Kev was no longer with the band, which will resume live shows in May and will announce Kev’s replacement “when the time is right.”
The timing of the split is difficult, as the band has just wrapped work on its third album, recorded at legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL, produced by Craig Bishop and funded by money raised through Kickstarter. Wright wrote seven songs on the new album, James wrote three, and they co-wrote two. Wright has always been the band’s lead guitarist while James remains lead singer and now sole remaining original member.
It’s hard to imagine the Hillbillies without Kev Wright. The band’s bio for the 2010 Grundy County Corn Festival tells its 2007 inception as well as any version, recounting how John Condron bestowed the band’s name when Wright and James were playing as an acoustic duo following the split of James’s band The Stone City Stragglers. (The two had previously played together in The Brent James Band, so their friendship goes way back.)
What can fans expect from Wright, who turns 60 next month, now that he’s left the Hillbillies? Probably more live acoustic performances, a solo album that he begins recording in March, and plenty of fine guitar work on songs he writes and sings. There’s no doubt Wright’s desire to sing and play more of his own material contributed to his decision to leave the band.
Kev’s songwriting and vocals have always been exceptional, though largely overlooked for the past decade because of his lead guitar abilities. Consider his song “Journey Road,” which appears on The Brent James Band album “The Road Less Traveled.” “You can spend your whole life worrying, thinking about your ‘could have beens,'” Wright writes, though he says his late grandfather wrote all the words to the song through wisdom he directly imparted to Kev. (Photo of Kev’s hands, by Andy Goodwin)
The band’s version is slickly produced with lush harmonies and instrumentation, but on the day of his announcement, Wright posted an acoustic demo of “Journey Road” that is beautiful in its simplicity and hauntingly prescient in its meaning. Wright seems like a man with purpose, and that is to share his gifts for creating music in ways that can’t always be realized by a four-piece Southern rock band with two electric guitars, bass, and drums.
More recent clues hint at the direction he is headed. The Hillbillies played an all-acoustic show Jan. 25 at Chicago Street Pub In Joliet, IL, its first and now it would seem only such show, at least with Wright in the lineup. Before a packed house on a Sunday afternoon, the band re-imagined its roadhouse setlist by squeezing every bit of tenderness out of tunes that have always resonated well with crowds at loud volumes and high energy levels.
Also, Wright has performed acoustically recently with “Bourbon Cowboy” Jeff Givens and the Mug Shot Saints, pictured at right, including Dec. 19 at Metro in Chicago and Feb. 4 at Schubas. The band includes Jason Botka and Johnny Gadeikis, another ex-Stone City Straggler who played bass with the Hillbillies until 2014. “It’s good to play with Johnny again,” Wright said.
He has publicly shared many demo recordings that showcase his songwriting and singing. His writing shows the influence of Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, and others. His compositions range from straight-ahead rock of “Black Jack Mama” to the tender ballad “I Could…” He also displays a social conscience. “This Is America” is an angry ode about income inequality. He can do it all, but sounds best when he’s tapping his deepest inspirations, like the swampy “Gasoline.”
Take a listen to this beautifully melodic Leo Kottke-like instrumental “Winter.” Then this live recording of “County Jail.” It’s not hard to imagine the future Kev Wright performing solo with a bass drum and multiple instruments much like the post-Backyard Tire Fire Edward David Anderson.
In more than one way, this week’s announcement signals that Wright has come full circle these past eight years since he and James decided to put away the acoustic guitars and go electric with the Hillbillies. The band would be well-served to carry on with a lead guitar gunslinger, one content to contribute the occasional vocal and songwriting duty.
But Wright is so much more than just an amazing lead guitarist. He’s a deep soul with something to say who can write lyrics and tell stories in honest and heartfelt ways. He plays his songs with superb musicianship and vocals laden with emotion. His voice needs to be heard.
Cover photo by Michelle Gadeikis.