Since Blackberry Smoke first came to the UK a decade ago, several southern rock bands popular in continental Europe – including Whiskey Myers, The Cadillac Three and, more recently, Robert Jon & The Wreck – have looked to gain a foothold in the UK, with varying degrees of success.
The latest hopefuls are five-piece Hillbilly Vegas, who last year made their British debut with a showcase in London to promote their good-time shit-kicking record The Great Southern Hustle. Hillbilly Vegas started out as a bunch of Oklahoma-based schoolmates before becoming a group in 2011.
“My grandmother, a big fan of gospel music, passed away, and I got some friends together to record a gospel song as a present for my mother,” explains singer and guitarist Steve Harris. “We didn’t mean for it to happen, but it did: put musicians in a room together, and eventually they’ll start a band.”
Since then, a rootsy yet distinctly song-friendly sound has led the Hillbillies to gigs with the likes of Molly Hatchet, Black Stone Cherry and the Kentucky Headhunters, as well as country-based artists such as Travis Tritt, David Allen Coe and Blake Shelton.
“Nothing is original, every band copies its influences whether we sound like them or not,” Harris offers. “We’re a band from the South and we play music that comes from the South."
Harris is horrified to learn that one over-enthusiastic British critic hailed his band as “the new Lynyrd Skynyrd”.
“Oh man, that’s terrible,” he says, grimacing. “Skynyrd were trailblazers. They didn’t care if people called them southern rock, they were rock. And if a comparison exists between the two bands, then that’s what it is.”
The Great Southern Hustle is actually a reworked collection of the best parts of the band’s previous two albums, Ringo Manor and ’76 (released in 2011 and ’16 respectively), and its irresistible lead-off single High Time For A Good Time dates back to the latter.
“Ten of the twelve tracks have been out in America but a couple are brand new,” Harris clarifies, “and they were all re-recorded.”
Last November the band played their UK debut, at The Troubadour in London, which brought a slew of rave reviews.
“Being on that stage [where Hendrix and Dylan had played], there was such a sense of history,” Harris says. “I was hoping that the audience would get what it is that we do, and they did. Now we can’t wait to come back. We’re begun working on a new album and really hope to add the UK to the places we play regularly.”
Is there a message or political agenda?
“None at all,” he says, laughing at the suggestion. “I don’t think that just because you have a platform it should be used to impose those beliefs. No. We make real music for real music people, and that’s it.”