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Turning Hayseed Into Kerosene 

The story of a bluegrass band and its alter ego

The tune is familiar and the words are too, but something is drastically wrong with the tempo. The song is AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long," but what are this fiddle and mandolin doing here? What have they done with Angus Young? And what's wrong with Brian Johnson's voice? He sounds like he's swallowed a hillbilly.

Not to worry, you're not the victim of bad acid. Hayseed Dixie has just decided to pay you a visit and shake up your perception of what rock & roll oughta sound like by doing the AC/DC catalogue bluegrass style.

Don't let the Hayseed moniker fool you. Frontman Barley Scotch, aka John Wheeler, has a master's degree in philosophy. The Nashville native had planned a dissertation on Shopenhauer's interpretation of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason but abandoned it for the more visceral rewards of a career in music. While attending college, Wheeler discovered that people would jump right out there and wiggle when he played. "One night, I just started playing "You Shook Me' like a county song, and everybody sang along and danced and cheered and yee-hawed, and I thought -- "hey, it works pretty well that way,' and I kept doing it," he recounts.

Wheeler's been playing rock and country since he was a kid, and he sees a lot of parallels in the two genres. "The first record I ever bought was Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, that Hank Jr record. And I'm pretty sure the second one I ever bought was Highway to Hell," the singer remembers. "In the South, it's the same audience. If you go to a Hank Jr show, then go to an AC/DC show you're gonna see the same people. It's all kind of rebel music anyway."

And though he grew up in Nashville, he never had any inclination to play the Nashville brand of homogenized country. "A couple of times I tried to work on some demos with guys who were trying to write mainstream country songs. I felt like I was trying to write a Chevy commercial," Wheeler says. "The closer I got to that, the bigger their smiles got." According to the singer he doesn't feel a whole lot of reckless abandon in those records. "All the lyrics seem so patronizing to me. They feel like they're obliged to kiss the ass of what they feel the audience likes."

Wheeler opened a demo studio in Nashville, recording anything that wasn't mainstream country -- blues, jazz and bluegrass records. The Hayseed Dixie thing was a fluke. Wheeler had been playing bluegrass with the Reno Brothers, whose father is the author of the "Dueling Banjos" theme from the movie Deliverance. Their original intent was to record bluegrass music set to rock as The Kerosene Brothers. But while compiling material for that project, the band got hold of some whiskey in the studio one weekend and A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC came out. "I wouldn't say we wanted to be anything in particular," Wheeler laughs. "We just wanted to play stuff that we had a good time playing and put smiles on people's faces. When we made that Hayseed record, we never even thought it would be released. We just did it as a fun thing to do one weekend, mixing mountain music and rock."

The disc is hilarious -- Wheeler delivers the lines in a backwoods drawl that Ernest T. Bass would be proud to claim, while the band cranks out blistering bluegrass licks in place of Young's ear-splitting power chords. But Wheeler makes it clear that the work is no parody. "I was never trying to make fun of AC/DC," the singer declares earnestly. "I was trying to make fun of people's perception of the genre." Wheeler has found that people laugh when he claims that the "Lost Highway" of Hank Williams and AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" are the same road. "I think it's only funny because there is some truth in it. They both drank themselves to death, right? The lyrics to "Highway to Hell' are not that different to me than "Lost Highway.' They got a little bit more of a brute attitude to 'em, they're a little bit less remorseful, but they're singing about the same things," he opines.

Wheeler had a chance to talk shop with AC/DC once, but the conversation didn't get into weighty matters. "We didn't get particularly philosophical," he says. "We played at this party at Cliff the bass player's house, and basically we drank a bunch of beer with "em and talked about songs. We played a bunch of old bluegrass songs and showed 'em stuff, and talked about playing and fishing. We didn't get really deep into "what does this song really mean to you' type stuff. I just don't think that that's where their heads were at when they wrote any of their tunes. I got the feeling that with those guys, what you see is what you get."

In addition to the AC/DC project, the band also did a hillbilly tribute to Kiss (Kiss My Grass), which brought them some flack. "People asked what's it like when a novelty band does a cover of a novelty band? And I keep trying to tell people, there's novelty aspects of it, but how serious are you gonna take Gene Simmons? This man's wearing devil makeup and spittin' blood."

In 2002, the band released A Hillbilly Tribute To Mountain Love, which included covers of J. Geils, Queen, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Joan Jett and Spinal Tap. Their latest record, a Kerosene Brothers project, Choose Your Own Title is a newgrass blend of rock and bluegrass, taking traditional bluegrass tunes like "Shady Grove" and "In the Pines" and rocking them up.

Wheeler says the band has not abandoned its old persona, just updated it -- the Kerosene Brothers persona gives them a lot more avenues to make more interesting records down the road instead of just repeating the formula. "You've always gotta be trying new things," says the Nashville philosopher. "If you're not entertained, how do you expect to entertain other people?"

Hayseed Dixie and the Kerosene Brothers play at Amos' Southend on Thursday, October 16. For more details, call the club at 704-377-6874.

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