Hill Country Revue: part Dixie, part Detroit, in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Bob BayneHill Country Revue performs Saturday at Belly Up Aspen.

ASPEN – In the blues-rock quintet Hill Country Revue, the odd man out, at least as far as regional heritage goes, is bassist Doc Samba. In a band of Americans, Samba is the lone outsider, a native of West Africa.

But Dan Coburn, the band’s lead singer, could almost be considered as much of a foreigner as Samba. Hill Country Revue takes its name from the Hill Country of northern Mississippi, near the Tennessee border. The sound is readily identifiable as Southern blues-rock. The bulk of the membership – guitarist Kirk Smithhart from Jackson, Miss.; drummer David Mason, from Memphis, Tenn.; and bandleader Cody Dickinson, from the Hill Country – are genuine sons of the South.

Coburn, though, is a northerner, and an urbanite to boot, a native of Flint, Mich., home of unions and the birthplace of General Motors.

Still, Coburn claims to have the South in his blood, and not only because he has lived for the last four of his 34 years in Hill Country Revue’s home base of Memphis. On the dirt road where he grew up, Coburn would watch his grandfather barbecue chicken in his own mustard-based barbecue sauce, with the country songs of Merle Haggard and Del Reeves playing in the background. Coburn’s father had different tastes in music, but they were equally Southern: ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackfoot. Coburn and his friends would sometimes talk about the roots of their respective families – in Kentucky, Georgia or Mississippi.

About the only thing about the upbringing that wasn’t Southern, in fact, was the address. Flint might seem a part of the South only if you were standing in, say, Green Bay or Duluth. But Coburn says Flint was a destination for the mass migration of Southerners – including his paternal grandfather, from the southern Missouri town of Hornersville – who landed in Michigan’s urban centers in the mid-20th century, lured by jobs in the auto industry. So in Flint, Coburn was surrounded by neighborhoods like Little Missouri, kids who had family back in Tennessee or Florida, and neighborhoods, like the one he grew up in, that were built to resemble the rural towns the people had left behind.

“It was the auto rush,” said the 34-year-old Coburn from a tour stop in Santa Fe, following a 10-hour drive from Dallas and a noon-ish wake-up cup of coffee. “He went north to work for Buick, and the whole family went. But my grandpa was so Southern, a Southern gentleman, and that resonated through the family. I call Flint, Mich. the biggest Southern city in the North.”

Coburn let much of the North seep into his skin. He calls himself “a GM kid,” and when a friend comes around with a new car, Coburn still makes it a habit to check the inside door to see if the auto was assembled in his hometown. “I’m from Flint. I just gotta do that,” he said. And when he began playing music, early in his teens, what came out were the sounds of the city: punk and hardcore.

A decade ago, when Coburn was forming a new band, he traveled to Detroit, an hour’s drive away, to hear what the current styles were. He found a lot of people playing a take on ’60s garage music; it was the scene that the White Stripes would emerge from.

“I said to my friend Eric, ‘We’ve got to do ’70s rock. Because that was some good stuff,'” Coburn recalled.

This was when Coburn realized just how Southern he was. When he played ’70s rock, what came out was unmistakably Southern. “Not till we started playing did we realize we had Southern roots,” he said. “We didn’t understand our upbringing till we started trying to emulate the music of the ’70s. We were just playing the licks we had heard growing up, and we ended up sounding like a Southern rock band. Which was odd, since we were from the North. It was then I realized I was definitely doing the wrong thing.”

Coburn named his band Dixie Hustler: “We were hustling the Dixie sound,” he said.

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This time, Coburn isn’t hustling anything; he seems to have found his place in Southern culture.

Hill Country Revue’s new album “Zebra Ranch,” released last month, was named for the legendary north Mississippi recording studio owned by the late Jim Dickinson, father of the band’s Cody. The album reeks of Southern rock, from the screeching opening track, “Raise Your Right Hand”; to “Hill Country,” a blues shuffle that echoes the rhythms of north Mississippi icon R.L. Burnside; to “Second Street,” an Allman-esque instrumental.

The band traces its roots back to 2004, when Coburn handed off a Dixie Hustler’s demo tape to a friend. That friend passed it along to Cody Dickinson, who at the time was the drummer/guitarist of the hard-touring North Mississippi Allstars, with the advice: “You’ve got to listen to this band.”

“Typically, when you’re on the road, you’re busy. You’re playing and doing load-in and sound checks and press, and you lose things in the shuffle,” Coburn noted. “But he listened. He told me a story about he and Luther” – Cody’s brother and bandmate in the Allstars – “in their car at their mom and dad’s house and went, ‘Wow.'”

The Dickinson brothers were wowed enough to have Dixie Hustler open a few shows for them. Coburn also collaborated with Luther on the Guitar Express instructional video series; Luther would show how to play the guitar part of a song, and then Coburn would sing the tune.

In 2007, Luther accepted an offer to become guitarist for the Black Crowes, relegating the Allstars to a part-time gig – not an ideal situation for his brother Cody.

“Cody still wanted to play,” Coburn said. “He’s the type of guy, you’re not going to stop him. He wanted to start a new band.”

Coburn was notified of Cody’s desire while at work in Flint – installing water systems for municipalities. Coburn happened to be some 70 feet in the air, in a safety harness, in the dead of the Michigan winter. “I answered the phone thinking it was my boss,” Coburn said. “It was Cody, saying, ‘Got a minute?’ I said, ‘Not really.'”

As soon as he got down, Coburn made time. He went to three rehearsals at Zebra Ranch, then made the move to Memphis – finally becoming a genuine Southerner.

“I pretty much sacrificed a lot of stuff. I lost my car,” he said. “But I believed in this band so much, and so did everyone in the band.”

For Coburn, the real attraction was no so much moving South, but being a full-time musician. “It was the one shot,” he said. “I’d get to do music and I had faith in it and that doesn’t happen a lot. We’re walking through our dreams now. I never thought I’d be able to do that.”

Moving to the Hill Country had unexpected bonuses: the chance to record at Zebra Ranch, and to record with Jim Dickinson, a singer and keyboardist who’d worked with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and produced the Hill Country Revue’s debut album, “Make a Move,” before dying in August of 2009.

“He could read people like books,” Coburn said. “He could see I was uncomfortable with a lot of people around in the studio, so he’d say, ‘Let’s let Dan alone, let him warm up – and then we’d get it in one take. He could make sure that what you played was original, that it was from the heart.

“Zebra Ranch is a barn. But there’s so much soul there, I feel Jim’s still producing me. I sing and I think, ‘What would Jim say?’ That makes me comfortable. I pay tribute to Jim every night I sing.”

Ditching the day job hasn’t been a quick adjustment for Coburn, who has worked since he was 16. There are still days when he wakes up early and has to remind himself that there’s no clock waiting to be punched. But he has taken to the creative part of being a full-time musician, and his job, as he sees it now, is to help create a distinctive Hill Country Revue voice. Having an African bassist – Samba replaced Chris Chew, another member of North Mississippi Allstars, earlier this year – is a plus: “For him to come into Hill Country Revue, that brings a real cultural vibe,” Coburn said. “It’s a lot more than a steady 1-2-4 thing.”

Comparing Hill Country to his old band, Coburn said, “Dixie Hustler was more aggressive. We were a younger band; every song was a banger. What we’re doing with Hill Country is more soulful, more influenced by the blues. There’s more guitar solos in Hill Country, a lot more guitar harmonizing, which is an Allman Brothers thing. It’s more pretty; there’s a lot more to it, a lot more foundation, a lot more decoration.

“And it’s got its own sound. Most Southern rock, you can’t decipher who it is. What we’re doing is taking the Mississippi Hill Country and mixing it into our own brand of Southern rock.”

And comparing the Hill Country – the place, not the band – to his former residence, Coburn said, “It’s almost like Flint, Mich. – except there’s more jobs and better food. And better weather.

“Every other scene is real competitive. In Detroit and Flint, to get a following, you’d have to take away the crowd from some other band. You’d see bands taking down another band’s posters. In Memphis, there’s a camaraderie. There are a lot of touring bands, and we’re all trying to put Memphis on the map. In Flint, there was Grand Funk Railroad and Michael Moore, and that was it. Memphis can be sort of intimidating. There’s a lot of talent there.”