Interview with Little Rock, Arkansas native Robert Hill - An award winning songwriter and slide guitarist

"The blues is raw, honest emotion. It can come from, not only a very dark place, but a very joyful one, as well."

Robert Hill: An Εxperienced Bluesician

Robert Hill was born at a very early age, a small, naked male child in North Little Rock, Arkansas. As the story goes, whenever someone from the city of Little Rock, (on the other side of the Arkansas River), had something they wanted to get rid of, say, a car, a dog, or maybe an ex-wife or husband, they would drive it over the bridge to the NLR side and dump it. As a result of people depositing, particularly dogs, the town gained the distinguished nickname of “Dogtown”. It made the people proud.

Whether he was "asked" to leave the state by local officials, or left on his own accord, Hill moved to the Northeast, where he played with local NYC band, The Bluesicians, sharing the stage with numerous national acts, and revellers of all ages. Here he formed the first incarnation of the Robert Hill Band, performing exclusively his own material, and released the cleverly-titled debut cd, "Robert Hill", to excellent reviews. He says many of the songs are autobiographical, just not necessarily about him.

His latest release, “My Corner”, is a showcase not only for his award-winning writing, but also for his mastery of the guitar, and soulful vocals. The title song, “My Corner”, won first prize in the AAA/Americana category of the 10th Annual Unisong International Songwriting Competition. Two other songs on the cd, “Angelina” and “Another Chapter”, also won acclaim in the ISC and 11th Unisong competitions. He has shared the stage with Chris Smither, Levon Helm, John McEuen, Kim Simmonds, Rick Danko, Tony Trischka, Rory Block, Debbie Davies, and numerous others. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

The blues is raw, honest emotion. It can come from, not only a very dark place, but a very joyful one, as well. When it's the real deal, it can put you on top of the world, or it can reduce you to tears. It's a universal language- people all over the world respond to the blues- even when they don't speak the language it's being sung in. It may be a universal language, but it's a deeply personal experience, as well. To me, it's a release. It allows me to let go of things that may be holding me back, and also celebrate what makes me feel good. If you're truly baring your soul onstage, and sharing that with people, they will be right there with you, and you will lift each other up. When that magic happens between you and the audience, it doesn't get much better than that.

"I hope music continues to be played organically on real instruments. Technology is good, but not when you have programmers trying to emulate real musicians and instruments."

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

I think you have to go through some hard stuff and be able to tap into that. You have to be honest and not afraid to bare your soul to people. I think most of the great blues writers have had more than their share of dysfunction and tragedy in their lives. They are a few that have been able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and write about it…and touch a universal nerve. Everyone has their personal demons, some can be dealt with, and others might be ongoing. I've had my share- you have to be able to tap into your own experiences and open yourself up- sometimes you're just a vessel. Sometimes the songs are just there, and you can pluck them out of the air…but, for me, most times I have to work at them. You also have to figure out what you're trying to say, and get to the point. Don't dance around the subject. It takes a certain tenacity mixed with the love of just writing. 

How do you describe Robert Hill sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

My uncle was a big blues fan, and had a fairly large collection of mostly acoustic blues. One night, as a teenager visiting him, he sat me down and played me record after record of all the greats, all the while cracking open beer after beer for us both!  He'd dance around the room or just sit and shake his head…and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was hooked. Later, when I first started playing guitar, I heard Duane Allman playing "Statesboro Blues" and a bomb went off inside me-slide guitar was the sound that spoke to me. So, slide has become a huge part of my sound. I try and put my own voice to the blues. You can hear several genres mixed together in some of my material, but it's all based in the blues. I'm not particularly interested in just jamming, although it can be fun on occasion. I'm more into writing a good tight song with meaningful lyrics. I'm a songwriter first really. I've written a lot of stuff that has never seen the light of day, but when you do write something that works on every level, it's a gift, and one of the best feelings you can have…in my opinion.

"Although there are very few of the older blues players left, this is sad. But there are current folks keeping it alive- Robert Cray, Ronnie Earle, Guy Clark, Trucks Tedeschi, too many too list…which is great!"

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I think because it speaks directly to people's most basic, human emotions. Obviously, it speaks much louder to some than others! Some folks just don't get it…for whatever reason…and that's not a knock. I don't care for some types music, although I do appreciate them. Also, the blues crowd isn't interested in the "Flavor-of-the-Month", like some genres are- and you don't have to be a certain age and have a certain look. Unlike a lot of genres, age actually is a good thing in the blues. You've been around the block, you've lived through more than your share of hard times- you're LIVING IT, not playing at it…and people relate to that because it's real, and maybe they've been there too.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

That's a tough one. Well, I really enjoyed playing with Arthur Migliazza when he lived in the NYC area…unbelievable boogie woogie pianist. Playing at a B.B. King's with him, in NYC, was a fun experience. Playing at The Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival, touring throughout Spain- a lot of people there had never seen slide guitar.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Some of the best meetings were by chance, just going to hear a friend play, and meeting other outstanding players. I think the best advice has been to just go out and play from the heart, and don't try and copy anyone. Find your own voice.

"I'm a songwriter first really. I've written a lot of stuff that has never seen the light of day, but when you do write something that works on every level, it's a gift, and one of the best feelings you can have…in my opinion."

Are there any memories from recording and show time which you’d like to share with us?

When I was living in Arkansas, I played with a blues band called The Blue Mambas. We played at a place once that actually had the chicken wire around the front of the stage, like in the Blues Brothers movie. They started giving us a hard time because we weren't playing any country music. I went out to the parking lot during a break, and was leaning against a pickup truck. I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. When I turned around to look in the truck, a vicious BABOON lunged at me from behind the glass! I jumped about 3 feet into the air. Someone actually had a live baboon in their truck.  When we did our next set, they kept giving us a hard time, so I mentioned that someone had left their girlfriend locked in their truck outside. Things went downhill from there… We also played at a local biker hangout quite a bit.  When you mix alcohol, two rival gangs, (Hell's Angels and The Bandidos), and gutbucket electric blues….it's a heady mix, folks. A fight would always break out and the cops would come. I remember one night when the cops came, they walked into the club, looked over at me and said, '"Not you guys again!" We did tend to get folks worked up a bit, and had to go out the back doors of some places in a hurry. Also played with a band down there called the RPMS.. We all moved to a cabin up in the Ozark mountains and practiced all day, every day. The locals thought we were a bunch of long hairs partying around the clock, when in truth we didn't have two nickels to rub together. We lived on a giant tub of peanut butter and tea that we made from mint we found in the woods. We went down the road to get our mail one day, and someone had hung an effigy of a man, from a large tree limb, with 2 six packs of beer attached to the hands, with a sign around its neck saying, "Dry County". There are still some counties there that don't sell alcohol. Pretty much scared the hell out of us…we went back and started barricading the cabin.. but fortunately they left us alone after that.  Also, I remember personally, just walking all night a few times in places where I had no place to stay after a gig. Freezing and waiting for the sun to come up, so a restaurant would open and I could warm up. Lean times… Many more stories, but it's been a while….

From the musical point of view what are the differences between Arkansas and the other local scenes?

One of the biggest blues festivals in the country, The Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival, takes place very year in Helena, Arkansas. There's a big blues following throughout the state- electric urban and acoustic country blues. Also, Mountain View, Arkansas is called "The Folk Music Capital of the World." You hear a lot of Bluegrass, Rockabilly, Country, even a little Zydeco. A few notable musicians from Arkansas are; Al Green, Levon Helm, Johnny Cash, Son Seals, Robert Lockwood Jr., Frank Frost, Glenn Campbell, Lucinda Williams, Scott Joplin, Jimmy Driftwood, the list goes on and on. So you're surrounded by a very rich and diverse mix of many different musical cultures and history…and the local musicians absorb all these influences, I think. 

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the fact that most recordings today are down in a very sterile sort of way. One track built and recorded at a time. The reason those old Chess records sound so great, is because they were all in the room together, doing it LIVE…balancing themselves and playing off each other. They went for it! I hope music continues to be played organically on real instruments. Technology is good, but not when you have programmers trying to emulate real musicians and instruments.

Which memory from Levon Helm, Kim Simmonds, Rick Danko, Rory Block, and Debbie Davies makes you smile?

The first time I opened for Levon Helm, and I told him I was form Arkansas, he said, "Well. I'll try not and hold that against you!" He was very gracious to me, and completely down to earth. I opened for John McEuen from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band once, and he made a point of pointing me out during his set and saying how much he enjoyed my playing…got the place clapping…very nice of him. Rick Danko was also very gracious and complimentary. 

What are the lines that connect the acoustic Blues with modern electric sound and Folk Blues with Urban style?

Well the electric blues came about because of people like Muddy Waters moving from the south up to Chicago, and other big cities. Their acoustic country-folk blues couldn't be heard over the noise and crowds of the cities, so they plugged in, turned up, and, boom, Chicago Blues was born! Different cities and regions had their own sound, Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Texas, West Coast, East Coast...but it all started with acoustic country folk blues…. and before that, "Field Hollers" by slaves working out in the fields.

"I think the best advice has been to just go out and play from the heart, and don't try and copy anyone. Find your own voice."

When we talk about Blues usually refer past moments. Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Yeah, of course. Although there are very few of the older blues players left, this is sad. But there are current folks keeping it alive- Robert Cray, Ronnie Earle, Guy Clark, Trucks Tedeschi, too many too list…which is great!

Which incident of blues history you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting with you?

When Robert Johnson recorded those tracks in a hotel room.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..? 

I think maybe Helena, Arkansas back when it was a bustling blues town, and the local guys like Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Pinetop Perkins, James Peck Curtis, and many more, would play live on the streets, and on the original King Biscuit Time radio show on local radio station, KFFA. Must’ve been a helluva party.

Robert Hill Band - official website

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