Hayseed Dixie get set to rock the HebCelt big top tonight

The first album John Wheeler ever bought was ‘Whiskey Bent and Hellbound’, recorded by Hank Williams Jr. The second was ‘Highway to Hell’, by AC/DC.

The seemingly diverse musical roads converged and set him on a journey which led to the creation of a new genre and has to date seen him involved in more than 1,100 live shows in 31 different countries and the sale of over half a million albums worldwide.

John began creating his own country versions of rock songs while playing in college gigs and found they were popular with the audience. ‘Rockgrass’ was born and after moving to Nashville he met brothers Dale Reno and Don Wayne Reno to form the Kerosene Brothers who went on to record the album ‘A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC’, which sold over 100,000 copies.

Adding band members Dave Harrison and Jake Byers, they became Hayseed Dixie, combining guitar, fiddle, mandolin and banjo in a unique fusion of bluegrass and rock. 

They have since released 15 albums, consisting of both original material and reinterpretations, the latest ‘Hair Down To My Grass’ featuring re-workings of rock classics such as Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’, Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ and Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On a Prayer’.

And Hayseed Dixie bring their unique musical style to Stornoway tonight (Thursday, July 14th) when they headline the main stage at the 21st Hebridean Celtic Festival which runs until Saturday.

“All of us have a soft spot for Scotland and will always take offers for shows there with some prejudice when opportunity presents,” said John.

The Tennessee-based band are no strangers to Scotland having promoted and headlined the first Loopallu festival in Ullapool: “Loopallu originally was our creation conceptually and (promoter) Robert Hicks' achievement logistically. It was subtitled ‘Hayseed Dixie's Little Fest In the West’ the first year. I still have a couple of official coffee mugs with that on them,” he said.

“I think there is more commonality between US Bluegrass and traditional Highland music than with any other trad music I've heard.

“Festivals are great as you can play to the largest possible number of people at one time - and also we finally get to see some other people play. When you do a headline tour of venues, you only see yourselves play for weeks on end.”

One challenge John is up for during the visit is to learn some Gaelic. In 2011 Hayseed Dixie released an album composed almost entirely of songs in the Norwegian language and have recorded several songs in German, as well as in Finnish and Spanish.

He said: “As soon as somebody teaches me a good drinking and/or killing song in Gaelic, sure, I'd love the challenge and to learn a bit of it. I can learn bits of languages the most easily if I learn songs in those languages. I'm absolutely open to suggestion.”

The band are presently putting together a new album, but recent world events have led to a re-think of its contents. “The events of the past couple of weeks have radically altered what we thought it was going to be - our original conception no longer feels very relevant. For all that these are dangerous times at present, they are also exciting times.

“Things could go terribly wrong, but there is also the possibility for some very, very positive change as well. This energy is what's moving us at present, the socio-political struggles in the world, though not always in positive ways. 

“But we don't live in a bubble. There are a lot of disaffected and angry people out there at the moment, and we certainly feel some resonance with that,” John continued.

“But we want to try to tell the stories through songs and hopefully inspire people to have a bit of common empathy for one another and to try to pursue mutual understanding and respect, if not always agreement.”