In the Name of Honky Tonk’…
If there were a metropolis called High Green-Salem, its downtown, its cultural and economic aorta, would be the area south of Piedmont Triad International airport, and Music City would be its nerve center.
As it is, with ‘regionalism’ more a gleam in Keith Holliday and Allen Joines’ eyes than a matter of common practice by the residents of Guilford and Forsyth counties, Music City is a little out of the way, tucked in with the trucking companies, warehouses, mechanic shops and parts stores in Boeing Business Park, an industrial zone whose streets all seem to be named for aeronautics companies.
On a recent Thursday night, Music City is home to a hard-touring honky tonk band from western Pennsylvania called the Povertyneck Hillbillies. They’ve played Greensboro four times, according to keyboard player Dave Cramer, and this swing will be the first of a two-night run between dates in Georgia and Virginia. It’s college night, with no cover for those with the ID to prove their status and 25 cent draft specials all round.
As of 11:30 p.m., following the Hillbillies’ first set, turnout is still a little light. It might seem somewhat counterintuitive, this western Pennsylvania country band playing a club called Music City in a Greensboro industrial park, but actually it follows a certain kind of logic. In an era of increased geographic mobility, footloose corporations and work-centered New South lifestyles, the interstate, the airport and the Hwy. 68 corridor are the new byways and entertainment must be found nearer than the remote downtowns of the region’s three provincial cities.
There doesn’t seem to be much contrived about the Povertyneck Hillbillies scuffed, rural working-class image, and yet the seven musicians are nothing if not consummate showmen. With a dozen ladies and a handful of moping dudes on the dance floor and with several sets of retiring couples sitting at tables in the shadows, the band pulls out every stop, performing with unflagging energy, good humor and affecting camaraderie. Doubtlessly the dozens will remember the set, along with others from small and large crowds from hundreds of other dates throughout the year. Their loyalty will be cemented. Perhaps one day if the band finds favor with the Nashville music industry lords, they’ll see a scene like this in a Povertyneck Hillbillies video.
‘“Povertyneck was one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the Great Depression,’” says Chris Higbee, who plays fiddle, mandolin and banjo in the band. ‘“My dad would dress up as a hillbilly and drive around in parades there when I was growing up. We’re carrying on that tradition.
‘“It really describes the area we’re from,’” he adds. ‘“It’s very agricultural. We were all raised throwing hay bales. We did a lot of work at fairs.’”
Sometimes venues will mistakenly bill the band on marquees as the ‘“Redneck Hillbillies,’” Higbee says, but there’s a reason for the emphasis on economic status in the name.
‘“All of us have lived in what is the poorest or next poorest area of the state at any given time,’” Cramer says. ‘“That’s Fayette County.’” It’s a place south of Pittsburgh on the state line across from West Virginia and Maryland.
With two independently-released records under their belt, the band is pretty clear on what they’re after.
‘“National recognition,’” says singer Chris Abbondanza, known to his band mates and fans simply as ‘Abby.’ ‘“We’re trying to negotiate a deal with an affiliate of a major label. If we get in front of the people, we’ll win ’em over. Where we get our fans is playing live shows.’”
Help from a major label will be critical for getting their songs on the radio, and thus to a wider fan base.
‘“Radio is the main artery for country,’” Higbee says. ‘“You can be the best stage band in the world, but you’ve got to get your songs on the radio.’”
From the moment they take the stage of the club, the seven guys play like this is the most important show of their lives. They look out into the giant shed, which one of the security guards says is a converted machine shop, and grin, acting for all the world like it’s an intimate bar. The wooden dance floor, which is blocked off by an enameled, rough-hewn log fence, remains still empty. A pile of cornmeal lies in one corner, unmolested by any boot. So Abbondanza implores the three women who seem to be having the most fun to drag their bar stools in front of the stage.
Their act relies on singeing honky guitar that leads a rollicking rhythm section, and sinuous, warbling vocals. As Abbondanza sings, Higbee dances to his right, brandishing the fiddle and bow in the air before ripping into a fiery and deftly executed solo. Both of them, with ripped physiques, have a way of swiveling their hips like Mick Jagger that suggests the possibility that country has become sexier than rock and roll.
They play solid original songs and well-chosen covers such as ‘“Louisiana Saturday Night’” and ‘“The Devil Went Down to Georgia.’” After a smoking rendition of Waylon Jennings’ ‘“Good Old Boys,’” Cramer runs out into the audience, takes two women by the hand and drags them onto the dance floor.
In another demonstration of the band’s charm and ability to contend with any circumstances, Abbondanza jumps off the stage and begins to waltz with a woman with platinum hair, one of the more proficient line dancers. He croons the ballad’s lyric into his wireless microphone ‘— ‘“right here right now on this busy street with all these people around’… I’ve got to tell you that I love for eternity’” ‘— as Higbee’s mandolin trills the melody and the rhythm section comes through right in time.
‘“We get thousands of people at our shows in Pennsylvania,’” Abbondanza says after the first set, ‘“and three quarters of them are women, believe it or not.’”
It’s easy to believe.
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