Cabinet of Obscurities: The Hilltops – “Holler”

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An occasional feature showcasing excellent music by little-known artists who (generally) only put out one or two albums.

This one is unique, as I’ve never owned the actual album or even seen the cover. I’ve never seen it for sale on ebay, or anywhere else on the Internet. So, yeah, it’s pretty obscure – but Holler, issued in 1989 by Mississippi’s the Hilltops, is arguably an important album as it features some of the earliest recordings of Uncle Tupelo/Wilco’s John Stirratt and Blue Mountain’s Cary Hudson and Laurie Stirratt (Hank Sossaman drummed.)
Apart from that, Holler has some damn good music.

“A punk band” is how you’ll sometimes see the Hilltops referred to, which to my ears, is off the mark. The band, at least in the studio, had a lot more in common with Blue Mountain; an alt country/Americana/classic rock sound.  Yet, there is a clear division between Hudson’s and John Stirratt’s songs, with Stirratt’s being more obviously influenced by punk and “indie rock.” But there’s little of the nihilism of punk.  

The Hilltops live from an old, no longer in existence, Blue Mountain website

Holler (and I’m just going by the running order on my multi-generational cassette transfer, which may or may not be accurate) kicks off with Hudson’s “Haunted,” a fast, energized slab of take-no-prisoners rock n’ roll.  Okay, maybe there is a bit of punk rock attitude here after all. A more enticing lead off to an album, you’ll be hard pressed to find. Further in, Stirratt’s “Sleep” ratchets up the intensity even further…and, well, has some punk in it too. Hmmm…maybe I should rethink this “not punk” thing.   The rest of the album, however, cruises through less punkier waters – but no less electric. “It Must Be” and “Seafoam Green” mix some jangle into the proceedings, while “Slow Suicide,” about a bad relationship, survived to be re-recorded for Blue Mountain’s Dog Days.

Cary Hudson plays harmonica in the van as the Hilltops tour down the road, from an old, no longer in existence, Blue Mountain website.

The band sounds young on this album, especially in the vocals, and they were all still in their early 20’s – but for a regional band on a small local record label, they sound focused, spirited and professional. Qualities which would be refined more on Big Black River, their follow up (reviewed by me long ago for the Allmusic Guide). The differences between Hudson’s and Stirratt’s songs are more striking on Big Black River, however, and as a result the album isn’t as cohesive as Holler. …River was reissued in 1996 via Chris Hudson’s (cousin of Cary) now defunct Black Dog Records, with three songs from Holler tacked on. I’ve always found it odd, though, that those three extra tracks chosen were all John Stirratt tracks and none Hudson’s. Speaking of Stirratt’s work in the Hilltops, it’s interesting that he went in the total opposite direction later on with the mellow acoustic folk of the Autumn Defense.

I once asked Laurie Stirratt about the possibility of a reissue of Holler on the small record label Broadmoor, run by her and John (a label also long gone, like Black Dog is). She expressed doubt that there would be much interest. However, I think with the right marketing/promotion, via Wilco’s website and through Cary Hudson’s site (Hudson is solo artist now, with an extensive discography of his own), it would sell.
Holler deserves its place in the sun.

Postscript: I was about to publish this post and had a Cary Hudson CD out which I hadn’t listened to in a long time and found this note inside, which I had forgotten about:
So, I’m not holding my breath!

[For more info on the Hilltops, check out this article about the band from a 2011 issue of The Oxford American, written by someone who must have been an insider.]
—–
Some songs from Big Black River floating around YouTube:
“Broke Down and Busted”
“Mary Jane”
“Judgement Day”

 

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