Concert review: Unknown Hinson, King of the Country and Western Troubadours, holds court at the Old Rock House on Friday, June 22
At the Old Rock House on Friday night, instead of an opening act, we were treated to almost two hours of Squidbillies, the dark, absurdist “Adult Swim” cartoon in which Unknown Hinson voices Early Cuyler, an Appalachian Mud Squid with a low IQ, an alcohol problem and a penchant for trucker caps with trashy phrases on them.
Squidbillies episodes are approximately 15 minutes in length, so two hours of surrealism was a bit much. However, it did give the crowd plenty of time to prepare for the main event.
Unknown Hinson’s band took the stage and set to tuning up in the dark while classic country tunes played in the background. Once the band started in on the Unknown Hinson theme song, Unknown took the stage with a bang. Bang as in he pulled out his .38 pistol, fired a shot into the air with a whoop and a holler and strapped on his Reverend signature series guitar.
I went to the show knowing nothing about Unknown Hinson other than his affiliation with Squidbillies and a generic idea of his musical style. Given that Hinson’s act is a comedic send up of classic country and western stereotypes with a healthy dose of ’50s rockabilly wrapped in a monster movie double feature, I was expecting decent musicians playing decently while the humorous lyrics propped up the act. When Hinson came out on stage dressed in a rodeo tailor suit looking like Grandpa Munster with a mile-wide mean streak, I thought my suspicions were confirmed.
But once he started ripping into his guitar, all it took was about five seconds and I knew I could not have been more wrong.
Hinson’s backing band (Jimmy Church on the pedal steel and guitar, Rick Cutshaw on the drums and Hugh “Tuff” Blanton on the bass) is one of the best sounding acts I’ve seen in a long time. They play so well together that I’m convinced that they were jamming together in the womb or else they wouldn’t have had enough time to get that tight. They were so locked in that even Beatle Bob wasn’t able to get out of the groove.
In my opinion, the pedal steel is one of the few instruments that can make or break a performance. Jimmy Church definitely hit the former, playing accents and licks that were audible and tasteful without overpowering the rest of the band. He also knew when to slide in with a killer lead and slide back out before you even knew he was there.
Hinson’s guitar playing really knocked me for a loop. I had no idea what I was in for, but I did not expect him to have more chops than a butcher shop. Whether he was playing basic chords or ripping out a lead at the speed of light, Hinson was a tone machine and one of the best guitarists I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing live.
The songs themselves were well crafted and performed masterfully. Whether they played a slow barnburner honoring a good smellin’ waitress in “Fish Camp Woman,” a ballad to an inflatable lover in “Polly Urethane” or a classically-styled, mid-tempo country and western tune about a gold-digging girlfriend in “Pregnant Again” the band sounded sincere and as authentic as you can get without a chicken wire enclosed stage. Lyrically the tunes were well-written, tongue-in-cheek mash-ups of traditional country and western tunes if they had been written by the most stereotypical white-trash hillbillies that had come from the mountains of West Virginia.
The sound was a little off for this show. Hinson’s vocals were muffled and hard to understand at times. To counteract this, I spent the second set of the evening out on the patio, where the vocals were crisp and clear as the evening air. Much like the Squidbillies episodes from earlier in the evening, the action on the patio was quite surreal.
Between songs we were entertained by the drunken girl throwing up in the parking lot after too much of what Hinson calls “party liquor” and a gentleman who emerged from an ambulance to a round of applause after having been loaded in for collapsing on the dance floor. We were amazed by the equipment loader who was doing some amazing things with hula-hoops before helping tend to the previously mentioned collapsed gentleman.
Stealing the show was the disheveled hippie guy who was ejected from the venue twice, once for messing with the band’s monitors and again for jumping the patio fence to get back in. Halfway through his antics the gentleman in front of me shouted some advice to him, telling him to return to his family who miss him. Shortly afterwards he darted into traffic on 7th Street on two occasions, the second of which nearly cost him his life. Fortunately his girlfriend came and rounded him up, taking him to points unknown.
Hinson sat at the merch table for about two hours after the show, signing autographs and talking to anyone who wanted to meet him. Meeting a man with that much musical talent who has a sincere appreciation for his fans is a rare thing in the music business, and is one reason why I walked out of the Old Rock House with my spirits high and nothing but love for mankind in my heart. The other reason was too much party liquor.