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Interview: Johnny Hiland - Chicken Pickin’s Champion

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Interview: Johnny Hiland – Chicken Pickin’s Champion


Telecaster Dreams
Ricky Skaggs provided the inspiration for Hiland to pick up a Telecaster. “I was a big Ricky Skaggs fan as a kid. I saw him on TV one day and I said, 'Dad, I wanna go see him live.' When I was 10-years-old, my dad found out he was playing at the Bangor Auditorium and I remember him saying to me, 'Kid, I can't believe I'm wasting the money to see Ricky Skaggs 'cuz he'll never sound as good as he does on a record!’” Hiland laughs as he recalls that seeing Skaggs jumping up on top of a PA speaker with his Telecaster initially provided the spark. “From then on, I was a changed kid. I loved the acoustic guitar and I loved the bluegrass thing, but there was something about the electric guitar that had a bigger sound. I tried everything I could to push more volume, more tone, more everything. I don’t think my mom and dad knew what they were getting themselves into with all the pedals, effects, and all that good stuff.”

The Skaggs influence may be the root of Hiland's style today. “Nobody in Maine knew what a B-bender was. I was so hooked on Ricky's sound—and not realizing that he used a B-bender—I basically learned all the Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stewart, and Jimmy Olander licks without one. I think with repetition, one can slowly develop such preciseness over time. After playing that style for twenty years, I finally feel like I'm comfortable in doing that. I love the whole chicken pickin'-style, and after being turned on to Ricky, I learned about Albert Lee and Danny Gatton.”

Fun in the Studio
“Of all the records I've done so far, this album means the most to me. It really allowed me to find where I'm the most comfortable,” says Hiland of All Fired Up. “I wanted to take chicken-pickin' guitar to the rock market and show rockers that chicken pickin' is cool and a very adept, complex style. I wanted to show that it’s not as easy and hillbilly as some people think it is.”

Luckily, Hiland and Varney hit it off right away, and the whirlwind recording project was almost immediately set in motion. “I talked to Mike for the first time in December 2010, and by February, I was out in California cuttin'—so it was a massive frenzy of writing for me. I wasn’t necessarily in panic mode, but I was real busy.” Hiland had wanted to work with Stu Hamm for a long time, so the prospect of working with him was thrilling. And Varney made the suggestion of getting Jeremy Colson on drums since Hiland's goal was to take chicken pickin' to a rock market. “I first met Jeremy through playing with Steve Vai. I thought, man, this is going to be a cool and different thing—not something typical that Nashville is used to hearing. I also thought it would be really interesting to see how these boys pull off the chicken pickin' stuff.” The experience more than lived up to his hopes. “I had some of the best times of my life playing with Stu and Jeremy. There's no fear with Jeremy. In 'Barnyard Breakdown' I said, 'Man, can you do a double-kick train beat?' He just started messin' with it for a minute, and next thing you know, he's got it.”

Varney approached the recording a little differently than what Hiland was expecting. “We started with two days of rehearsal, and I'm thinking, 'Rehearsal? Who rehearses for a record?' I thought, man, you get in here with Stu and Jeremy, hit the record button, and away you go! But I'm so glad because it was really an awesome way of doing a record. I got into a room with the guys, and we spent two full days making sure my charts were correct, the song was structured the way it should be, and that it was the length it should be.”

The approach greatly accelerated and simplified the entire process. “We tracked the rhythm section the first day we went in. I loved it because it really helped eliminate the whole pre-production thing. I've done it the other way in the past by going into the studio, recording all these songs, and trying to get them right. It wears you out as an artist when you go and cut the whole album as demos, and then have to go back and restructure things and make changes. When you go to cut the final record, you're already kind of sick of the songs. I think our approach is what really brought about the freshness of this album.”
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