Music isn't just an obsession for Johnny Hiland. It's been woven through every part of his life since he was a child in Bangor, Maine. “I was a very, very, very young boy—a 2 1/2-year-old—when my Aunt Brenda came over to give my father their father's 1939 J45 Gibson. It had been in her attic for a number of years and looked like something that had come over on the Mayflower. It was all beat-up, but it had all the tuning keys and was still a fully functional guitar. I just gravitated to it and it grabbed hold of me, kind of like Linus with the security blanket. I had to be with that guitar all the time.”

Hiland's licks may be lightning-fast and accurate as clockwork, but because of his life-long love of the guitar, there's an emotional component to his playing that makes him far more than just a superb technician. “Chicken pickin' is fun music. If you go out there in a bad mood, you're gonna have a smile on before you’re done, 'cuz it'll do that to you whether you want it to or not. It's such an invigorating style to play—that's why I love chicken pickin'. It’s complicated and not an easy genre to play, but I just go out there and try to be myself, allowing the music to reach out there as best I can. Hopefully it’ll brighten somebody’s day.”

His new record for Shrapnel,
All Fired Up, contains all the fun, love, and excitement that Hiland can muster, and his fans know that's considerable. “I call it ‘chicken pickin' on steroids’ because I really think we created a new kind of chicken pickin' and a whole different sound that even Nashville's not used to,” he explains. With a killer rhythm-section comprised of Steve Vai’s bassist, Stuart “Stu” Hamm, and Jeremy Colson on drums, he's crafted a chicken pickin' smorgasbord that crosses from country to rock to R&B—and even brushes up against jazz.

All Fired Upwas produced by Mike Varney, who provided Hiland the opportunity to make the record he always wanted to make. “I think you can stretch as a guitar player and reach out to a lot of different styles, but there is one main element or genre where you cut your teeth that everybody loves to hear you play. I just had to find it in myself to say, OK, I'm a chicken picker, but it's okay for me to stick some other styles in there—just not making them the dominant thing. So when I did this album with Mike, it was a chance for me to do just that.”

School Bus Rock
Hiland's relationship with the guitar as a youngster was not exactly typical. “By 4-years-old, I would stay on the school bus with the guy who drove it. He ran a small Italian restaurant in our town and I would sing Willie Nelson songs to him on the bus. I often forget to get off at my stop, so he would finish his route and take me back to his restaurant where he'd call my mom and say, 'I'm feeding the boy spaghetti and he's playing for his dinner.'”

Hiland’s father, a drummer, didn't know standard tuning for the guitar at the time, so he tuned it to an open-E, which was how Hiland played for several years. “I kinda played like Jeff Healey with the guitar flat on my lap, and I used my thumb to walk the bass line. It was an interesting way to play, but what it really did was develop my right hand. I learned to strum well at an early age and I played that way until I was 10-years-old.” As a 7-year-old, he appeared on television for the first time, and then went on to win the Talent America contest at the age of 10. It wasthenhe began learning his first chords in standard tuning. “I started a small folkie/bluegrass career, and it was a fun for me. Since I wasn't able to play kickball, baseball, or basketball like the other kids in school—and of course was made fun of—I would take out my emotions on the guitar. It really became my emotional outlet and it remains so to this day.”

Growing up, his musical addiction was country music. “I wanted tobeRoy Clark when I was a little boy. I loved Roy Clark, Buck Owens, and the wholeHee Hawgang. I'd also stay up at night with my dad and watchAustin City Limits.” Being visually impaired, sound moved Hiland in deeper ways. “When I hear a piece, I just try to wrap myself in it. For me, it's how sonic waves and sound move— I love hearing orchestras and horn sections. It really can engulf you.”

But it was the guitar that spoke clearest and loudest to Hiland, even as a child. “There's a passion that lives inside of us, and when a form of music grabs ahold, it'll throw you around a little bit and make your soul jump. That's what I always tried to do when I played guitar, even as a little kid. I loved the sonic values of every guitar string and what they were capable of doing. To to this day, I still find it so intriguing.”