Hill Spirits Find Inspiration Away from Home to Heal the World

“Home for me is Dayton, Ohio,” says Brother Hill (a.k.a. Brett Hill) of Hill Spirits. “There’s a point when you are approaching the city center on I-35 westbound (from Athens, two hours east), and as you crest this point, you begin to see all the city steeples projecting into the sky. All those different people, histories, creeds, beliefs and ideals, all represented here in this place I call Steepletown.”

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Borrowing the name for their new single, “Steepletown” is a lush traditional folk track from their self-titled album that immerses you in the soaring harmonies and a sound that posits you far more North Carolina backwoods or even Irish countryside than Dayton, Ohio. Often known far more for its indie rock bands like Guided By Voices, Brainiac, and Breeders or the funk bands like Bootsy’s Rubber Band, the Ohio Players and Zapp featuring Roger Troutman, Dayton has a long history of being a fertile breeding ground of music. Traditional folk, however, is a wee bit of an anomaly there. You’d think that from the sound of “Steepletown” he had been holed up in a log cabin, swilling moonshine on a rocking chair.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Brother Hill finds inspiration to write music when he’s not at home in Dayton that lends itself to the non-local sound. “I write at my best when I am abroad, out of my element, and preferably in a place I’ve never been,” he explains. “As a traveler who finds himself away from home for extended periods of time, I needed to write a song about coming home after a long journey with a good tale to tell.”

The inherent feel to project a narrative is what keeps Hill Spirits’ music authentic to the folk tradition. “And I pride myself in living a life that’s worth telling ‘bout / And I pride myself on a freedom that starts with me,” he sings, projecting the art of storytelling. “This song is about calling all them good people in to gather around because there are stories to be told,” he says. “Across the arc of generations, this relationship between the storytellers and those they are telling the stories to has perpetuated kindred bonds between home and the outside world, between time present and time past to gain a better understanding of how to approach time future.”

In addition to these abstract musings, his inspirations are sourced from things other than metaphysics. “We draw inspiration from a variety of historical Appalachian characters,” he admits, “from the tales of the ‘wandering preacher’ Buell Kazee to the old-world ballads of Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Dock Boggs. We consider ourselves to be continuing the evolution of our regions folk tradition by allowing it the proper space and light to grow in to the future. The concept of preserving a folk tradition by keeping it in a sealed box seems to be counter intuitive, as no tradition exists in a vacuum. To thrive is to grow.”

His personal inspiration however is less bluegrass and more experimental rock. “I grew up singing along to Radiohead songs, he confesses. “Thom Yorke will always be a main deity in my book. The range, the style, the charisma.”

The pastoral radiance of the harmonies and the intricacies of the music is a confirmation to the band’s elemental chemistry, attesting to the band’s inherent cohesion and the lush live sound of the recording. “This song was recorded in one take to 2” reel-to-reel tape at Patrick Himes’ Reel Love Studios in Dayton, Ohio,” Brother Hill asserts. “It was the first song we recorded for the full-length album and when it was finished, we all looked at each other and said ‘We can’t have just done that in one take.’ Come to find out, we had.”

With their new album recently released into an uncertain world split apart by politics and the pandemic, Brother Hill hopes to create a sense of community with his music and heal it from within. “The idea that, even in this globalized age we live in, community and storytelling are tools we have to bind ourselves together,” he says. “Young and old, we can all learn from each other’s experiences and create more verdant and ecumenical communities built around acknowledging our similarities instead of fixating on our differences.”

It’s a lofty goal, but he’s committed… and he wants to start here… right now.  “I hope the fans enjoy as much as I do that second chorus [of the ‘Steepletown’], with all five of us Ohio sons shouting in unison ‘Our pride it lies in living the lives that we sing about / Our voices raised can soften any hardship that we face’,” he says, focusing on the message and his ambitious mission statement. “That is simply the kind of attitude that I think we all need to keep in mind in times as divided as these. Live authentically, stick together, and sing together.”

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