John Wheeler is a big man with a cap on his head, plenty of stubble round the chin, and a voice to scare the virgins in the next village. He is from Nashville, Tennessee, and likes to use long German words like Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmigungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung. There is a good reason John learned German: “When I started out as an undergraduate doing philosophy and history, I realised quite quickly that there were certain things that you couldn’t übersetzen. Words like “Geist”, for instance. The title of Hegel’s “Phänomenologie des Geistes” I’ve seen translated as “Phenomenology of Mind”, “Phenomenology of Spirit”, “Phenomenology of Consciousness”, and “Phenomenology of Soul”. None of these is really accurate.” John Wheeler is also the “Geist” behind Hayseed Dixie, a band that began its bizarre career by rendering AC/DC songs in a speeded up hillbilly style complete with banjo, mandolin, backwoods camouflage clothing and barbed political comments of a decidedly left-leaning tendency. Hayseed Dixie, against the predictions of all normally reliable experts, turned out to be one of Cooking Vinyl’s most extraordinary success stories. So much so that Rob Collins calls it “the Hayseed Dixie phenomenon”.
The Hayseed Dixie story began in summer 2000 when Wheeler was running his own studio in Nashville, pitching songs to the myriad publishing companies in town, and producing records and playing guitar or fiddle for anyone who would hire him. Having completed work on a number of “experimental albums” just “to learn about the studio”, he also laid down a handful of bluegrass versions of AC/DC songs, including “Highway to Hell”, “Hells Bells” and “Back in Black”. “I’d always played AC/DC and Black Sabbath stuff in a country style at parties. It was just something funny to do. The songs worked well as C&W. They had the same chord structures.” Thinking nothing more of it, he burned twenty CDs and handed them out to friends, to be played at their parties. John still doesn’t know how it happened, but someone somewhere passed one of these CDs to a radio DJ, and before he had any idea of what was happening (“I was never up early enough to listen to breakfast radio!”), Hayseed Dixie were played on morning radio shows across the United States. At that point, Wheeler decided to try and look for a record deal “to make a little coin.” Since the record was already finished and Wheeler wanted neither an advance nor any investment in videos and related modern PR exercises, the search didn’t prove too difficult. Hayseed Dixie were signed to the newly formed Nashville indie label Dualtone on a 50/50 net deal. Released in April 2001, “A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC” reached the top of the Billboard bluegrass charts and the top 50 in the Country charts. It sold 200’000 copies and paid Wheeler’s house off. Unsurprisingly, the major labels started banging loudly on his door. “I met all of them, and you wouldn’t believe the deals they were offering me,” he booms. “Oh my God, I couldn’t believe anybody would sign that bullshit.” A meeting at the Sony offices sits deep in his memory. The company suggested an eight-album deal (including options) where they would own the masters in perpetuity and pay a royalty rate of 12%. Included in the deal was a clause that defined “territory” as “this world and all others, including those not yet known and/or discovered”. “So I said to the guy behind the desk: “You fucking kidding me?” He said: “It’s just legalese.” I said: “It sounds to me like what you’re saying is, if we colonise some planet orbiting Alpha Centauri out there some time in the future, you think you own this record there, too?” And he was like: “Technically, yes, but…”. I said: “If it’s just legalese, why don’t we strike it?” “Oh, we can’t strike it.” “Well, if you think it’s important enough to keep it in there, it’s important enough for me to take seriously. This is RIDICULOUS, I don’t wanna waste any more of your time!” I got up and walked out. He went: “But, but, but,…we’re Sony!” And I went “But, but, but, I’m John! I’d have to sell 2 million copies of that record to make any money at all! Whereas the deal I’ve got now I can sell 200’000, 300’000 pieces and make damn near a million Dollars! Why would I want you to make all the money?” That was the end of me looking for a major label deal for anything, ever.”
Hayseed Dixie made three albums for Dualtone. The second contained hillbilly covers of songs by Queen, Ted Nugent, Spinal Tap (!), Aerosmith and others (plus two originals), the third was a Kiss covers album. All sold well. It was then that John Wheeler received the e-mail that was to change the course of his life. The e-mail came from a man in Wrexham, Wales, who wanted to book Hayseed Dixie for a small AC/DC tribute festival. He offered a meagre £ 500, plus flights and no restrictions in regard of any other gigs the band wanted to play. Wheeler was up for it, provided he could put together a small tour. However, he knew no one in Europe. He shared his problem with Steve Earle’s manager Danny Gillis who happened to be a regular in his local bar. Gillis passed him the details of Martin Goldschmidt: “This guy’s been trying to get Steve forever,” he said. “I think he’s a good dude. He might cut you a fair deal.” As Dualtone was represented in Europe by Essential, Martin Goldschmidt was aware of Hayseed Dixie. “Dualtone kept trying to get Essential to put Hayseed Dixie out over here, and Cooking Vinyl as well,” remembers Martin. “We all went, “oh God, no!” Even I felt that way. No way is this going to work. They have no fan base. They’re a one-joke band.” It was only when John contacted him directly that his attitude changed ever so slightly. “He sounded really nice and so I said: “fuck it, we’ll do it. It’ll probably sell 1000 copies but don’t get your hopes up”.” It was the same deal as with Dualtone, 50/50. Following John’s suggestion, Martin selected what he thought might be the tracks that worked best in Europe from the three US albums. John recorded additional tunes, Mötörhead’s “Ace of Spades”, AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” and the Darkness’s “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”, hits in the UK that hadn’t registered with US audiences. The resulting compilation “Let There Be Rockgrass” was released in August 2004, just in time for Hayseed Dixie’s UK debut on Friday, 6 August, at the London Borderline.
It was John Wheeler’s first time in Europe. “Before we got to Gatwick I remember saying to Martin, “could you please send us a car to pick us up, I don’t know how to get round London?” And he said: “Oh, it’s really easy, get on the Gatwick Express, then at Victoria you get the so-and.so tube to Diddlydum, and from there you get the number x bus to y, get out, cross the road, get on the z bus, get out when you get to a pub called one thing or the other, walk one block this way, two blocks that way, and you’re here. I was intimidated as fuck! But I was too embarrassed to say that to him. So we got to Victoria and I packed the band into a taxi, fuck it, I’m gonna pay for it myself. After quite a drive we pulled into this side street and into this little industrial estate, and I was thinking: “wow, is this guy serious?” You know what, I thought, it’s always the crappy-looking Mexican restaurants in America that are really good. So I knocked on the door, and down he comes, and he’s a bald-headed dude with glasses, and he comes to meet us, “hullo there, nice to meet you”, in this very London British accent. I just looked at him: “Somehow I expected you to be a bit more rock’n’roll, know what I’m saying?” He looked like someone who’d be selling you a used car. He took us out to lunch at the pub round the corner, and we got talking, and I realised that this was probably quite a cool dude.”
Promotional work wasn’t going to plan for Cooking Vinyl. Not only were the company’s own staff not convinced that this was going to work. The all-important radio pluggers, a company called Cool Badge, refused point blank to work on the record. Only after some serious talking to from Martin did they relent to the point where they at least sent out some advance CDs. John Wheeler, still in Nashville, started to read reports on his website from the UK that a radio presenter named Jeremy Vine was playing their record. Wheeler reported this to Cool Badge who didn’t believe him. This was understandable. Vine is a highly respected and earnest broadcaster with his own news and politics talk show on the staid and steady BBC Radio 2 channel. He doesn’t often have a live music on the programme, and, consequently, his choices matter twice as much. The chances that Hayseed Dixie would be deemed Vine material seemed exceedingly low. Undaunted, Wheeler, who had no idea who Vine was, or indeed Radio 2, e-mailed the presenter a personal invitation to the Borderline gig. And there, to everyone’s astonishment, in the middle of the Borderline audience, beer in hand, big grin on his face, was the famous radio man, gleefully bopping along with the music like everyone else. “He rocked out the whole show,” says Wheeler, “put his trench coat on and said: “are you guys available tomorrow? You’ve got to come to my show and play a set.” The next day, Hayseed Dixie played live on Jeremy Vine and recorded a jingle for him – “If you wanna hear great music listen to Jeremy Vine” – which still gets the occasional airing today. “I saw the Cool Badge report a couple of weeks later, and it listed Jeremy Vine as one of their achievements. I called them up and said: you fucking bastards, take that off, you did shit all for that, I did that – you told me it couldn’t happen!”