To hear Steve Harris, the band’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist, tell it, Hillbilly Vegas’ wild journey from small town Oklahoma to budding rock-country stardom in Nashville begins in the remote house where they’re now inviting the world to “Shake It Like A Hillbilly.” It’s actually the home studio in the middle of nowhere owned by Johnny Reed, the band’s rhythm guitar/mandolin/banjo/keyboard
man—but the band and now everybody else knows it as Ringo Manor, the place where the group wrote and recorded their first demos for what became their multi-faceted, genre transcending debut album with producer Richie Owens (Georgia Satellites, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill). Dubbed Ringo Manor in honor of its place of origin, the eleven track set is released by Nashville indie Red Dirt, also the home of The Kentucky Headhunters and Skid Row frontman Johnny Solinger.
The whimsical and raucous “Grits and Gravy” and “Oklahoma 3.2” (their jab at their home states’ weak beer) get everyone up dancing at the nightclub, flatbed trailer and casino shows Hillbilly Vegas does everywhere from Oklahoma City to Nashville. But folks throughout the Midwest also drive hundreds of miles to see Harris weave colorful anecdotes and lead his band through more heartfelt tunes like the Eagles-flavored ballad “Little Miss Rough and Tumble” (inspired by Harris’ reflection on how fast his 25 year old daughter grew up) and “Faces Change,” which Harris wrote to inspire his son to appreciate the good moments even during the darkest of times; some of its words came from a letter Harris wrote to his now 15 year old son when he was just seven.
Citing classic pop/rock influences as diverse as The Kentucky Headhunters, Jerry Reed, Grand Funk, Loggins & Messina and Flying Burrito Brothers, the band—whose members include Mitch Spencer (lead guitar, backing vocals), Ray Reynaga (bass, backing vocals) and Troy Holinger (drums)—has performed with the Headhunters, renowned country stars Travis Tritt and Collin Raye, and recently did a sold-out CD release party, headlining after opening act The Dirt Drifters.
While Harris and Spencer had previous flirtations with record deals and industry success, their musical dreams lay dormant for way too long. A few years ago, Harris thought it would be nice to record the traditional country classic “Angel Band” as a gift to his mom. He and Johnny Reed, who had first played together years earlier when Harris was 20 and Reed was 13, went to Reed’s studio and soon found themselves writing original songs. The boys had no intention of starting another band. They brought in their other old music buddies—all longtime friends or in-laws—to help flesh out these tracks and have a good time. But, as Harris puts it, “you can’t put a bunch of musicians in a room without them deciding to start a band.
“That’s what happened,” Harris says, “and it’s been a nonstop rollercoaster ride since that first night at Johnny’s home studio. That home studio eventually became so much more than just a place to rehearse. Every song, every idea and every experience the guys shared as a band and friends happened at Johnny’s place. Sometimes it was just good cookin’ and a good conversation that inspired some of our best songs, like ‘I Already Know,’ which tells the story of one of the guys’ breakups. Johnny’s little place way out in the middle of nowhere, Oklahoma became Ringo Manor…the band’s home.”
The band decided to play an acoustic gig at a local coffeehouse and soon was selling CDs as quickly as they could burn them. A hotshot from a major Nashville label heard their first song “Wrong” on a Ft. Smith, AR station and offered them a contract. Though that deal and a few other potentials fell through, Hillbilly Vegas eventually signed a management deal with Nashville veteran Ben Ewing—and then a contract with Red Dirt. Unusual for a new band in the country realm, the label chose the band’s original songs over others submitted by top Music City tunesmiths—and Hillbilly Vegas does all the playing on Ringo Manor, with the exception of extra keyboard and vocal parts done by musicians who have played with Dolly Parton and Wynonna.
“I think the most fulfilling part of the whole ride with Hillbilly Vegas is realizing that we’re not crazy,” says Harris, “that being musicians and performers has always been what we’re about—we just needed the right time and opportunity to show the world what we can do. It’s humbling to realize that we’re finally doing it and that so many people care and take the time to listen and come out and support us. We know this isn’t groundbreaking material…it’s just real. Each song chronicles the experience and influences of the guys who wrote them. Nobody wants to eat the same meat every day and nobody wants to listen to the same song 11 times on the album…so we offer an emotional tour of us and where we come from. Ringo Manor is not going to be mistaken for the White Album…it’s just life. There’s funny, sad, lonely…and sometimes just plain old goofy. That’s what we’re communicating – regular people stuff.”