“Ten Shots” with Bill Hammer of Porkchop Willie

By Georgetown Fats
March 2011

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After receiving life altering news this fall, I momentarily embraced my French roots and recreated many a scene of my forefathers by retreating and getting the hell out of town at the first sign of struggle. Rather than clearing out of Moscow and hurling insults along the way, I packed my poison pen and my GPS unit and packed myself into a Rav-4 with three equally adept devotees of flatulence and scatological locker-room humor. My pending date with fatherhood may result in an onset of terminal occasional maturity, but it will not cause me to retire my poison pen. Given we were all headed down to New York City’s East Village to listen to a local NYC band play North Mississippi Hill Country Blues, I figured my poison pen was going to get a lot of exercise.

A funny thing happened though during my expected gripe filled re-cap ... I thoroughly enjoyed myself at Porkchop Willie’s “North Mississippi Hill Country Night” at Banjo Jim's in NYC. Through the written works of Palmer and Drozdowski I learned of the musical works of Misters Kimbrough, Burnside, Ford and Belfour, not to mention the work of Ms. Hemphill. Through “Al Gore’s interweb” I learned of the new generation of Deep Blues players, The Gravelroads, The Left Lane Cruisers, and The Ten Foot Polecats, but it took a trip deep into NYC for me to learn of that juke joint vibe which is capable of bringing the punks in with folkies and getting them all up dancing to the trance-inducing sounds of the North Mississippi Hill Country.

Below is an interview conducted with Bill Hammer, the chief cook and bottle washer of Porkchop Willie and Porkchop Willie’s “North Mississippi Hill Country Night” at Banjo Jim's in New York City.

Boston Blues Society - So, how far along are you with the Porkchop Willie debut release? Is there an ETA on a drop date? I understand you’re recording at Jimbo Mathus’ studio in Como. How has that been for Melissa and yourself? Is there a name for the pending release?

Porkchop Willie - That depends on how you define our debut release. In one sense, Pork Chop Willie has its debut CD out already. It was recorded in Jimbo's studio with Kinney Kimbrough on drums, Eric Deaton on bass and included, at various times, Kenny Brown, Duwayne Burnside and Jimbo on guitar. The one person who was not included on the record was Melissa Tong (aka Railroad Nails). I came up with the idea of adding Melissa to the band after I recorded this CD. So Melissa and I are heading back to Mississippi in May to do a new record. (BTW, Melissa, most unfortunately, will not be able to play with us in Boston on April 2. Her best friend is getting married that day and ... well, you know.)

Boston Blues Society - Other than the ball park which housed the beginning of the “greatest collapse in the history of sports” what do you know about Boston? Have you gigged up here before with either Porkchop Willie or with The Maxwell Street Roosters (Hammer’s previous band)?

Porkchop Willie - I'm not much of a baseball fan really. So you would have to tell me how many World Series the Yankees have won versus the Red Sox? Do the Red Sox have a long history of winning or have they just gotten lucky recently? In any event, we have not played up in Boston. We always seem to head South when we go out of town.

Boston Blues Society – Is it true the New York Yankees are going to change their team motto to “Better living and baseball through chemistry?”

Boston Blues Society – Can you remember the track Jimbo Mathus and Eric Deaton were playing that made you have an “ah-ha” moment with the North Mississippi Hill Country sound?

Porkchop Willie - I remember that Jimbo was playing songs from his Knockdown South CD and Eric was playing songs from his first CD, Gonna Be Trouble Here. I think the song that sealed it for me was when Eric played “Jumper.” This is what I wanted to be playing. I stayed and stayed, listening to the music. When I got home at 3 am, I told my wife that I had just had a life changing experience. She said, “Go to bed.”

Boston Blues Society – In my limited experience with the North Mississippi Hill Country, I hadn’t heard a lot of acts add a fiddle into the instrumentation. When I checked out the now monthly North Mississippi Hill Country Night at Banjo Jim’s (New York City's East Village on the first Friday of every month), I surprised to hear the fiddle, and how effortlessly Melissa Tong (fiddle player in Porkchop Willie) fit into the mix. Was the choice of fiddle by your design, or was it a by fortunate coincidence? Also how did you meet “Railroad Nails” (Melissa’s nickname)?

Porkchop Willie - Melissa was teaching my kids piano and violin. I don't know why I thought of asking her to play some Hill Country stuff with me. But I'm glad I did. She plays almost everything from bluegrass to alternative to classical but had never played blues. I gave her some R.L. and Junior records and then we went to a studio and played some songs. We were recording the session and when we played it back, we both started laughing. It was so good. I feel like we are offering something unique now. No one in NYC is playing Hill Country stuff and when we go down to Mississippi, no one is playing it with a fiddle. And it doesn't sound gimmicky at all. Probably because it’s not. It’s very traditional yet unique at the same time. And heartfelt.

Boston Blues Society – OK, I have to ask, how on earth did you get the folks at Banjo Jim’s to partner with you on the North Mississippi Hill Country Night? I expected the “folkies” music crowd to flee for the exit upon the first amplified electric guitar note. I was pleasantly surprised when not only the “folkies” stayed, but when a healthy dose of “punk” fans joined the audience and mixed in with the crowd. Any theories on how this all came together?

Porkchop Willie - Lol. The folks at Banjo Jim's are fantastic! They are not just folkie at all. All kinds of bands play there. And the audience is the best anywhere. They know and love music. The last time we played at Banjo Jim's with the Ten Foot Polecats and Kent Burnside, Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith's guitar player and partner-in-crime) had taken the 7:00 slot. He's rock ‘n’ roll royalty to me. And the place was PACKED. So the Polecats' punk-a-billy blues or whatever they call it fit in just fine. If it’s good music, especially if it’s getting back to the roots, Banjo Jim's will like it.

BBS – If I were to crack into your car CD player, what disk would I find that would surprise the hell out of me?

Porkchop Willie - Ooh, that's always a dangerous question. I have a LOT of alt country music, like Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller. And my favorite artist ever since I first saw him play back in 1978 or so is Garland Jeffreys. But that doesn't seem surprising to me. It's all back to basics, make you feel things deeply, music. Maybe the interesting thing is what's not on there. There isn't a Beatles tune in sight. I don't really like the Beatles. It took me years to be able to say that in public....

BBS – You’re not a BEATLES fan? My respect for you continues, sir.

BBS - I can’t quite make the nickname “Railroad Nails” work for Melissa Tong, what am I missing here?

Porkchop Willie - Well maybe you had to be there. We were in a Juke Joint on the wrong side of the tracks in Clarksdale. If you wanted a drink you had two choices, nothing or a 24 oz can of Bud. Melissa ordered herself a Tall Boy and a woman at least three times her size tried to take it away. The details get ugly but I can tell you that Melissa ended up with the beer. Kinney Kimbrough looked at her and said, “Girl, you're tough as railroad nails.” It stuck. Don't cross her.

BBS – What is a tell-tale indicator for you in a live situation when you know the audience “gets it?”

Porkchop Willie - You can feel the energy on the longer Hill Country songs. We haven't changed chords in ten minutes and everyone is swaying to the insistent rhythm. I haven't gotten anyone to roll around in the mud yet, but we will.

BBS – Any words of wisdom for someone about to take their initial pilgrimage down to Clarksdale?

Porkchop Willie - Are you going for the Juke Joint Festival? It's wonderful. Blues literally fills the air for three days. Anytime you go to Clarksdale, you have to go to Red's.

BBS – If you could impart any wisdom to someone who isn’t hip to the North Mississippi Hill Country or Deep Blues sound what would it be?

Porkchop Willie - The first time you hear it played right, which we are still working on, you wonder after about a minute whether the band is ever going to change chords. Then after two or three minutes, you realize that this is really cool. After seven minutes (five if you've been tasting the moonshine), you're rolling around in the mud with the spirit in you! See question above on “getting it!!”

WE’RE GETTING IN ON THE FUN! April 2 is our first North Mississippi Hill Country Night, starring Kent Burnside and the New Generation, Pork Chop Willie, Ten Foot Pole Cats, Tokyo Tramps, and Ray Cashman. This wild show will start at 8:30 p.m. at the Rosebud Bar in Davis Square, Somerville. Admission is $7 in advance, $10 at the door. The BBS hopes to make this a regular thang, so check out this increasingly popular style of blues.

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