In the opening hour of the 2019 PBS series Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns, Dolly Parton offered a primer on the use of the much-maligned word “hillbilly.”
“If you’re an outsider… and you’re saying it’s hillbilly music, because you don’t know any better, it’s almost like a racist remark,” she observed. “If we’re hillbillies, we’re proud of it. But you’re not allowed to say it if you don’t really know what you’re talking about.”
Singer-songwriter Stephen Wilson Jr., who was raised in Seymour, Ind., has enough backwoods cred to use the word properly. Or, to be more accurate, enough cred to pull the word apart properly. His song “billy,” released Sept. 16, centers on a hook that revels in its unsophisticated lifestyle choices: “You can call me billy, but the hills come with me.”
“The way hillbillies are generalized in mainstream media, they’re kind of lacking in intelligence, or they don’t think progressively,” Wilson says. “All the hillbillies I grew up with are actually really smart people; they just kind of chose a real simple life — and I kind of wanted to showcase the simplicity of that life without really taking a side.”
But it’s a performance with its own sound: a buzzing undercurrent, quasi-tribal drums and a fiery, futuristic-sounding lap steel with a touch of danger. The sound is, suggests Wilson, “Death Cab for country.”
Wilson developed “billy” in a half-hour fit of inspiration in his Nashville kitchen on Nov. 29, 2021, the Monday following Thanksgiving. He had spent the holiday in Indiana, hanging out with family and reconnecting with his roots. “I took a quick little swim in the hillbilly pool when I went home,” he says. “Maybe me writing that song was getting it off me.”
The “You can call me billy” hook may have been a reaction to his brief Indiana sojourn — he’s not entirely sure how it arrived — but he developed the lyrics first, starting with a chorus that mixes subversive imagery (“Half-mud blood”), hillbilly traits (“Got a strong Southern drawl”), mindless play (“Cannonball in the kiddy pool”) and a little good-guy grace (“Kind as the day is long”).
“It’s really more of an observation of a lifestyle and everything that comes along with it,” says Wilson. “It felt empowering to me when I was seeing it. It kind of made you feel tough, but not with all the typical tough-guy shit.”
The first verse embraced the outdoor aspects of that lifestyle, akin to Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive” with its references to skinning bucks and cleaning fish. The last verse — owing, perhaps, to its post-Thanksgiving origins — served up collard greens, cornbread and “pig on the griddle.” Even a description of the conversation, “spoke slow and deeply fried,” took on a foodie’s viewpoint.
When the words came to sonic life, Wilson crafted verse melodies with long, held notes at the end of the lines, strung across a static, tonic E chord. Juxtaposed against that framework, the chorus feels quicker, with faster-paced phrasing and a chord structure that throws in a rare chromatic move, rising a half-step in a passing chord that provides an energetic lift.
With its singalong chorus, hooky melody and mysterious patchwork of images, “billy” caught the ear of Wilson’s wife, singer-songwriter Leigh Nash, formerly of the band Sixpence None the Richer. When they attended a Christmas party the next month, the musicians started sharing songs, and Nash suggested he do “billy.” Host Caylee Hammack and Ashley McBryde responded with enthusiasm, and Wilson figured he needed to record it.
He worked it up with his road band first, with drummer Julian Dorio banging stuttered rhythms on snare to carry much of the energy. Bassist Jon Murray anchored the chords beneath Wilson’s active acoustic guitar, and his brother, Scotty Murray, came up with a sneering lap steel part that enhances the song’s edgy quality.
“He plays it through a pedal board, like a Jonny Greenwood meets Duane Allman kind of thing, or Radiohead meets Paul Franklin,” Wilson suggests. “He’s a really great steel player, but he also adds a lot of cool, surreal effects.”
The band played “billy” several times during a spring concert run with The Cadillac Three, then added it to the set on a subsequent tour with Brothers Osborne. When producer Ben West heard “billy,” he wanted to skip some other material that was already in progress to focus on the new song. Wilson’s acoustic guitar part and scratch vocal provided the basic recording, and the other musicians worked around that at Farmland, a recording studio near Nashville’s Lipscomb University.
“It’s a very unassuming studio, and you could drive right past it and never know,” says West. “Jonny and Scotty, the brothers who play in his band, both live there. It’s really perfect. They just stumble out of bed, bring their instruments down and plug in and start recording.”
They had already honed in so much on the arrangement that West’s main focus was capturing the best iteration of their performances. “When we got around to recording it, the drum parts were probably 99%,” West says. “So my job at that point is just to basically make sure that nobody’s overshadowing the main character of the song, which is Stephen’s lyric and his gut-string guitars. Everybody’s supporting that character, but since they’re such big personalities, Julian could be the star of the show if you’re not careful, or Scotty on pedal steel.”
During concert performances, the band developed a Lumineers-like “hey” in the chorus; West and Wilson re-created it in the studio, inspired less by “Ho Hey” than by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
“We just kind of did like a faux gang-vocal thing with a little slap back on it,” Wilson says. “Really, it’s more of the Tom Petty approach to a ‘hey.’ ”
The self-released “billy” is projected as one track among 22 possibilities for an album that’s currently being shopped around Nashville. Meanwhile, it has become a highlight of Wilson’s live set, speaking directly to fans who share his outsider disposition.
“When I first started playing it, I could see these hillbilly kids start singing it — like, they latched on to it real quick,” Wilson says. “And it means something to people, though they don’t know if they can exactly put their finger on it.”