“I’m getting too close to that setting sun; we’ve got one more shot before our day is done.”
Ned Hill sings that like he means it on the first song (“Gotta Get Out of this Town”) of his stupendous new album, Thousand Watt Town, a nine-song Americana rock elegy to an America where people confront corporate greed, the opioid crisis, global warming, hazmat train derailments, love, dreams of escape, and a hard-bitten intention to have a good time in the ruins of Small Town America. Ned, 63, sees that setting sun, and he knows how every album could be his one last shot.
With his ever-present ball cap, an old t-shirt and jeans, a ready laugh, scrubbing an acoustic guitar, Ned has been making music both in his native Kentucky and adopted hometown of Nashville for 35 years. An alumnus of several unbridled Replacements-esque Nashville bands including the beloved Ned Van Go, Ned’s sound has matured some in the seven years since he disbanded that group and went solo. The beer-slinging megawatt anarchy that was his one-time stock in trade is gone. His backing band no longer drowns out his lyrics, and he’s gotten more comfortable doing solo troubadour gigs with only his fiddle player Tina Simpson at his side. The results, along with new things to him such as professional management, mean that Ned Hill is actually – finally – getting some richly-deserved attention.
“I wanted to make a straight rock and roll record,” he says, and that’s what Thousand Watt Town is. Yes, it’s rock and roll (with the odd country excursion), but with Ned unabashedly wearing his influences on his sleeve – from Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen to John Mellencamp and a dash of Tom Petty – it is also as straight-up blue denim Americana as it gets. “This whole record to me is pretty straightforward,” he says, “and I was trying to make it that way without it sounding too pedestrian.”
Produced by multi-instrumentalist Dave Coleman in Nashville, the record features the Paul Thorn rhythm section of Ralph Friedrichsen and Jeffrey Perkins, Tina on fiddle, and Dave on literally everything else, which would include electric and acoustic guitars, piano, organ, accordion, and standup bass. Everybody sings too, which lends a richness to the sound.
There is much to recommend on Thousand Watt Town. After the ballsy “Gotta Get Out of this Town” comes the bug-infested swamp groove of “Kingdom Come”. “I was trying to tap into the opioid addiction thing in the rural eastern parts of Tennessee and Kentucky. I just thought ‘kingdom come’ is usually associated with a heavenly place and I thought it might be interesting to use it in a darker way, the next place you go, for somebody who’s addicted to pills and will do anything to get them, and this place you would go to get that.” Dave ‘s slide guitar mirroring Tina’s fiddle is effective and slightly sinister.
“Dance At the Old Star Line” is a Vitalis and Aqua Net honky-tonk throwback with Ned remembering when his parents would get out and have fun on a Friday night. “They’re together, and it’s kind of the dance that they have,” Ned says, “and he understands that he can be a mess, but she’s always there.” Then there are the global warming concerns of “Bang the Drum”, with lines such as “There ain’t no winning when the sky starts spinning.”
After that is the album’s centerpiece and tour de force, “Larry Wilkins and the Great Train Derailment of ’66”, a true story of a derailment in Ned’s hometown of Horse Cave, Kentucky in 1966 when Ned wasn’t quite seven years old. The train was carrying Agent Orange bound for Vietnam, and instead of salvaging it, the train company buried it on adjacent farmland and paid local folks to shovel it all into holes where it leeched into the water supply. Larry Wilkins was a big guy who played football and sang in a local rock band, destined to die of cancer at 41 due to the poison underneath the soil on his family’s farm, in a town where the cancer rate remains high to this day. Ned masterfully weaves together the micro and macro: the suffering of the locals and the rape of their land, and the big picture of a war far away coming to visit their little town. (“An endless war can find any little old street.”)
As if he knows that there’s a limit to how much heaviness you can lay on a listener’s shoulders at one time, there’s the twangy romance of “May to December Girl”, a salute to Horse Cave in the title track (“a thousand dreams and one stoplight”) and a quiet bona-fide hit country single if there ever was one, “Lonely Enough for You to Love”. (“Sittin’ at the bar. Nothin’ to hold but this old cheap guitar.”) And finally, there’s some plain old fun with “Her Love’s Like Novocaine”, a pop rocker that goes back to 1990 and Ned’s first ever band, the Blue Cha Chas.
Perhaps, it’s Ned Hill’s time now – as both a newcomer to some and an elder statesman to others. “You know it’s funny,” he says, “me and this town haven’t exactly been copacetic and a lot of it’s not the town’s fault. I had a lot of that punkish attitude early on that got me in trouble and followed me around. I’m trying to toe the line a little now and stay out of my own way. I know what I’ve been, but I’m not the same crazy person as I was before.” Then he laughs and adds, “I’m still working on it.”
– Tommy Womack