Pick and mix

Pick and mix

Hayseed Dixie mix heavy metal with bluegrass music to novel effect.And as his name implies,the band's frontman Barleycorn Scotch enjoys a whisk(e)y too.Rob Allanson joined him for a tipple

People | 21 Jul 2006 | Issue 57 | By Rob Allanson

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For many the twin poles of malt whisky and bourbon are about as far apart as you can get.Taste, ingredients, climate for maturing, and water chemistry all make for two different drinks, and there are some people in each camp that cannot stomach the other side’s chosen beverage.Yet, as often happens in politics, it takes a musician to stand up and be counted by pointing out the similarities and why we should all be getting along.As we have already seen in the pages of Whisky Magazine, there are plenty of bands out there whose song lyrics are steeped in tributes to whisky and extol the joys and bemoan the effects of this wonderful tipple.For one bluegrass rock band Hayseed Dixie this is certainly true, their first album, A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC, was fuelled by Knob Creek bourbon.But now singer Barleycorn Scotch – also known as John Wheeler – has found himself exploring the world of malt whisky.However do not let the dungarees, tie-dye Tshirt and hillbilly style put you off, this man is a dedicated devotee of the water of life in all its forms.John’s profile in the whisky world was raised considerably when The Scotsman newspaper asked him to write an article praising the virtues of whisky for their Seven Wonders of Scotland series.The band’s links with Scotland extend to playing in the city on Hogmanay last year, and organising a music festival in Ullapool.The 36-year-old singer, guitarist and fiddle player, not to mention a native of Nashville, Tennessee, is even in the throes of making a documentary about the similarities between bourbon and whisky.The twin bastions of music and the water of life – well bourbon in the beginning – have mingled together throughout John’s life.“Like my music, I am passionate about my whisky, but really it is all a matter of personal taste. I don’t like the Speyside style as much as the Highlands and Islands,” he explains settling back in to his comfy chair nursing a dram of his favourite Laphroaig.“I think I would like to be buried with a bottle of Laphroaig, at least I would be very popular with the worms. It is the one I keep going back to, after all it is also by appointment to the Prince of Wales. It depends on my mood but the 15 is the one I get the most.” Bourbon, or the bourbon style, was where his journey began, and like many people experimentation began at home.“I come from a long line of moonshiners,” he says. “My father was a hog farmer but made his own bourbon. Obviously it was not called bourbon, but it was that sort of style.“I made my first whiskey when I was 14, on the stove at home. I mashed up some corn and fermented it in an old pressure cooker. I made a copper coil out of some tubing and ran it into a coffee tin. All I did was boil it up, and had six cases of moonshine sorted for the next year.” For anyone wanting to try this at home John offers one piece of very valuable advice.“The recipes we used would involve fruit because the spirit was not at all smooth. We used to soak fruit, like cherries or peaches, in it to soak up the impurities.“One thing you did not do is eat the fruit.You had this kind of fruit punch tasting spirit left and this stuff does not make you as sick as much as straight moonshine.” The exploration of Scotland’s finest began during his college years, when at 21 years old a professor handed him a glass of The Glenlivet and he has not looked back since.“When I started to make more money (it was really hard to justify spending $30 to $40 at college) I decided to start trying different single malts,” he adds.“I tend to gravitate to those with a peaty, smoky and seaweed vibe. Then when I came over to Scotland I began to really nail down the flavours and tastes I liked.” As with so many whisky connoisseurs, John had a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment during one of his first trips to Scotland.“The band put on a festival in Ullapool last year called Loopallu,” John explains.“When my bass player and I were driving from Inverness with the car window down, I noticed that you could really smell the peat and see it all over as well.“The light bulb went on that the smell and taste of whisky were linked, and that’s where my idea about whisky being ‘Scotland in a bottle’ came from, the whole sensory effect of whisky.” John’s music is also tinged with whiskey references, take the first song he ever learnt to play, the Hank Williams Jnr classic Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound.“My dad got me a guitar when I was nine,” he says, “and the Williams song was one of the first tunes I learned to play. It is only three chords so I used to play along to the record. I just love it. I used to play it at parties in college.“After a while I began to see there was not much difference between that and AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. A few years ago I decided to try a whole bunch of AC/DC songs in the bluegrass style and record them, and the band was born.“We have spent the better part of seven years performing all over the world now.“I love coming to and playing in Scotland.Glasgow is one of the best places to play. We have sold out every show we have played there in the last two years.” The love of whisky has united John and his fellow hillbillies with some of Scotland’s musical sons too.“We played with the Proclaimers,” he explains. “Craig and I got on like a house on fire. I knew we were going to be good friends when at Glastonbury he wandered across the stage with a bottle of whisky, half a bottle of Talisker I remember, and asked if I wanted a dram. After that we kept bumping into each other.” The next big project for John, in between spending time spreading the bluegrass gospel across the world, is his documentary about the similarities between bourbon and whisky.“I think it’s all down to the Scots emigrating to the Appalachians, getting there and trying to make their whisky using the same recipe but having to use what was to hand, corn,” he says.“Corn is the grain which settlers found in abundance in America; barley was a bit harder to come by, and one uses what one has. Of course there are other substantial differences between the southern US and Scotland which affect the differences in the liquors: different water chemistries and climates, but without Scotch there would be no bourbon, without Oban there would be no Jack Daniel’s.“Now the US is selling its bourbon barrels back to the Scots so life has come full circle.”  The latest Hayseed Dixie CD ‘A Hot Piece of Grass’ is out on general release and the band are touring the United Kingdom and Europe during this summer.The second Annual Loopallu festival in Ullapool takes place on September 22 and 23.For more information visit: www.hayseed-dixie.com
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