East of NORMAL

Gimme, Gimme Some Ned

I get to write pretty much what I want to in this column. It’s a beautiful thing. I thought this issue I’d tell you of an artist I know and love who’s paid his dues and then some. Hell, he’s paid other people’s dues. I pitched him for the cover story this issue. Didn’t happen. And I was aggressive about the pitch, too. I’m only assertive once every six months, so when I try to be that way I always overdo it.
      Ned Hill. Heard of him? I didn’t think so. Well he’s a terrific songwriter and performer who has been paying dirt-scratching dues in Music City in for nigh on 30 years — ever since he left his Kentucky homeland for Nashville, formed a band, made several records with his first band here in town, The Cowards, and several more (occasionally brilliant) ones with the recently defunct Ned Van Go. He is now a solo artist and just dropped his first album under his own flag, Six Feet Above the Ground, produced by the great Dave Coleman and boasting a sound and focus like no record he’s ever done before. There’s even a string section. It’s good — really good — and if you’ve never checked him out (which is likely), this is a great place to start.
      Part of Ned’s charm has always been his fatal flaws. He has no love for the music business and has often appeared to embrace a Replacements-style fatalism, which is great for your image and little else. He did get a break back in ’93 when somebody at Warner Chappell took an interest in him. I played on the sessions. It turned out good. I don’t know what happened with all that.
      But playing with session musicians back then was something distasteful for Ned. He was a good 35-years-old by then and instead of making something happen as a solo singer/songwriter, he still wanted a real band, one that doesn’t change members from gig to gig, a loud, fun, rock & roll-meets-Americana band. For Ned, a band still means jamming in the basement, putting up posters on poles, drinking beer at rehearsal and more beer at the gig. And that’s the path he followed from ’93 on. First, he formed The Cowards, who were full of humor and released a couple of records. Then came Ned Van Go.
      Ned never cared much about money. Ned Van Go would hit the road Friday afternoon after he got off work, drive straight through to Detroit, play a dive for the door, and drive straight back for work Monday morning. They did that for Texas runs, too.
      His voice can convey great-unguarded emotion, as in the tender-tough “Marry a Waitress,” and hilarity in the rocking bane of his existence for 30 years, “We Just Wanna Get Laid Laid Laid.” But Ned’s foot took a self-inflicted bullet with the fact that Ned Van Go was loud as fuck. So many people in clubs have heard Ned Hill’s songs incompletely because his voice didn’t get above the din.
      Ned has had his moments of nihilism. I played in his band about 15 years ago for a brief while, and we were playing a multi-band festival at Butchertown Pub in Louisville. In the center of the room was a big circular stone fountain spurting water into the air with a foot or so of water in the bottom. We were playing a song called “Elizabeth” — not one of Ned’s best. Eight minutes in the key of A. After about six long minutes of this thing, Ned dove off the stage, ran straight across the room, did a half-gainer into the fountain, swam around, dunked himself under, and tossed handfuls of water into the air. We held on to our limpid jamming for a minute or so until the song petered out, with Ned soaked to the bone and knowing that the half-gainer into the fountain was exactly what the show needed at that moment.
      Ned is playing The 5 Spot on May 12th. His latest and best ever CD, Six Feet Above the Ground, is available. Go see his show. It’s high time.