Chris Abbondanza - Vocals/Guitar
Ryan Lucotch - Drums
Dave Cramer - Keyboard/Vocals
Bob Crafton - Steel Guitar
Chris Higbee - Fiddle
David Guthrie - Electric Guitar
Jeff Volek - Bass/Accordion/Guitar/Vocals
"We did things backwards," PovertyNeck Hillbillies lead singer Abby proudly declares.
What Abby means is that, in this day of style's triumph over substance, he and his bandmates - fiddler Chris Higbee, keyboardist Dave Cramer, guitarist David "Junior" Guthrie, pedal steel guitarist Bob "Crafty" Crafton, bass player Jeff Volek and drummer Ryan Lucotch - started with the music, not the marketing. The Hillbillies built a fervent fan base in their home state of Pennsylvania based on their wild, charismatic live shows, their muscular, melodic playing, and their catchy, crowd-pleasing songs - and they're now expanding that rapidly growing audience nationwide.
"It was grassroots, word-of-mouth stuff," says Abby. "That's how we did it. We kept throwing out pebbles, and the ripples went out a little further each time."
And so by the time the PovertyNeck Hillbillies set foot on a Nashville stage for the first time, they had already sold tens of thousands of CDs and boasted a fan club larger than many acts in the mainstream country Top 10. The Hillbillies are poised to make a play for that mainstream themselves - and make no mistake, the 10 tracks on The PovertyNeck Hillbillies, their debut album, are as radio-ready and instantly accessible as they are honest, heartfelt and fresh.
The Hillbillies' music is as direct and down-home as their striking moniker, which comes from a sign that founding member Chris Higbee discovered on his grandfather's farm on Poverty Neck Lane in Southwestern Pennsylvania. "It's typical farmland," says Higbee of the area that he and his bandmates - country boys, outdoorsmen, hunters and fishermen - all call their homeland.
The Hillbillies began playing there together in 2000. "We were originally just a bunch of friends getting together," remembers Higbee. "We all lived around each other. We just heard about this guy through that guy and started playing music very naturally." Their upbringings had been similar, but their tastes in music were varied. "There's seven different personalities in the band, and seven different musical backgrounds," explains Abby. "Two of the guys grew up playing polka, Chris Higbee grew up listening to rock, Dave Cramer liked '80s music, "Crafty" listened to Southern rock, and Junior and I always liked old country. When we get together though, it all blends together."
When they took their act to the clubs in the state's rock stronghold of Pittsburgh, the group quickly began amassing a following for their rootsy, hard-hitting country music. Their blistering live shows and relentless determination have gotten them where they are today. "We're all goal-driven so we took things into our own hands and did it," recalls Abby. "For us there was no question about getting things done because we love what we do and have the best fans a group could ask for. We are first and foremost musicians but we are also entertainers. So our goal is to give the fans what they want great music and an even greater live show."
After a while it was so long day jobs, hello music-making. "Everybody gave up everything in their lives to do this 100 percent," adds Higbee. "The little goals were what kept us going."
Little goals turned into big accolades. The Country Music Association named the Hillbillies one of 2005's top independent artists, and they were declared the official band of the Pittsburgh Steelers - quite an honor indeed for these diehard pigskin fans.
"We started out by doing the national anthem at a Steelers game, then the halftime show," says Abby of the band's association with the 2005 Superbowl champs. "We were asked to do some private functions, then we got asked to do the pep rally at Heinz field four days before they left to go to the Superbowl. We played in front of 40,000 people, then Art Rooney, the owner of the Steelers, came up onstage and said, 'I'd like to welcome and thank the new official band of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the PovertyNeck Hillbillies.' We had no warning. If you'd have taken a picture of our faces ? It is such an honor." (Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger guest stars in the group's "Mr. Right Now" video, shot at Heinz Field.)
Just as thrilling was the moment the Hillbillies hooked up with Bob Corbin, who had enjoyed country success with the Corbin/Hanner Band and gone on to a successful songwriting and production career. Corbin began writing with primary group tunesmith Abby, and finally wound up producing The PovertyNeck Hillbillies. Most of the album's tracks come with a pedigree, having been tested on the rowdy, rabid audiences at the group's live shows. "The crowd helps to decide whether we record a song," explains Abby. "Usually you know it's a keeper if you see people catching on to the chorus by the end of the song."
The biggest challenge the Hillbillies faced was capturing the infectious, uncontainable energy of those concerts on record. "We've always said that if we can play in front of you live, you'll at some point in the show become a fan," says Abby. "We're not a sit-down-and-watch band and people across the country appreciate that. With seven members it's hard not to be high energy and give it everything we got every time we go on stage." Abby's vocals blend a deep, country twang with a hint of rock-n-roll gravel, and are backed by powerful harmonies in songs such as, "She Rides Wild Horses" and "Mr. Right Now." The six-piece band provides the full, articulate sound that makes The PovertyNeck Hillbillies unique in their genre.
Finally, the group decided it was time to take on Nashville, signing with Rust Records in February 2006. To their surprise, this organic, homegrown phenomenon has already found a place in Music City.
"We're glad they're accepting us with open arms, because that was a fear of ours," admits Abby. "We're not the typical Nashville band."
The Hillbillies released their self-titled debut album nationally in June 2006, throwing in a two-hour DVD so newcomers to the band's trademark sound can get a glimpse of their live shows and behind-the-scenes personalities. "We wanted you to get face-to-face with the music," says Abby. "It gives you a better idea of what we're about."
What this band is about is a fresh, varied and wide-ranging approach to country music, held together by boundless energy and a fierce commitment to the songs, the audience and one another. The PovertyNeck Hillbillies might have gotten to where they are backward, but the only direction they're moving in now is straight up.