Ken Maiuri: A first-ever record of original songs by the Muswell Hillbillies — on vinyl. 

  • 45 front cover attached Courtesy David Simons

  • A Muswell Hillbillies show at the Iron Horse last year.  Karl Knapp Photo

  • Scan of the 45  Courtesy David Sokol

  • Muswell Hillbillies — shown rehearsing — is a multi-generational collective of musicians. Brenna Eagan Photo

Published: 6/5/2019 5:32:15 PM

I showed up for an interview with David Simons and David Sokol, founders of the local band Muswell Hillbillies, at one of their Hadley homes, and it doubled as a “waiting for the UPS truck” party, with hot pizza, cold seltzer, and excitement: at some point that afternoon, arriving on the stoop would be 300 copies of their first-ever vinyl record of original songs. 

Muswell Hillbillies is a multi-generational collective of musicians who’ve spent the last nine years dedicatedly learning the catalogs of musicians they love (The Kinks, Neil Young, The Police, Tom Petty) and then performing the music for sold-out crowds. 

But in a unique evolutionary step for the band, the two tunes on the 45 rpm single, “Count to 10” and “I Can Teach U,” are catchy new pop songs written by Simons, recorded at his home studio and played by a seven-piece Muswell Hillbillies lineup. 

The single will be available at their next show at the Iron Horse on Saturday, June 15, at 7 p.m. Once again they’ll be playing the music of Tom Petty, including huge hits and worthy album tracks. (And even if you caught their sold-out Petty night last May, they’ve added handfuls of new songs to the changed-up set list.)

While waiting for the new records to arrive, Simons flopped into a comfy chair, Sokol folded a slice of peppers and onions and garlic, and the two longtime friends tag-teamed the telling of their band’s story. 

The seeds of the group were planted one night in 2009 when they drove up to The Rendezvous in Turners Falls to see Peter Mulvey perform Tom Waits’ “Rain Dogs” LP in its entirety. They were inspired by hearing the barroom songs performed in an actual bar and thought it would be a cool idea to someday perform the entirety of The Kinks’ pub-related “Muswell Hillbillies” album in a pub. 

In 2010 Simons (who Sokol called “the person with the antennas out all the time”) heard about “Do It Again,” a new Kinks-related documentary produced by Boston Globe reporter Geoff Edgers. Simons contacted him and mentioned his own Kinks-celebrating band (which didn’t exactly exist yet), and Edgers invited them to play the screening party in Somerville. The clock began ticking: gotta form the band and learn the album!

Simons’ multi-instrumentalist/songwriting son, Jack, who at the time was a senior at Hopkins Academy in Hadley, was one of the first members, so he got his friends in the school jazz band to be the all-important horn section (aka The Hillbilly Horns). The band’s initial lineup had an age range from 16 to almost 60.

Muswell Hillbillies played the party, making their debut in front of “the intelligentsia of Boston rock journalists and [Kinks] fans,” according to Simons. 

“For the entire second half of the show,” Sokol recalled, “I’m drumming, and I look to my left, and there’s Graham Parker [who’d played a show around the corner with The Figgs, also in attendance], and I guess he was there the entire time. And I said [to myself], ’We can’t be that bad if he’s not leaving.’” 

Their second gig was a sold-out Iron Horse performance, and their third was headlining at B.B. King’s in Times Square, which was nearly sold-out, too. “We were playing for Kinks lovers, for people who really knew this stuff,” Sokol said. 

The younger members of the band graduated, going on to college and jobs across the country, but Muswell Hillbillies still managed to play yearly, often at the Iron Horse, first expanding their Kinks repertoire, and eventually moving on to playing the music of other artists. First, it was Neil Young (in celebration of his 70th birthday), then The Police. 

After Tom Petty died, Simons was inspired to study and deconstruct Petty’s songs. “This is part of my obsessiveness,” he said, explaining how he loved digging into the details of the arrangements: “ ‘Okay, let’s listen to what’s going on in here.’ ” And that led to the Hillbillies learning and performing a big night of 28 Petty tunes.

Up until this year, they’d used the band name Muswell Hillbillies to celebrate others’ music, but with the new single, they’re also using it to celebrate their own.

Simons said how studying Petty’s songwriting influenced “I Can Teach U,” and the flip side is an instant fave, a short and sweet blast of punchy basement power-pop, with psychedelic touches and a clever nod to Todd Rundgren. 

Emily Eagan (who started out in the band at 16, playing trombone) contributes the great piano part and backing harmonies, Matt Goldman also sings backup, Sokol plays percussion, Jake Goldman plays guitar, as does Simons, and his sons Julian and Jack play drums and bass on the 45. (The live band has Aaron Knapp playing bass.) 

Sokol said, “It really could have been a David Simons record, because he’s the orchestrator of it. He wrote the songs, produced it, brought the people into the studio, engineered it. But David being David, he wanted to be inclusive of the people who were playing on it. There’s a recognizable thing about Muswell Hillbillies, so it makes sense. I think it adds a really cool dimension to the band, that we’re doing two really good original songs.”

Simons admitted he might have just put the tunes up on Bandcamp or Soundcloud or some other digital platform, but Sokol, “the record guy,” really pushed for the songs to exist as a physical thing.

Somewhere out there at that moment, a UPS driver was heading their way with boxes full of the black vinyl 45s. And Simons, who already had a test pressing at home, couldn’t hide his joy.

“I’m not getting over the novelty of this anytime soon,” he said with a smile. “Once a day I go downstairs and I put that thing on.”

Ken Maiurcan be reached at clublandcolumn@gmail.com.




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