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Betsy Badwater & The Hillbilly Chrome Getting ‘Amped’ for Music Series Performance

Rockabilly, Americana group to perform at WSRE’s ‘StudioAmped’ this weekend
by Bradley “Beej” Davis Jr.

She’s not a tall drink of water; she’s Betsy Badwater, and you’ll definitely want to take a sip. Since 2005, Badwater and her musical collective “The Hillbilly Chrome” have been performing their rockabilly, Americana-style music with such a writhing intensity, it’s easy to justify packed venues of fans and future fans alike. For those who have missed Betsy & The Hillbilly Chrome at local venues such as Blazzues, Handlebar and several appearances at Vinyl Music Hall, the group will be performing at WSRE’s StudioAmped music series on Friday, March 4. The live taping will feature two bands, Betsy and Rumor Mill. Betsy shared with Independent News her upcoming performance as well as some insight on how she finds a holy spirit in music.

IN: So, “Hillbilly Chrome” is just a fancy, schmancy name for duct tape. Is there any connection between duct tape and the glue that holds your band together?
Betsy: I used to joke that I could build a band out of duck tape and chewing gum. For years I would jam with any ole’ body who was willing to make some sounds. Sometimes they weren’t exactly musicians and we didn’t have real instruments, and sometimes I was lucky enough to be invited to join in with legendary players with amazing careers.  When I was in grad school, I got to travel the country a bit and would always take my guitar with me and find somewhere and some bodies to play with in Los Angeles or Chicago or Atlanta or wherever. Early on, I realized that having fun and sharing with others was really the key to having a good show because all I had to work with, personally, was what I was born with; I don’t have much formal training in music, especially not the kind I play now. I feel blessed to have the spirit of a student and the heart of a fighter, and I can learn from anything. I feel like Aesop in a boxing ring sometimes. The contributions made by each individual person that I play with are memorable and special, and that these people are willing to share their love for music, creation, and pure celebration with me, on a whim, is evidence that music is all about love and community and flow. I bet I’ve played with 30 different musicians in the HBC over the course of the last six years, and in each combination of players the sound is always special, but it’s always, somehow the same. The Hillbilly Chrome band is a constantly growing and ever evolving group of professional and shade-tree musicians that I call on to help me “hold it together in a pinch.”

IN: You just opened for the David Allen Coe. Did he teach you some profanity?  How was that experience?
Betsy: Profanity? Haha! Yes, I think I may have learned a few zingers over the course of the preparation and culmination of the David Allan Coe show! Opening for big famous acts is always like the first day of junior high: once the show has been opened and the main act is finally onstage, the opener becomes keenly aware of his or her own true level of inexperience. I tell you this: opening for Grammy winners and legendary performers is humbling to say the least. When Lang, Jeff Glickman and I opened for DAC at Vinyl Music Hall, I didn’t even get to make eye-contact with Mr. Coe and didn’t expect to. Believe it or not, my experience has been that it’s best not to worry about trying to meet the bands that we open for, because if they want to know us, they’ll make themselves available to talk. David Allan Coe was the only performer we’ve shared a stage with, ever, who didn’t even say hello. But I will tell you this: his show was so moving; I think for all three of us, that anything he could have said to us would have had the potential to crush our perception of the night. I did my homework on DAC before I agreed to open the show, because even I had some misconceptions about him as a person, and as a musician, and I realized the potential for us to catch some heat meant to cook him! I’d say about three-quarters of what makes David Allan Coe “household” is misconception, when what he really should be known for is the enormous catalogue of hit songs he’s written for country and rock ‘n roll heroes. Oh, believe me: I got the hate mail, the insults, the dirty looks. I had to explain myself over and over again, had to find a way to defend what I believed was right, and was inspired to defend a man I’ve (still) never met against accusations of racism and bigotry. And I’m glad I had the guts to do it. What I realized, moved to laughter and tears, holding hands with my best friends on the front row watching a 70-something-year old tattooed-up man in a waist-length wig sing one masterfully crafted hit song after another to a loving audience, was that I had been given the honor to sing for people who loved all the same music I love. It stopped mattering that people were accusing me of supporting racism and terrible things like that when I saw the looks on the faces of the people listening to Mr. Coe and his wife sing love songs and tell stories in a way only he can tell them. I was lucky to have been a part of that, and I don’t think I know how to show enough gratitude to the folks over at Vinyl Music Hall for keeping us in opportunities to learn and grow and express. I’ve said it a hundred times, and I’ll say it a hundred more -if we couldn’t play on a stage somewhere, we’d still be doing it on my porch. I will make music until I die.

IN: Your musical partner Lang Hollowman is no slouch in your duo Hollowman Badwater. What’s his story?
Betsy: Lang is one of my best friends and a seriously dynamic man of whom I am so proud. He’s a Mississippi/Navarre, Fla.  boy raised on art and travel, and hard work. He’s got a family, and a day job, and in a very sunny way, that man has got the blues about as bad as I’ve ever seen. He’s played music in Mississippi church houses and in traveling bands all over the country like I have, and as good as he plays it, I don’t think he’s ever going to stop either. When we met, the musical connection was immediate and deep. We seem to understand each other and most importantly, how to communicate with one another in a way that has grown “what we do” faster than any of us could have expected. When he came over to my house the first time, with a jar of pickles his Nanny and Papaw had made, I had no intention of having a full-time musical partner, but that’s exactly what I got. We sat on my back porch tooling on a few songs, and it was like, “Man this is it right here.” We just kind of looked each other in the eye and jumped on a moving train. There is no prize we’re riding toward, neither of us cares anything about being rich or famous, it just seems that we’re communicating on a higher level and it’s good for our souls. I can’t speak for Lang, but music is, to me, salvation in a damned world. I can’t say what music is for Lang, but I know for a fact that he practices for hours a day. I know that for him, any little five-minute transition time between doing this and that is an opportunity to play his National Resonator.

IN: You’re actually growing your group. Will these folks be regular performers with you or more fill-in roles for certain shows?
Betsy: For about two years now there has always been a core of Lang and me. Jeff Glickman is like family to me and has been one of my major influences and is a consistent presence in the HBC as multi-instrumentalist. I play bass drum, tambourine, guitar and sing, and Jeff plays the other half of the drums, harmonicas, and sometimes National Steel. (On Feb. 18) we had the huge honor to open for multi-Grammy winning band Asleep at the Wheel, and were joined by bassist, Joey Harrison, and drummer Devon Coon on hobo percussion. We’re currently enriching our sound in preparation to close out this season of WSRE’s Studio Amped on March 4, on which Joey and Devon will appear with us. Jeff has a show that same night with his band Jeff Glickman & The Panhandle All-Stars, but he will be joining us the next day for our set at The Greater Good Music, Art & Children’s festival. The very nature of The Hillbilly Chrome is that you never know who will be in the show. There could be eight people on stage, or it could be just Lang and me. We try to add players to create the best possible show experience for us and for the audience depending on the venue and the occasion. I think it’s very safe to say that these shows will not be the only time you see Joey Harrison and Devon Coon join us.

IN: Rumor has it you’re the daughter of a preacher man. Should we just leave it at that?
Betsy: That rumor is absolutely true, and I am humbled as well as gratified by that truth. I learned how to sing in church. I took my first steps in down the aisle toward the pulpit with a funeral home fan in each hand. I learned how to read following along with the songs in the Old School Hymnal and the Blue Book Hymnal. I learned music by studying shape-note, and listening to my family sing -and my, what beautiful singers. I learned how to perform and pace and how to exude passion by watching my dad and uncles and grandfather preach in the old Primitive Baptist style. In some ways I am pretty certain that, had I been born a man, I might have fought a “calling” to preach, but as a woman, it feels certain that I am embracing a calling to sing. Some people might not like to hear me say it, but there is a holy spirit in music, and it’s the one I believe in. It touched me at about two years old. My ole preacher daddy still has a tape recording of me singing “I Don’t Care if Tomorrow Never Comes,” and “I Never Knew My Daddy Was a Hobo” from when I was about that age. I got the blues early, but yes, I come from a long line of Primitive Baptist church founders and I am proud of that fact.

IN:Who inspires you, musically?
Betsy: 
Lang is my greatest musical inspiration. I hope he doesn’t mind me telling you that, but I have lived a life of struggle (mostly my own fault) and of musical growth, and when I connect with Lang on stage, all of that struggle and growth seems to have a purpose. I feed off of his trust and sonic energy and musical patience and try my best to give it right back to him. It’s really good when you know that you’re just at the beginning, and the potentials are set to “wide open.”
What inspires you, musically? 
I have a really acute sense of hearing and I’m very aware of the range of frequencies that I can hear and feel. I don’t think I’m special in any way, but I am aware of what I’m experiencing, so the sound water makes dripping in the sink, the difference between the sounds tires make on the road when it’s wet or dry, the difference between the sounds birds make on a dry sunny day and a low pressure foggy midnight all inspire me. In songwriting, I’m inspired all day long. Since I was a little girl I have fantasized about trading bodies with others just to see the world from their experience. I look at strangers walking down the street and wonder what it must be like for him. In a lot of ways, that’s exactly how I write songs, and also explains why I write a lot of songs outside of my own perception. I can’t tell you truthfully that I understand a man’s experience, but I imagine that I do and write songs about what I think it might be like.

IN: You’re also quite an artist. Could you elaborate on your “day job?”
Betsy: I am Apprentice to Andrew R. Trull at Black Sparrow Tattoo Studio in Downtown Pensacola. Last year I illustrated two co-edition books for a publisher in London, and I have been painting and tattooing for two years now. I’m proud of my teacher and my shop. We are all good hardworking people who don’t cut corners, and I’m thankful to know that my life’s work is creativity.

IN: StudioAmped is going to be great. I know you’re excited. Is this your first time being tapped for television?
Betsy: I’ve done a few things for television in the past, but this is the first time I’ve ever been involved in a production of this magnitude. I’m trying to frame it in my mind as “just another show,” but it’s really exciting. When Billy Harrell gave us the “grand tour” of the television station and showed us how it all works I was really impressed by the level of care and quality that goes into each one of the Studio Amped shows, not to mention the spirit of community and support that Mr. Harrell and the crew seem to foster between each other and the bands in the process. This show is definitely one of the most positive productions I’ve ever been asked to be a part of.

IN: Rumor has it you still get a little nervous at times before you go on stage. What do you do to remedy that? (Besides picturing folks in their underwear…)
Betsy: Oh my goodness, who told you that?! Haha! Like this red head of mine, my stage nerves are no lie! I’ve gotten better over the years, but I still occasionally get a right fine case of stage fright that just doesn’t seem to want to let go. I have learned that the best way to combat pre-show nerves is to refrain from perception-altering substances (including refined sugar and caffeine) and just own the fact that I’m about to get up there and do what I do, how I do it, and that unless I act like a jerk, folks will most likely forgive me for being a little shaky in the beginning. Even in the worst cases I usually shake the fright by the second or third song and, hey, I’m always figuratively holding hands with my best friends while I’m up there. It’s hard to be too scared when you’re when you know your posse has got your back, and for better or for worse, only we can do it like we do it.

IN: What does Betsy do when she’s not stomping on a kick-drum and belting out some soulful sounds?
Betsy: I spend a lot of time doing things with my son. I sit on my porch and watch the cars go by. I love to cook healthy, hearty food for my people. I make a big deal about feeding people. I give lots of hugs too. I’m in a big transitional time in my life, so I don’t get much free time, but when I do, my focus is to spend that time giving love and growing things. Like my own heart.

IN: Anything else you want to get off your chest?
Betsy: We want our town to know how much we appreciate living here. We try to do our part to make Pensacola better: we pick up trash and help raise money for good causes, we vote, we walk instead of ride when we can, and we buy locally as much as possible. We’re so thankful for the opportunities we’ve been given here, and we hope to inspire gratefulness and community in the people we meet because of it.