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Joe Butler

I interviewed Joe at the Radio City studio's in Liverpool in 1994, shortly after he had left The Hillsiders who were currently  celebrating 30 years in the business. This was my first ever interview, and to this day, I still consider it one of the most enjoyable.

Ray Grundy
Joe Butler

  The Hillsiders celebrate 30 years together this year, but the bands origins go back further than that don't they?

  Kenny Johnson and I who formed the Hillsiders, we formed a little group back in 1958 - when we were still wearing short pants (laughs) - called Sonny Webb And The Country Four. Sonny Webb was a name Kenny chose, because it was the names of two of his hero's of the time, Sonny James and Webb Pierce.

That band ran for about 18 months and then Kenny left to join The Cascades, leaving us to find another lead singer who was a guy called Brian Ewan. The band then went on for another 6 to 8 months until Kenny invited me to join The Cascades, as their bass player had left. At the time I was playing lead guitar, but I thought well I'll learn the bass and give it a go. So I joined The Cascades as a bass player and vocalist, and in 1964 The Cascades changed their name to The Hillsiders, and that was how it all started really Ray.

  Not long after that you got the chance to tour Germany with the late Red Sovine! How did that come about?

  The guy who was managing the band at the time, approached us and asked if we would be interested in doing a tour with Red Sovine. We thought it was a joke because Red Sovine was a big star at that time, he was at #1 with "Giddy Up Go", and so we jumped at the chance.

Then we got to Germany, and it's a memorable tour for me because it sticks in my mind so very much. We got there and we were into a couple of day's rehearsal and we were all dead nervous you know, meeting this big star. And he was great, he made us all feel really relaxed and made us feel that he really appreciated what we were trying to do.

So comes the day of the first show, and we all pile into the mini bus, and we had two shows to do that day, in two separate German bases quite a distance apart. We went on stage first to do our half hour spot, and then he came on and joined us. Well we were great in our spot, but when he came on and joined us, we were dead nervous and went to pieces. We were just awful.

So at the end of the show we packed all the gear into the van, and then we got in, and Red was sitting there, and we were so terrified we were going to get  told off you know, but he turned round to us and smiled, and he said - "I was in the dressing room listening to you guys play the hell out of them songs, and then I come on and you all went to pieces. Just relax man, don't worry about a thing".   He said "I'll tell you what, I'm going to make more mistakes than you ever will, so just relax and do your thing". So we thought, "right the next show we're really going to work it for him".

Anyway we did the next show, I'll never forget it, the Rheinmain air base in Frankfurt, and we really played our socks off for him and the show went down a bomb. He came off stage and he said - "I knew you guy's could do it". And the tour went brilliantly after that and he became a father figure to us. We at that time were new to the country music business from a professional point of view, and he pointed out the pitfalls that we may meet, and the circumstances that may show up in our career, and he gave us advice on how best to handle it, and you know everything that he said actually happened to us, and with his guidance still in our brain, we managed to get through them all. It was a great, great time.

  Not long after that tour with Red, you toured Germany again, but this time with another American star!

  Bobby Bare!

  That's the one.

  Oh yeah, that was another brilliant tour for us, and we struck up a great friendship with him. Bobby was always one for singing, he'd get the guitar out in the bus and we'd sing, and Bobby liked the harmonies that the Hillsiders had, we were quite well known for our harmonies, and he would always encourage us to sing harmony with him.

The tour went brilliant, it was really good for us because he had a #1 hit record at the same time we did the tour.  At the end of the tour we brought him back to do a show at The Grafton in Liverpool. And then after that we had a party at my house, and it was then he said - "When I get back to the states, I'm gonna see Chet Atkins, and we're going to do an album together", and we all went - "Oh yeah, of course Bobby", and we never thought any more about it. But the man was true to his word, he went back to Nashville, saw Chet Atkins, got us a deal with RCA, and we flew out and recorded the album, and it got to #17 in the Billboard Hot 100 Album charts.  We were really made up with that.

  A favourite song of mine from that album, is The Great Snowman. Where did that song come from?

  That was a song that was originally done by Bob Luman, he had a hit with it in the states. 

Actually there's a little story to tell about when we were recording that song. Bobby said to us that due to the American musicians union, there would have to be some American musicians on the session, and did we mind, and we said no we'd love to have them there. So he said, well I have told them that I want them done the way you do them, I want that Liverpool feel to the songs.

So we came to record The Great Snowman, and we were there with all these great session guys, Ray Stevens was one of them, Grady Martin, people like that you know. Even Chet Atkins was sitting in on the session as well. So we said, this is the way we do it, this is how we want to record it. And we played the song, and Grady Martin said, "man, I was on the session with Bob Luman when he cut that song, and I would never have thought of doing it like that in a million years". And we all went, "oh god", and I said, why, is it wrong, and he said, "no, it's brilliant, marvellous".

After that the ice was broken, and they respected us as fellow musicians, and we got on brilliant with the guys after that.

  While you were in Nashville recording that album, something else happened that became a first for a British Country band!

  Yes! we were invited to appear on The Grand Ol' Opry. Now this is something that Kenny and I when we first started, we used to dream about, but never believed would ever happen. But it did, and it's an experience I will never ever forget. It's a treasured memory for me.

  In 1971 you recorded an album with George Hamilton IV. How did that come about?

  Well, he was in Nashville when we appeared on The Grand Ol' Opry, and he thought it was very novel, you know, a scouse country band. Anyway he later came to England to do some sessions for the BBC, and Ian, the guy who was his producer for the BBC was also our record producer, and he got talking to George, and George said, can we get the guys down to do the session, and he said yes of course. So Ian rang me up, and I said, yeah! brilliant!

So we went down and recorded the session for the BBC with George and we made great friends with him on that day, and it went on to develop into an album, which became very successful for us both.

  In 1975 Kenny Johnson left the band, and Kevin McGarry came in. Can you tell us about that?

  Well, when Kenny was due to leave the band, we were all very saddened by it as we didn't really want him to leave, and I don't think Kenny really wanted to leave to be honest, but we had some problems with our management at the time that had put a wedge between us, which was wrong.

Kenny and I are still great mates to this day, and he still considers himself to be a part of the Hillsider family, as I do still, you know.

Anyway , when he'd made his decision to leave, we did loads and loads of auditions, but none of them were really suitable for the band. But there was one guy (Kevin McGarry) who I had seen singing with a band called The Westerners, and I felt that he was the man that we needed. He had a great voice, but the only problem was that he couldn't play guitar.

So I said to the rest of the band, we've got to get this guy in, and they said, no, we don't want him, he can't play guitar. So I said don't worry about it, we'll teach him, just listen to him sing. So I had an argument with them, and in the end I said, look, I'll get him along to tomorrow's audition and you can hear him sing, and if after that you still say no, then I'll forget about it.

So I went along to Kevins and I said look I've got you an audition for The Hillsiders, do you want it, and he said, too right I do, but I can't play guitar. So I said, don't worry about that, just sing.

So he came and he sang a couple of songs and the lads said, that's it, we've got to have him. So Kevin learned to play the guitar, and he's still with the band now.

  You played in the Falklands just after the end of the war. That must have been some experience?

  Oh that was brilliant! There were no roads, we had to fly everywhere by helicopter. We used to moan about loading gear in and out of a transit van, but loading in and out of a Sea King helicopter is even more difficult.

The one that sticks in my mind was when we played in the village hall at Goose Green, which is where the Argies had put all the villagers and kept them prisoner there for days.


You must remember that at that time there was no television just radio, and we got up to play - there was no stage, we just set up on the floor - and this little girl came and stood by me as we were doing the show, and I just couldn't work this out, but I just got on with it and didn't worry about it. At the end of the show her mother came up to me and she said, you weren't too sure were you, and I said, no, I just wondered why she was stood there next to me. So she said, you must remember that you are the first band that she has ever seen in her life, and she was about six or seven.

There's lots of other fond memories, how the guys looked after us and everything, and actually being there it made you wonder just how good our troops were to travel all that way, fight a war and win it back again.

  I believe you had a hairy experience on the flight over there?

  Well yes we had to fly first on a VC10 to ascension Island, which was no problem, but then we had to fly by Hercules down to Port Stanley, which was a 13 hour flight, and we had to have two mid air re-fuelling stops.  Well the first one was another Hercules that flew along side us, they latched together, refuelled and there was no problem, but then after about 8 hours there was a VC10 tanker that had been chasing us out of Ascension Island, but the problem was that the fastest speed a Hercules could fly at was slightly slower than the stalling speed of a VC10, so to link up we had to go into a dive. So here's us chasing a VC10 in a Hercules and dropping about 2 or 3 thousand feet.

Eventually they locked on and the fuel came swilling in, but oh, never again

  Moving on now to Joe Butler the songwriter. Do you have any favourites from all the songs you've written over the years?

  I think at the last count there were about 50 songs that I have written, most of them in the early years with Kenny Johnson, we struck up a great team together. I think one of my favourites was on the "Our Country" album, a song called "Blue Kentucky Morning", and another one of my favourites is a song called "Loves Funny That Way" . I like them all really, but I don't play them all that often because I get embarrassed. (Laughs)

  How does it feel when someone else records one of your songs?

  It's a feeling of great honour that someone appreciates your material and wants to work with it. It's a real good feeling you know. It's happened to me a few times and I'm chuffed about it. When another artist wants to record a song you've written, it gives you a great deal of credibility and it's a good feeling.

  Is there any one version in particular that you think stands out from the rest?

  I think Iona & Andy's version of "Across The Mountain", I think they did that excellently. It's very difficult for me to try and become detached from the original version, so when we were cutting that album - (Joe produced it) - I said to Bobby Arnold who was playing guitar on that session, I need your help on this because I need to stand back from this and let you guys work out your own arrangement. So I took a back seat while they sorted out an arrangement, I didn't have any input at all, because I knew if I did it would come out the way we did it, and I didn't want that.

Anyway, once they had got the arrangement sorted out, I got back into the production seat and we took it from there, and I thought they did a great version of it.

  While we're talking about Joe Butler the producer, you produced Stu Page's 1988 Album for Barge Records didn't you?

  Yeah, that was a great album to produce. I have a leaning towards the more contemporary kind of country, I like all forms of country, but I do have a leaning towards the more contemporary style, and I love getting in among musicians, and the musicians in this band were just something else you know, and Stu's songwriting talents are absolutely phenomenal, I've got a great deal of respect for him as a songwriter.

We put a lot of time and money into that album, but I feel very proud of it. I think it's probably one of the best albums I've ever worked on

  How did you first become involved in radio?

  I first joined Radio City Gold in 1975, and I'm the only one from then that's still here.
It came about by pure chance really, because I never imagined myself as being a disc jockey.
When the station opened, we were actually away on tour, and when we returned I found a leaflet behind the door all about the new station with a listing of all the programmes and everything.

Anyway I looked through at all the programmes and I thought, this is crazy, a brand new station in Liverpool and they don't have a country show. No sooner had I said that than the phone went and this voice said, is that Joe Butler, and I said yeah, from the Hillsiders, and I said yeah, and he said, this is Radio City and we have just realised that as a new station in Liverpool, it's a sacrilege we have no country programme. And I said yeah, I was just thinking the same thing myself.  So the guy said, can you come down and bring some records with you, and I said yeah ok fine, I'll do that.

So I jumped in my car and went down there thinking I was going to be interviewed on somebody's programme, but when I got there he comes down stairs, gives me a cup of coffee and says, right what record do you want to start with, and I said, hang on a minute am I doing the show, and he said yes, and I thought well ok bite the bullet and go for it, and I've enjoyed it ever since. I think being on stage all those years, and all the drivel I've talked certainly helped. (laughs)

  Joe, It's been great fun talking to you, thank you very much.

  It's been a pleasure Ray.


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