Jumping beans 

Sampling the unfiltered energy of Missoula’s Hills Brothers

On your way to the Missoula Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings, you may have already discovered the exuberant and entertaining homegrown talent of the Hills Brothers sidewalk jamboree. Just 18 years old, these guys don’t miss a beat—especially when it comes to stage presence.

Their secret? Authenticity. The Hills Brothers—Travis Sehorn, Evan Youngblood-Petersen and Craig Clyde Domes—are as original and homespun as it gets. When ask what they think about all the positive response they’ve been receiving, they all shake their heads and laugh and say, “We don’t get it.” Perhaps that’s why they’re so lovable.

The story of how this threesome learned to make music is almost as unlikely and unintentional as their success. It all began casually as friends just hanging out, playing songs with just two chords and having a good time. They juggled instruments and switched places, and as their repertoire grew people began asking them to play at parties and clubs.

Before they had even given the group a name, the boys were invited to play a 60th birthday party in the mountains outside a small, rural town in Washington. The boys followed a guest up a long and winding dirt road into a holler where the cabin was, a 16 by 20-foot log shanty. With guitars, shakers and a red and white Hills Brothers coffee can to bang on, they played for the entire evening. Later when the guest of honor asked the boys what they called themselves, the boys just shrugged. “Well,” one of them shouted, “how about...”

And thus the Hills Brothers were born. Although they’ve been variously labeled hillbilly, honky-tonk and rockabilly, these entertainers belong in a category all their own. Their repertoire includes a little of everything, from good old traditionals like the “Hokey-Pokey” to cover tunes by artists such as Neil Young and Ween. Not to mention their originals, which are my personal favorites. Among them is a song called “White Collar Man,” written by Domes, in which he describes what his future might look like:

“I’m no white collared man/I’ve got holes in my jeans and a farmer’s tan/I was born and raised under this big sky/And I think we should wrap New York in dough and make a Big Apple pie. When I grow up, I’ll probably live in a shack/And die at age 24 of a heart attack/Just like the Dixie Chicks I need wide-open spaces/Far away from where all this human race is.”

Watching the Hills Brothers interact, dancing and feeding off one other, I am pretty sure that this kind of uninhibited, self-expressed guy did not exist when I was in high school. The songs fluctuate wildly and reveal the influence of artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Jimmy Page and the MC5. A Hills Brothers performance is as bare-bones as it gets, from Evan’s flat-footin’ solos to Travis’ unique shaker and maraca dances to Craig’s “drum” kit, which consists of a milk crate, a five gallon bucket and, of course, the namesake coffee can.

The threesome can usually be found performing, in what seems to be their best venue, as street musicians on Saturday mornings in front of the Circle Square building during the Farmer’s Market. They have also played Garth Whitson’s Shakespeare & Co. bookstore and even a handful of larger shows, including opening for Bob Wire and the Fencemenders and Cash for Junkers at last year’s New Year’s Eve show at the Blue Heron. Their fans come in all styles and ages, and audience members at a Hills Brothers show are not just listeners. If there happen to be youngsters who want to join in, they are invited to do so. Such was the case at a recent show when two young fans, brothers ages six and nine, played the shakers and danced onstage for most of the performance. On the sidewalk, elderly men and women are often seen dropping dollar bills into the Hills Brothers’ guitar case and sometimes asking if they can get their picture taken with them. There is always a happy crowd sprawled around them.

Did I mention that they are not only entertaining and spontaneous, but very talented as well? Youngblood-Petersen has played cello since he was four and until graduation from high school was an active member of the Hellgate High School Choir. The brothers (who are not actually siblings) are intrinsically musical, and something almost magical occurs when these three creative yet very different personalities merge. And once they start improvising, hold on, because there’s no telling where they might go.

Which is kind of like what’s ahead for the Hills Brothers. With graduation behind them and summer jobs ahead, their performing schedule may be less consistent than it’s been. But surprise appearances are bound to happen, and maybe even some announced performances, too—for instance, the band is scheduled to open for the Gourds at the Blue Heron in September. Some recording also seems to be in the works, but unless you can capture the sound of a body sweating, jumping, stomping his feet, laughing and breathing, your best bet is still to catch a show in person. Because when you witness a Hills Brothers hootenanny, you put your whole self in, you put your whole self out, you put your whole self in and you shake it all about. After all, that what it’s all about.

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