The Hooten Hallers are a rambunctious hillbilly folk/blues garage outfit from Columbia, Mo., with a wild and woolly streak as long as an airstrip. The band sounds like a mining camp hootenanny full of whiskey-soaked frenzy and stir-crazy abandon, and all of it is captured in a faded sepia print.
Formed nearly seven years ago, guitarist John Randall and drummer Andy Rehm released three studio albums as a duo and toured from coast-to-coast in support of the third album, 2012's Greetings from Welp City. Last year, they added a third member, Paul Weber, and released Chillicothe Fireball, in honor of the band's touring van.
"We started calling the new van Chillicothe Fireball because we bought it in Chillicothe, Mo. One thing led to another, and we name the album that," says Rehm. "We're slowly developing a Hooten Hallers language." Another one of the group's favorite idioms is "putting a dog on it," which more or less means "having the most amount of fun possible at any given time."
Weber has been a friend of Rehm's since they shared the same dorm as freshmen at University of Missouri. Weber added some harmonica tracks and contributed the woozy, blues swing tune, "She Used to Love My Music" to Welp City, but he wasn't a member. Finally, Randall and Rehm approached him.
"We basically just said, 'What's it going to take to get you in the band full time,' " Rehm says. "He agreed, and about 30 days later he was like, 'So I play the tuba as well.' We said, 'Hell, let's try it,' so we incorporated it into some songs on this record. It's fun and people get a kick out of it when Paul pulls out the tuba. It's very much like having a bass on the song. It's cool" While Weber contributed to the wider sonic palette of Chillicothe Fireball, he was just one new element. The Hooten Hallers also added piano and lapsteel for more texture and dimension.
Like Welp City, Chillicothe Fireball was recorded live in the studio, and it captures Randall and Rehm's tight-knit chemistry. You can hear it in the raw-boned rave-up "It's Hard to Trust Your Baby," the loose-limbed country-blues instrumental "Garlic Storm," and the slow-burn roots-soul of "Used to the Truth," where Randall takes his bluesy howl to 11.
"We kind of went wild on the songs. They vary a lot in tone and structure. Some are really weird and some of them are about body disposal," Rehm says, referencing the gutter-blues swing of "Grinding Up the Bones," a solid tune that suggests a grimier Tom Waits, if you can believe that.
"The whole thing is a strange album, and we had a lot of fun making it," he continues. "There's a little classic country, some straight-up blues, rock 'n' roll stuff that people might not be used to from us, and also some weird jazz songs."
Randall's gruff baritone is perfect for the downbeat sway of the slower tunes on Chillicothe Fireball, and it reaches its apogee on the ramshackle and bedraggled seven-minute-long "Trouble Is." On it, he sings with enough sleepless, soul-crushed-and-ass-dragging earnestness to turn one of the oldest clichés, the not-over-you-yet song, into something poignant.
"I feel like as long as the Hooten Hallers are a band, we'll write long-ass ballad songs and frequently the subject matter will depress you," jokes Rehm.
If the Hooten Hallers' trajectory isn't quite that of a Chillicothe Fireball — whatever that is — things have been trending up for the last two and half years that Rehm and company have been going at it full time. They've graduated from the cramped old van to a bigger Sprinter, and they've seen the size of the crowds get bigger.
"Things are really just getting better all the time. More folks coming out to see us and more people picking up the new music and making more believers all the time," says Rehm. "There's definitely a learning curve when you do a lot of things DIY like we do. But we are learning the shows get better all the time and the clubs get better. Even the food is better."
Adding Weber has not only opened up the band's musical possibilities, it's amplified the band's quirky nuttiness and stage energy. Already a brawny sonic powerhouse as a two-piece, the swing and spirit the new harmonica/tuba player justifies a "new and improved" sticker. These days the Hooten Hallers are ready for any situation.
"We play a wide variety of traditional American music. We don't really do one kind of thing," Rehm says. "So it's easier to find something that might be appropriate. There's some places where we go in, and it's a small room, and we might play the acoustic country set instead of the loud blues stuff. You never really know, but we like to be prepared for whatever."