Our Fearless Leader
Michelle Belanger is the driving force behind the Mystery Hillbillies. Her excellent rhythmic sense and many years of dancing combine with some rockin’ guitar chops to make a great foundation for her soaring singing on a fun selection of material. She’s been known to single-handedly get groups of people dancing.
Growing up in suburban Detroit in the 60s and 70s, Michelle spent many late nights with her FM radio tuned to rock, folk rock and motown. She was 18 when she went to her first Wheatland traditional music and arts festival, and so began a lifelong journey. Hippies and down home people joined in a community built around music -bluegrass and old time, vintage country, blues, gospel, cajun, zyedco- playing hackey sack, camping out, and dancing. Lots of dancing. She had found a home, and begun friendships that would last a lifetime. She moved north to Benzie county (top of the pinky on the mitten map) and planted herself in the middle of organizing concerts, dances and an annual music festival called Spirit of the Woods.
An open ended trip landed her in NC in 1986, where she found some deep roots of oldtime and bluegrass music at the many fiddlers conventions, and developed her unique style of clogging (featured on 4 CDs so far). She also began to lend her voice to singing at blues jams, and formed the Revelators around blues and r&b of the late 50/early 60s. She continued to travel back to Michigan every September for the Wheatland festival, and it was there that an old friend suggested she would be great at rockabilly. She had no idea what that was, but took his advice and looked up Wanda Jackson and Rosie Flores. It turned out to be a perfect bridge between the r&b and blues of the Revelators and the vintage country and western swing she had grown to love. Her repertoire continues to draw from this range of styles, enabling her to entertain a wide variety of audiences.
This unique combination of guitar chops, dancer’s sense of rhythm, and a really fun collection of songs has attracted and maintained an excellent team of sidemen who join her in various combos for gigs. Together, they bring great music and fun to their shows, filling the dance floor. The fact that she loves what she does is evident, and as infectious as her world renowned laugh.
John Worthington grew up around country, bluegrass, rock and r&b music in Eastern North Carolina. In high school, he and his friends formed a band playing Beatles and other pop and rock that was popular in the 60s, and went to a booking agent to see if they could get some work. The guy said he thought they sounded pretty good, but that he could not get them anything playing that material. “Now, if you want to learn some songs that people can shag to, come back and see me” he told them. So they went to another high school and found a singer and a couple of horn players and set to work building a repertoire of old school r&b. Before long they were driving out every weekend to venues from Virginia to South Carolina playing for dancers. John has since played a variety of styles of dance music including bluegrass (for the Green Grass Cloggers, among others) with his band The Hometown Boys, and swing with the excellent Bill Newton’s Big Blues Quartet, and longstanding Greenville, NC band the Lemon Sisters and the Rutebega Brothers. He is a constant student of many styles of music. He told me about youtube long before I even had a computer. John stays very busy these days playing music and we are lucky to have him aboard when he can join us. He sure knows how to get the dancers moving.
Calvin Johnson plays upright bass and sings, too. His first exposure to live music came at the end of long station wagon rides to the foot of Stone Mountain, NC. When his aunt and uncle’s restaurant in Traphill closed on Saturday Nights, the locals would sing, dance and drink into the wee hours. His uncle Bill would play bass and whoever else was there would play fiddle, guitar, banjo, and sing, with Calvin’s dad playing along on electric guitar. The music was whatever anyone knew- Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, George Jones, Marty Robbins, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb. Cal has gone on to play many styles including rock and roll, rhythm and blues, soul and jazz. He currently also plays with Russ Wilson and his Mighty Mighty Men; Tin Can Alley; Mel Jones and his Bag O Bones; Armand and Bluesology; and various sub gigs.
Lance White has been playing swing, jump blues and rock with his band Too Much Fun for over 25 years. He made an appearance as a Mystery Hillbilly many years ago, but he was just about to get married and build a house at that point, so it was a bit too much on his plate. Around 2014 I was looking for additional guitar players and the timing was excellent for him to jump in again. He has been playing some more country music in the meantime, and his swing and jump blues chops fit right in to the Mystery Hillbillies sound. He also has a really good natured, wise guy sense of humor. He is great fun to have along, and it has been great to combine the Too Much Fun family and friends with my Mystery Hillbillies community.
Hugh Crumley has played in a wide range of bands over many years, from Django style swing to Hawaiian to 20s and 30s swing, rockabilly and more. He’s got a rockin slappin style that keeps the dancers movin’. His other bands include the Bull Town Strutters, Huhzza, and Curtis Eller’s Flying Circus. He is a multi instrumentalist, playing his orange upright bass in the Hillbillies. It matches his hair.
Tim Shearer is best known in the Triangle area on NC for his guitar playing in John Howie Jr and the Rosewood Bluff. He was born in England, and started playing country music when he mover over to the states. He is also well versed in a wide range of blues, and has a great feel for the go go grooves.
Mickey Wall is based out of High Point, NC. He has been playing as a Hillbilly for a couple years now, and he just keeps sounding better. He started out playing in bluegrass bands, appearing (as a teenager) at the Rex Theater, among other places. He currently plays with Marty Rabon and does some Elvis Tribute shows with a fellow coworker from UPS. He will be retiring in a few years, and will, I’m sure, be playing like crazy at that point. In the meantime, we are so glad he can fit us into his schedule.
Mel Jones, a longtime friend of myself and Calvin, has been joining us on drums from time to time. He is an excellent singer as well, and I look forward to adding some duets with him. He also plays with Calvin in Tin Can Alley, rendering some classic 60s r&b and soul music. He and I sing some duets when I come out to their shows. You can check that out at my youtube channel, Mystbilly.
Chip “Memphis” Click played with the band for several years, and occasionally joins us for a fill in gig here and there. He has a sound that the dancers love, combining his history of big band jazz (in high school!) with the classic country and r&b he grew up hearing, along with a lot of great music he has listened to and played over the many years as a working musician. He is also an excellent singer, and plays mostly with his long running band The Fairlanes.
Fj Ventre brings his great talent and skill as a slap bass player and singer to the Hillbillies’ sound. He and Michelle met when he answered an ad she had in the local Independant Weekly newspaper looking for a bass player to play honkytonk and rockabilly. He had moved to the area, in part, to play some more with his long time friend and gigging partner, John Shain. They quickly developed a mutual respect and he joined the first incarnation of the Mystery Hillbillies in 1999 with Steve Howell on lead guitar. Fj has since been welcomed into the triangle music scene as a go to bass player for numerous bands and combos that love his skill, his ability to play such a range of styles and for his mastery at playing great dance grooves. He works with such excellent bands as Rebecca and the Hitones and his own band, the Swang Brothers.
Drew “Captain Midnight” Howard brings 30+ years of skill on guitar, steel guitar, pedal steel and dobro to to the Mystery Hillbillies sound. He grew up with classic country music, and has played a great number of other styles over his three decades as a full time musician. His sound is playful and he is an all around great guy. He has been nominated for his second Detroit Music Award for best country sideman. He has my vote.
Frank Youngman is a multi instrumentalist from the Lake City area of Michigan. The Lost World String Band used to play shows for the Spirit Of The Woods Music Association when I was just a teenager dreaming of being a working musician. They were a great example of excellent musicianship, a great variety of styles and a super fun sense of humor. These guys were so much fun to watch, listen and dance to. Over the years Frank has been in too many bands to count. He is sought after for his great skill, style and gracious personality. He teaches band class in the Lake City schools, and many of his students have become fine musicians through the foundation and example Frank has set. I wish I could have had such a teacher when I was in school. In his spare time he helps his wife with her dog sitting business, hangs out at music festivals and listens to old 78 records in his man cave.