Articles about the Mystery Hillbillies:
We got a nice mention in the triangle’s favorite entertainment newspaper, IndyWeek, ahead of our July (2016) show at the Kraken-
“It’s no mystery why these self-described hillbillies have been movers and shakers on the rockabilly and honky-tonk scenes for over two decades. Conjuring up the mojo of heavy hitters ranging from Hank Williams to Chuck Berry to Buddy Holly, frontwoman Michelle Belanger, bassist F.J. Ventre, and guitarist Lance White keep it fresh and rockin’.” —Grant Britt
-from the article: Michelle Belanger of the Mystery Hillbillies said that she has “a deep respect for Johnny for a number of reasons.” … “I can relate to the way he is comfortable walking in many different worlds, and yet, always being just a little different. He just had a lot of grace.”
The Mystery Hillbillies opened the show with a barn burning set of tightly focused, three-piece high-lighted by Michelle Belanger’s lived-in vocals. Hillbillies regular Calvin Johnson on the upright came the closest to Americana, easing the crowd into the evening connecting the mountain pickers to urban hot-rodders in a tactile way. The addition of a drummer and electric guitar brought on the Memphis and allowed their set to bridge that gap from the Carter Family Fold in Virginia to Johnny’s electrified Nashville career. Belanger’s stage presence and singing are warm, like sitting on a porch and listening to her croon over a chorus of crickets.
This article is about the Green Heron Alehouse, one of several neighborhood bars we love to play.
I was the featured artist in Relish– the weekly Arts and Entertainment insert of the Winston Salem Journal
In case you hit the paywall, here is a copy of the text:
Michelle Belanger grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, a radio fixed to her ear, immersed in the rock and R&B of the day.
Her musical palette expanded, and she is now best known for playing country, swing and rockabilly with her band, the Mystery Hillbillies.
Settled in North Carolina since 1986, Belanger, 56, plays regularly in the area, with frequent gigs at Prissy Polly’s BBQ in Kernersville and the Green Heron Ale House in Danbury. When she is not belting out Wanda Jackson and Bob Wills’ songs, Belanger works as a carpenter, hanging and fixing doors and building small decks and landings.
“Just stuff I can mostly do by myself,” Belanger said.
Q: How would you describe your art?
Answer: In my band, the Mystery Hillbillies, I cover a range from western swing and classic country, to rockabilly, boogie and blues. I am a song miner, much like Emmylou Harris was for so many years. I keep a long “to learn” list. I listen for detail, and to capture the feel of whatever music I like the sound of. In addition to playing in the band, I play old-time stringband music, swing standards and various other stuff at parties, fiddlers conventions and festivals. I mainly play guitar and sing. I’m a beginner on bass and drums. I have a percussive style of dancing, mostly based in flatfoot clogging, that has been recorded on four CDs. It got me a trip to England to teach dance workshops and do performances in the late ‘90s. I am all about integrating music and dancing.
Q: How have you evolved as an artist?
Answer: The first song I remember learning to play guitar and sing was “The Circle Game,” by Joni Mitchell. I went for a few years singing and playing a lot of similar stuff, in part because I didn’t know how to branch out on guitar. I started playing old-time string band music in my late teens, when I went to a square dance and hooked up with the Spirit of the Woods Music Association. That opened up a world to me including music festivals, dancing, and people who made their own music and entertained themselves. I got to meet some real working musicians and was delighted to find out about what my friend Dave affectionately called “the medium time.” Having fun, making money, playing great music, but still being able to go to the grocery store and not get stared at or followed by a lot of people with cameras.
In my early 30s I started singing at blues jams, and looking for musicians to get a band going with. I got some vocal coaching with Carter Minor, an excellent singer/teacher from Chapel Hill. He suggested I start collecting as many songs as I could, and to go where that took me. I did a lot of exploring the roots of the music I had grown up with, and started a band built around blues from the ’50s and early ’60s. It was a friend in Michigan who suggested I try some rockabilly. I had no idea what rockabilly was, but I followed his direction to look up Wanda Jackson and Rosie Flores. The ’50s and ’60s blues and R&B, and the country I had grown to love from the fiddlers conventions and festivals, were the two main ingredients of rockabilly. Over the last several years I have built up my guitar skill and song list to where I can lead my sidemen on a variety of gigs. Having a solid foundation of guitar chops has freed me up to work more on stage presence, connecting with audiences, crafting set lists, including and refining stories. I got a pedal board for Christmas. So far, so fun with that collection of toys.
Q: Who has influenced your art?
Answer: So many! I have always been influenced by the musicians I actually know who are making music with integrity, and making all or part of a living doing it. I heard a wide range of music growing up in Detroit in the ’60s and ’70s. Plenty of great stuff on the radio. I fell in love with albums on late-night FM. Part of why I an still a night owl. Old-time string band music led me to old classic country. Rockabilly turned out to be a bridge between my Detroit rocking’ roots, my blues band repertoire, and classic country. A random selection of famous singers who have inspired me over the years: Joni Mitchell, Steve Windwood, Patsy, Hank, Willie Nelson, Rosie Flores, Wanda Jackson, Emmylou, Lou Ann Barton, Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, Kim Wilson (Fabulous Thunderbirds), Billie Holiday, (early) Brenda Lee.
Q: Any advice for other artists?
Answer: Take the long road. Learn how to love practice and be willing to be bad on the way to better. Find a trail buddy (or several) to learn with and be bad together as you get better. Your No. 1 job is to be your best self. Build up your muscle memory with a bunch of cool licks that you love the sound of. These will be the channels that your own voice (style/sound) can come through. Imitate stuff you love, but don’t get stuck there. Use what you learn to find your own voice. I think of music styles like languages and dialects. If you are fluent in Spanish, you can have a deep conversation with another Spanish speaker you share some interests or knowledge base with. You can communicate somewhat with French speakers, but your conversation will not be as fluid. You will be lost if you try to have a conversation in Mandarin. So, figure out which musical languages you want to work in and master the language and dialect that fits with them. Seek out your musical kindred spirits. If you want to be a working artist who plays in public and, at least some of the time, gets paid, one of the most important things you need to do is make and build/maintain personal connections.
“I think of the word “bad-ass” when I think of you. Confident, talented, cool, humorous, skilled….bad-ass!” -Anastasia Maddox vocals, uke, harmonica and kazoo http://www.bulltownstrutters.org/
‘Michelle, I love come to hear you play because I can pretend I’m you and it makes me feel sassy!” -Tami Reichert
The first time I heard the Mystery Hillbillies was at Fishers Grill in Greensboro. If you’ve ever been to Fishers, you know that a packed house gets pretty loud in there. In the middle of a conversation, I heard this booming voice that stopped me in mid-sentence. I had to peek over the booth to see who this was – and there was Michelle – this huge smile on her face as she started belting out “Daddy Was a Preacher.” My first reaction was, how the heck does such a powerful sound come out of such a petite gal? But you know the old saying, “Don’t judge a book…?” Well, it’s true. She packs a punch, and so does the rest of the band.
There are lots of groups in the area that play good music, but they don’t really bring you into the performance — don’t make a connection. Watching this band, I felt as if I had gone back in time to the days of watching the “Porter Wagoner Show” with my Pa-Paw on the weekends. Their music is authentic – a fun little trip down memory lane. It’s comforting. And it makes you want to get up, pull off your shoes, and do a little dancin’ (even though shoeless is probably not a good idea in a bar).
I’ve seen the Mystery Hillbillies play at Prissy Polly’s in Kernersville, and the crowd loved them. It takes a certain kind of presence to keep customers in their seats after they’ve finished dinner, and this group can do it. Couples were slow-dancing to Patsy Cline songs, shouting out requests, and the band kept delivering. This older gentleman slowly made his way to the front row and took a seat to listen. By the end of the show, he was clapping and stomping his feet with a huge smile on his face. Now THAT’S what music is all about, isn’t it? Go see them. They’re musical medicine for the soul.
-Leigh Tysor Olsen -singer with Piedmont Blues Society Blues Challenge winners (2013), Toot and the Longshots https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vb8qDbK-CD0
I just wanted to say a few words about an awesome rockabilly/blues/Texas swing group known as The Mystery Hillbillies. They do a great mix of tunes from many different styles and artists. What I love best about them is their ability to make each song their own. I would compare their music to a mix of Brenda Lee, Hank Williams and Marty Stuart. Michelle Belanger’s voice just soars and I can’t help but throw back my head and move my feet. If you like being moved to action (dancing your fanny off) you can’t miss seeing and hearing this great local talent!!
-Justin Phillips of Mocksville, NC
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