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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012

Hugh Bob and the Hustle's Pure Country

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Nobody would claim that Milwaukee doesn't have a fondness for American music. Spend a week or two going to shows in Bay View, Riverwest or on the East Side, and you'll witness a wide variety of local Americana, folk, folk-rock, roots-rock and alt-country. What you probably won't find in these tent poles of the local music scene, though, is any actual country—or at least not the twangy, radio-friendly form of country that Hugh Masterson heard seemingly everywhere during his childhood in rural Ashland County.

"I grew up about 10 miles from town, surrounded by dirt roads, in a town of about 300, where we all went to the same building from K-12," Masterson recalls. "Up there people socialized either at potlucks or at the bar. You'd go to the bar with your parents to get a burger and then sit there forever. So even if there wasn't a lot of country in our household, we heard it all the time on the jukeboxes there. They all had Conway Twitty, Alan Jackson, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings."

Masterson didn't make much of Milwaukee's dearth of country when he first moved to the city. Instead he settled into the local scene, playing with the earliest incarnation of Jaill ("even though the music wasn't necessarily my thing") and then touring with the punk band Bosio ("that definitely wasn't my thing") before joining the rock band The Wildbirds ("that was my thing at the time, but I wasn't writing the songs"). When Masterson decided to begin writing his own songs—something he'd wanted to do for some time, but had been dragging his feet on—it only made sense that he would draw from the music he'd been exposed to the most during his formative years.

Hugh Bob and the Hustle began as something of a trial by fire, with Masterson committing to the project before he'd even finished more than a song or two. "I did that on purpose," he says. "I would tell everybody around me, even people that I didn't know, that I was starting a country band. I figured if I told everybody I was going to do this, then I couldn't puss out. It was my way of forcing myself to follow through."

The transition was ultimately smoother than he could have expected. Around the same time that Masterson began scratching his songwriting itch, The Wildbirds were losing steam. The band's gear had been stolen twice in one year, and they'd stopped writing new material as a result. Fellow Wildbirds Nicholas Stuart, Bradley Kruse and Quinn Scharber were looking for a change, too, it seemed, so they signed on to join Masterson's band, along with drummer Justin Krol. The group stops just short of officially declaring The Wildbirds done for good—perhaps wisely, given how The Wildbirds have risen from the ashes before—but for now Hugh Bob and the Hustle is their lone concern.

Already the new group has been able to do what few Milwaukee bands have ever done: make honest-to-god country seem appealing to even some of the East Side's most country-averse audiences. And they've done it by playing without a trace of ironic detachment. Hugh Bob and the Hustle's self-titled debut doesn't pander to the fixed-gear and craft-cocktail set. It's an unapologetic, honky-tonk-heavy set of tunes about hard drinking and pickup-truck worship, and it wears its twang as a badge of honor. "I don't care if you're from Texas, I don't care if you're from Tennessee / From the Midwest playing north country," Masterson sings. "My band's playing country, nobody better mess with me."

"A lot of the songs were just inspired by sitting at the bar, cataloging all the old sayings and funny things I'd overhear," Masterson explains. "I have a friend who would get drunk at the bar and yell out things like, 'This bar is a prison!,' or, 'Let's get drunk and make bad decisions!,' and I'd think, 'That's a song.' Everybody can relate to that; we all know when we've had a few too many and it's time to go home. For the most part, in my songs, I'm just telling stories, because I think that's what country is. The thing with rock 'n' roll is you can shake your ass to it, but there's no story. With country, you can shake your ass to it, too, but there's a story there behind it all."

Hugh Bob and the Hustle play two album release shows this weekend: Saturday, Sept. 8, at 10 p.m. at the Cactus Club with The Championship and Sunday, Sept. 9, at 7:30 p.m. at Hotel Foster with Blessed Feathers.

Photo by CJ Foeckler
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