A friend of mine asked what I knew about Johnny Hiland. I repeated things I’d read about Hiland. You know, the blind guitarist from Nashville who looks like he plays in your hometown country-western bar, but deals as much in Van Halen as he does in Don Rich. Now, I can actually speak about his playing with the release of his first solo album on Favored Nations.
Some of that description is accurate. He does have that look. And, his playing sounds to me like he owes as much to Danny Gatton as he does the aforementioned guitarists. This record helps that reputation expand a bit with its types of songs and the players. Billy Sheehan plays the bass, Pat Torpy the drums, and Bill Holloman the keys and sax. As far as the music, there are hints of country, but it really plays more like an homage to the Hellecasters, Gatton, and progressive rock.
“G Wiz” kicks off with a nice banjo roll and then bounces off several walls in a cartoon-like fashion. In fact, it wraps up with a cartoon theme. “In Your Face” is one of those Telecaster free-for-alls that are always fun, if the player is up to it, and Johnny definitely is. “Truth Hurts” is a soaring, majestic rocker, the kind you don’t find many guys in cowboy hats messing with. “Swinging the Strings” is exactly what it says. It’s a swinging blues that features chordal work that will have you running to the instrument to try and cop.
“Run With It” has squeaks and honks that might bring the aforementioned Mr. Van Halen to mind. “Opus D’ Funk” is pretty much just what the title says. Talk about your flying fingers. “Celtic Country” also matches the title. It’s the perfect blend of the Celtic sound and American country. And, finally, how can you go wrong when a player like this ends his CD with “Orange Blossom Special.” It’s got a bit of different feel than you might be used to, but the melody is recognizable, and the playing is hot.
I think it would be safe to say Johnny is at the forefront of young guitar players. It’s also obvious he doesn’t want to, and doesn’t feel he has to, be pinned down to a certain style of music. That, along with his natural talent as a player, is very refreshing. Here’s hoping this is the first in a line of fine records by a guitarist who will continue to grow in lots of directions.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.