Many people, including Watauga County's favorite son, Doc Watson, have become accomplished and well-known musicians despite a lack of sight.
Johnny Hiland is yet another extremely talented visually impaired person with an affinity for music. Like Doc, Hiland's instrument of choice is the guitar, but he differs from Watson in that he prefers the electric breed.
Johnny Hiland releases "All Fired Up" in July 2011. It is an all-instrumental album highlighting Hiland's aptitude on the guitar and his "chicken pickin'" skills.
Hiland has been legally blind all his life, born with nystagmus, a condition that causes involuntary eye movement. Spending his childhood in Woodland, Maine, he learned flattop guitar from listening to bluegrass CDs. After attending a Ricky Skaggs concert at age 10, Hiland traded out the flattop for an electric guitar. From there, his music tastes diversified, and so did his playing styles.
Hiland's blend of country, rock and blues guitar styles quickly earned him attention after moving to Nashville, Tenn., in his 20s. Since, he's become a favorite session musician for country producers.
He's also received support from those he learned from: Steve Vai's label released Hiland's self-titled debut album in 2004, and Ricky Skaggs praised Hiland by saying, "I think Johnny is the most versatile guitar player I've ever heard. From Bill Monroe to Eddie Van Halen, he can play it all."
Hiland's third solo effort, "All Fired Up," demonstrates the guitarists' versatility. Although country in flavor, it is clear from the album's first song that it is not a typical country guitar album. On "Barnyard Breakdown," Hiland's guitar, a thumping bass line and a double bass drum collectively make the statement, "This is country music turned up to 11."
The album's title track, "All Fired Up," exemplifies Hiland's capability of harnessing several guitar styles into one song. Hiland is genre-breaking, dissolving the line between country, rock and blues. He provides top-notch guitar music, plain and simple. It's easy to understand how he could catch the ear of both a rock guitarist, Steve Vai, and a country guitarist, Ricky Skaggs.
A country-electric musician, Hiland makes a nod to the first usage of electric instruments in country music in "Bakersville Bound." The Bakersville Sound originated in 1950s in Southern California and was made popular by Buck Owens. Also referring to another country style, the "Six String Swing" is Hiland's jacked-up stab at Texas Swing. A dancing cowboy would have to drink a few cups of jitter juice to keep up with the tempo.
Hiland has done session work for Ricky Skaggs, Toby Keith and Randy Travis, among others. Songs like "The Gloves are Off" makes one wonder why he hasn't gotten more phone calls from rock bands.
Although much of his work has been related to country music, Hiland could easily assume lead guitarist responsibilities in the heaviest of bands. This could explain why Hank Williams III chose Hiland to play on his recent albums.
"Gone But Not Forgotten" is another rock-tinged song on "All Fired Up." It is more than likely a tribute to someone that Hiland knows. This is a song that will not be quickly forgotten, as Hiland displays chops that beat almost any of today's mainstream guitar players.
"All Fired Up" doesn't feature much singing, as Hiland's talent is concentrated on the guitar. Those curious about Hiland's vocal abilities can check out the two bonus vocal tracks included at the end of the album. "Breaker, Breaker, 1-9" and "Party Time" are fun, swinging country tunes that confirm Hiland's showmanship abilities.
Any person that enjoys super picking, whether it be country, rock or otherwise, will love Johnny Hiland's "All Fired Up." Guitarists and those interested in learning guitar would do well to pick up the album, as it may teach them a thing a two about the value of musical diversity.
Johnny Hiland is online at http://www.johnnyhiland.net.