Amasa Hines: quality wins out 

Readers' choice for best band in Arkansas.

click to enlarge Amasa Hines pic
  • Nancy Nolan

A lot of bands — most of them, probably — will toil away for years without getting much acknowledgment. They've got good intentions, they practice all the time. Hell, maybe they've even got good taste. But face it: They didn't make it because they just weren't that good. It's an unfortunate but common scenario.

Other groups will work their asses off, become really good and still won't earn much recognition. That's a drag, and a mystery to boot. Everybody has one of these "why-didn't-they-ever-make-it-bigger?" favorites.

Then there are those precious few bands that are great — and recognized as such — right at the outset. Amasa Hines is just that. The Little Rock band is one of those rare examples of when talent and taste and hard work and focus and good timing meet up with that mystery element and voila: We have a new, awesome band that seemingly everyone can agree is awesome.

Though they been together less than two years, Amasa Hines has built a buzz not only locally (though they've gotten plenty of love from Central Arkansas critics), but with bloggers and music fans in far-flung locales. Chicago-based blog Words & Fire noted that the band melds "the rich, sensuous sound of grassroots soul with the grit and aggression of bluesy rock," and dug the track "Earth and Sky," calling the lyrics "unpretentiously poetic."

Amasa Hines was one of the dozen bands included in Paste Magazine's recent feature "12 Arkansas Bands You Should Listen to Now." SYFFAL.com posted a video of the band performing "Earth and Sky" and "She's Alright," gushing that "halfway through the first song I was pissing blood because the soul oozing out of this group kicked me in the gut hard and repeatedly. Think James Brown meets the Black Keys."

And this week, the venerable Daytrotter posted a four-song session from Amasa Hines. Over the last several years, the music website has posted exclusive live recordings from an amazingly large and diverse array of performers, from up-and-comers to seasoned vets such as Wilco, The Walkmen, Los Lobos, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks and hundreds more. The band hit the road up to Daytrotter's studio in Rockville, Ill., and recorded two originals and covers of Nina Simone's "Sinner Man" and Kraftwerk's "The Model."

The group just finished the tracking and mixing on its debut album as well, recorded by Mitchell Vanhoose, who also plays trumpet on the record and with the band onstage as well.

While Amasa Hines is a relatively recent arrival, the band members aren't exactly newcomers. In 2010, Judson and Josh Spillyards and Ryan Hitt — who'd played together with Chris Denny and in The Romany Rye — began a weekly gig with saxophonist Norman Williamson, playing improvised music and some funk covers at what was then Ferneau restaurant. Joshua came onboard as a vocalist a few months later.

"We didn't really have any set things to play, we were just kind of going improv, making it up as we went along," Williamson said. "Over time, we started to develop some set songs and Joshua started to write stuff and eventually we gelled into Amasa Hines."

In terms of inspiration, Williamson cited Afro-beat giant Fela Kuti and Ethio-jazz innovator Mulatu Astatke as influences. But "all of our music tastes are pretty eclectic," he said. "It's not limited to that, it just happens to be what we've been into lately."

In addition to the Nina Simone and Kraftwerk tunes (the latter inspired by Brazilian troubadour Seu Jorge's version) the band also does a version of the Clash classic "Straight to Hell," and makes it their own.

The debut album will most likely have nine or 10 songs and be self-released on vinyl and online, Judson Spillyards said. But Spillyards said they'll probably shop it around to some labels as well. "I'm not opposed to signing with a label, as long as it's right," he said.

Along with the album, Amasa Hines also has some touring on the horizon. Though the details haven't yet been finalized, the group is in the process of buying a van and taking advantage of some of the contacts they've have made through their other bands, Spillyards said.

Because even with the ubiquity and endless reach of the Internet, touring is "kind of what you have to do this day and age if you want people to know about you at all," he said.


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