LITTLE ROCK Guitarist-singer-songwriter Robert Hill left Arkansas years ago for New York, but he can't quite get the Natural State out of his system, judging from songs he has titled "Rose City," "Ozark Passage" and "Crater of Diamonds." Another one, "Moses McCord," the first song on Hill's first album, starts with the line "Moses McCord was born down in Arkansas ...."
Born in North Little Rock, Hill graduated from North Little Rock High School in 1972. For a time he was a part of the local music scene as a member of two bands, The RPMS and The Blue Mambas.
"I moved north about 25 years ago for a couple of reasons," Hill says. "I wanted to try my hand at music up here and also to do some filmmaking and animation, which I do for CBS on The Early Show, four days a week. The rest of the time I play music and chase kids."
Hill and his wife, Heidi, have two children, Paulina, 10, and Robb, 5. The whole family is coming to see his first show in Arkansas in, lo, these many years, Saturday nightat west Little Rock coffeehouse Studio Joe. He adds that his mother and brother will also attend, and he hopes friends and former fans of his early bands will come and check out the progress he has made since flying the coop.
"When I was still living in Little Rock, I'd play at the White Water Tavern and another jointon Cantrell Road," Hill recalls. "It was called Smiley's, and it was a biker bar, a big Bandito hangout, and we kind of became the house band there. Most of the gigs ended up with a fight. Alcohol, blues and bikers, that's always a potent combination."
Hill is bringing along a musical cohort, bassist Mark Murphy, who wanted to bring his upright bass but will settle for a smaller electric model, due to the problems and expense of transport.
"I hope that someday I can bring my whole band," Hill says.
Around New York, Hill used to play in what he calls "straightahead blues bands," one of which was called The Bluesicians, in the 1990s at prominent clubs, including Tramps, Mannie's Car Wash and Mondo Cane.
"We played mostly cover stuff then," he says. "Now I've started doing more original stuff, playing in small theaters in upstate New York and out in New Jersey. I'm doing more listening-type rooms, coffeehouse things, where my stuff is more of a mix of singer-songwriter blues and Americana. I'm trying to play more for people that want to listen to the words. I've also been hosting a concert series at a Methodist church in New Jersey where we bring in a regional artist once a month. I've been doing that for a year."
He has opened shows for Chris Smither, Debbie Davies, John McEuen, The Tony Trischka Band, Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, the late Rick Danko of The Band and another member of The Band, Hill's fellow Arkansan, Levon Helm.
In 1999, Hill released his selftitled debut CD on his label, Slide On Rye Records. His second album, My Corner, came out in 2007. The title cut of his recent CD was inspired by a midnight walk in 90 degree heat in New York.
"I saw a guy sitting on a corner with his shopping cart," Hill recalls, "and he had on a heavy winter coat and a parka and all these clothes,and it was a powerful image. The course of the song came to me right then. As I drove home, I felt like that song was given to me, as it all came out at once. It made me think how we don't know what people have been through and how they end up where they are." The song won first place in the Unisong international songwriting competition in 2005 and has been played on "The Loft," an Americana station on XM radio. A Hill instrumental, "Slide on Rye," was used in an episode of the TV series, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and as the theme song of a weekly radio show in Australia. Hill wrote the soundtrack of a documentary, Burley, the story of a North Carolina tobacco farmer, that aired on the Public Broadcasting System.
A third CD, Evolution Blues, is in the works for later in the year or early 2009, Hill says.
Hill will also perform on the MidDay Arkansas show at 11:30 a.m. today on KATV, Channel 7.
Full disclosure: The writer of this story, whose name is also Hill and who also grew up in North Little Rock, is not related to Robert Hill.
Robert Hill 7 p.m. Saturday, Studio Joe, 600 Autumn Road, Little Rock Opening act: Kat Hood and Chuck Gilbert Tickets: $10 (501) 224-3400
Weekend, Pages 56 on 08/01/2008