Janice Birchfield doesn’t ruffle easily. The washtub-bass player for the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers even seems nonplussed about the day the Sex Pistols spent at her family’s homestead in Roan Mountain, Tenn.
“They were very nice,” she says of Johnny Rotten, the late Sid Vicious and company.
The same goes for Boy George, who, according to Birchfield, “just showed up in our driveway one day.
“He’s a nice person,” she adds. “He’s just an exhibitionist.”
The above-mentioned flock of British bad boys became aware of the Hilltoppers when punk icon Malcolm McLaren — famous for producing the Sex Pistols’ work — sampled some of the mountain band’s music on his own 1982 hit, “Buffalo Girls.” The song held fast on Billboard‘s Top 10 list for months, and was re-sampled by Eminem on his 2002 recording “Without You.”
“We had a pig roast and a dance,” Birchfield remembers of the Sex Pistols’ visit to Roan Mountain. “They loved it. They wanted us to teach them how to dress like mountain people, with coonskin caps and so on.” (Quite a mental picture, that — the pale, snarling, overtly British, heroin-addled Vicious decked out in overalls and sundry other Appalachian regalia.)
The Hilltoppers themselves are not about to go punk anytime soon: “We play the way our family always has,” says Birchfield. “Straight, traditional sounds.”
Pure, hard and unyielding — maybe it’s not such a stretch to call them punk after all.
The tight-knit group was born in the early part of last century on a farm in the East Tennessee mountains, when brothers Joe and Creed Birchfield began learning old-time ballads from their father and uncles. Creed, who passed away in 1998 at age 93, first learned to play a fiddle made from a wooden cigar box, and later moved to his true calling — banjo — on an instrument he once described as “made out of cherry wood and groundhog hide.”
Joe started out on banjo, then took over the fiddle when Creed declared his preference for the former instrument. But the death of Joe and Ethel Birchfield’s 7-year-old daughter, Ella Mae (the girl is immortalized in the band’s song “Blue Eyed Angel”), so devastated him that he vowed to never play fiddle again … and he kept his word for nearly 30 years.