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In Music

2013 was a busy year for Milwaukee's Hugh Bob and the Hustle.

Masterson reflects on Hugh Bob's 2013

In the past year, Hugh Bob and the Hustle have certainly done their fair share of shaking up the Milwaukee music scene.

Singer Hugh Robert Masterson, who comes from the small northern Wisconsin town of Butternut, found himself with his first chance to be a lead singer with this band and he wanted to make it count. From the very start he's been steadfast and uncompromising in wanting to convey his small town ideals (ie. hard work, honesty) through his lyrics.

The band's self-titled 2012 debut featured songs that have a distinct Midwest sweat and swagger, with songs that got personal and others that rolled up their sleeves for a party. Thanks to the combination of those elements, the band has quickly made an impact locally and around the country. Their big year includes many awards as well as a song on ABC television show "Nashville."

Prior to his band's show at Turner Hall with Blessed Feathers and The 4ONTHEFLOOR on Friday Dec. 27, I talked with Masterson about the past year, his songwriting experiences, and the attention he and his band have received. The band's had a big past year following the release of the debut album. What's are some memorable moments from that time?

Hugh Robert Masterson: Right after we got the band together we won some records after we put the record out, like Band of the Year with 88Nine and country band of the year for Shepherd Express. And same category for WAMI. Then we made that video with CJ (Foeckler) which is up for an award for 88Nine for video of the year. We've done some touring and been getting good shows and just bigger and better shows and good opening spots with JD McPherson - we've played with him a few times now - and the Heartless Bastards and The Lone Bellow. We played a show with PHOX and Delta Spirit for Live on King Street in Madison.

And in our own market this summer Milwaukee kind of demands that you play a lot of festival shows. And you don't ever want to overdo it in your own hometown so that was the reason for not playing around here since the summer because we ended up doing Summerfest and Brady Street and Summer Soulstice and Harley Davidson 110th celebration. We're waiting until the December 27th show to play a nice big hometown show. Also, we had one of our songs on the show Nashville.

OMC: How were you able to get "Mess with Me" on Nashville?

HRM: We have a placement person and it was something that they sent our music over to ABC. And the picked one of our songs and played it on the second episode of the season. And then a couple weeks later I went down to Nashville and I went down there myself to write songs with songwriters writing songs for other people.

OMC: What do you feel about having the song on a TV show like that, where it's shown to a pretty large audience? Have you seen any impact from it's airing?

HRM: Having our song played on the show "Nashville" was great. It is our first placement and that comes with a little bit of validation and a little bit of money too! It's an interesting feeling knowing how many people are hearing your song at the same time. We haven't gained tons of fans because of it, but I think that it was a nice treat for our fans that follow that show.

OMC: What was it like writing with those songwriters down in Nashville?

HRM: Every day I was writing with someone different and had six writing sessions in five days. One guy had a top 10 with Jake Owen. They've got songs coming out with Kelly Clarkson, Miranda Lambert, Rascal Flatts and the other guy I wrote with had written a lot of songs with Luke Bryant.

It's a totally different world from what I'm in. But it was a good experience and it was like writing song boot camp for a week, like sending your kid off to basketball camp or something. So it was good exercise, writing songs I normally would not write. So it was good to think outside the box for a second just to exercise that muscle.

OMC: Were there any similarities you saw with Hugh Bob and the Hustle and that experience?

HRM: Probably not too many. You have to think differently about the words you use and the things you sing about and try to relate to come from a southern person's kind of perspective for that whole world as far as writing those types of songs.

With the songs I write about in Hugh Bob and the Hustle they're personal to me and about my life experiences, good or bad things I go through, things I've learned or continuing to learn or messing up and trying to learn from. Or there's songs about where I grew up in northern Wisconsin.

So yeah it was completely different and style of music is completely different. So it was interesting. And before Hugh Bob and the Hustle I've never been a writer or had songs before so it's pretty intimidating to go down and work with people that that's what they do every day. It's got the feeling of "What the hell am I doing here?" Like what am I going to bring to the table because I don't have a lot on there.

Robert's Western World in Nashville sticks to the old demographic country sound and they'll play the classics which is awesome because I can relate to that because I grew up on country music in the bars with my parents. Because that's kind of the only social setting in northern Wisconsin is going to the bars. So I can relate to the classic country but the modern stuff I don't know as well. If one (modern) song says "Hey girl" there's going to be seven other songs on the radio in the next three months that say "Hey girl."

OMC: Have you started writing new songs for the next Hugh Bob and the Hustle album?

HRM: Yeah, we have a bunch of new songs that we've been demoing and been getting closer to thinking about making another record. I'd like to have a big pile of songs and pick the ones in there that make sense together to make for a full record. But they're definitely not those type of songs, they're more like the first record.

I won't write a song for Hugh Bob and the Hustle that I don't believe in or it doesn't have a story that I relate to because I have to sing it every night. So I'm definitely not leaning towards more modern sounding country. It's definitely in the same vein as the first record.

OMC: How do you think your writing process compares with the first songs that you wrote?

HRM: Pretty similar, actually. The first record I would write a lot in the morning and have ideas that I'd maybe jotted down. I'd write a lot in the morning and make some coffee and sit at the kitchen table when my brain is still fresh before I have to start thinking of all the crap I needed to get done during the day and bills I had to pay. And before my brain was swamped with all of those things I'd try to write when I'm still clear in my mind or when I'm just alone and there's nobody else at home and I don't feel bad singing loud or screwing up.

I find it's easier to write songs after I've been through something or if I'm just feeling a certain way or have that longing for home or whatever. My mom died at the end of January and I was home two weeks taking care of her so when I was back home I wrote a song there and when I got back I wrote a couple more songs.

And I don't know if they're songs that will necessarily make it on the record, we play them live sometimes. that's something I've have to see later, but I've had a few friends die and my mom passing and then losing my girlfriend of three years right after my mom died. A lot of stuff was pretty heavy and a lot was coming and I couldn't stop it.

So for me a lot of times it's a release where it's therapy for me, where it's like I have to let it out and put it into a song. It doesn't mean that song has to be on a record or something, maybe one of those songs will be, but for me it's always a release of whatever emotion I'm going through at the time.

OMC: Do you think your travels around the country have influenced these new songs?

HRM: I don't know for sure. I wouldn't say necessarily. I think it's easier when I'm feeling more isolated and put in one spot. There's a certain comfort of the road where you have one thing to do, to get to the show and play that show and to have fun and make the crowd move.

I think, if anything, playing all the songs from the first record and these you see what people react to. I think it's important to have songs that either have an emotional impact on a crowd and to also have songs that stomp their feet and smile and dance around a little bit.

OMC: How would you describe the chemistry of the band now compared with when it began?

HRM: I think everyone's gotten a lot more comfortable in their positions, me included. The first couple shows that we played as Hugh Bob and the Hustle those were the first times I ever sang in front of people and I was so nervous I wanted to run away. And I had nobody to blame but myself for putting myself into that position. Like, "Oh, I really wanted to do this but I feel terrible and completely nervous and full of anxiety. I'm an assh*le, why would I do this to myself?"

But then it started being easier and more rewarding and I can still feel some nervousness and anxiety but not the way it was. It's a lot more rewarding now because there's a lot less fear. It's more fun, like there's more anticipation to get up onto the stage and to perform. I think everyone's found their roles in the band as far as who can help with what and band business and that type of thing so it's not always falling on one person.

OMC: Anything in the works for next year?

HRM: I think we're going to be a little more busy. We're going to be touring more. I think we'll get some support tours and think we might be going out to Los Angeles to play at the ABC Studios. Something I forgot to mention from this year earlier was we played the "Artie Lange Show," a national DirectTV show. But we're going to play the ABC Lounge and play that as well as doing a school night event for KCRW with Chris Douridas and spend time playing shows out there.

Then in the spring we'll be heading to South by Southwest. And I've been doing some solo shows, as well. I opened for Randy Houser in Green Bay at Meyer Theater. Playing solo's kind of new to me, as well; that brings me back to the anxiety and nervousness that I felt when the band first started playing. Now having to do some solo shows for the first time it's hard to be up in front of a thousand people without your band and playing the songs out on your own.


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