There was a time when new Atlantic Records recording artist Dillon Hodges thought he was born a half- century too late. He was a gifted guitarist as a teenager and that would seem to open a lot of social doors. But it was bluegrass flat-picking that Hodges excelled at growing up in the Muscle Shoals area of Alabama, and all his friends were closer to 50 than 15.
“When all you can really think about is bluegrass music, you don’t share any common interests with anybody. It makes it tough to have a lot of friends,” Hodges said before smiling. “But it didn’t really matter in the end.”
A decade later that lonely boy is right in the middle of a musical world that now appreciates all the things he fell in love with – authenticity, virtuosity, and innovation. As Hodges unveils his new project firekid with his self-titled album, he shows he’s an artist with traditional chops who’s nonetheless completely modern in the way he approaches music, incorporating electric instruments, electronic beats and a unique world view.
The 24-year-old feels firekid, produced by Sam Hollander and Josh Edmondson, is the sound of the moment.
“I’ve heard from friends of mine who are older who say when they grew up it wasn’t cool to listen to Whitney Houston, and if that came on a mixtape, your friends would make fun of you,” Hodges said. “But now you can have anything on your iPod, put it on shuffle and no one’s going to think anything of it. Maybe it’s even cooler to have a wider array of interest in music.”
You hear this right from the album’s first cut, the wild and free “Magic Mountain.” With Hodges’ high lonesome voice buoyed along by an irresistible groove, it’s a song that can’t be roped and stabled by genre definitions.
“I wanted it to be the first song we put out because I feel like it’s the perfect introduction to the sound of firekid,” Hodges said. “firekid is tough to describe without sounding gimmicky or hokey. I wanted something very concise that shows the sounds were meant to be fused together. It’s got claw-hammer banjo on it. It’s also got flat-picking guitar elements. The drums are pretty heavily hip-hop or EDM influenced, but it doesn’t lose its kind of rootsy feel somehow.”
“Magic Mountain” and the rest of firekid is the sound of freedom, of an artist growing beyond his training and experience. Hodges showed up at his first guitar lesson at the age of 11 with a battered $15 yard-sale guitar and a Creed songbook. But his instructor played bluegrass, so that’s what he learned. Or, tried to at least.
“He totally shut me down,” Hodges said with a laugh. “He told me he’d look at the songbook, but I think he threw it in the trash. I was horrible, and it wasn’t going anywhere. Then he realized I was left-handed. So he switched the guitar and it was all over.”
By 17 he was an acoustic virtuoso, becoming the second youngest winner of the National Flat Pick Guitar Championship in 2007. He began a recording career not long after with an EP and a full-length album of traditional music. But a few things happened as he entered adulthood and went to college at the University of North Alabama. First, he found different kinds of music. Like hip-hop.
“It was like discovering the New World,” Hodges said. “I was like Christopher Columbus.”
And even as he was finishing his solo album, he took a trip to Los Angeles to write with a couple of longtime friends. The first song they wrote together, “Lay By Me,” completely changed the direction of his music.
Like some of his favorite old-time songs, “Lay By Me” played mix and match with light and dark.
“It had a poppy melody, but had this edge to the lyric,” Hodges said. “I sent it to my younger sisters, who have the pulse of these sorts of things, and they said it’s so much better than anything I’ve done before. I thought there’s something to this. So I sent it to my parents, and they were like, ‘This is what you need to be doing.’”
The songs came quickly as he applied this new approach, drawing the attention of pop producer Hollander (Katy Perry, Train) and Atlantic Records, a label he chose in part because of its rich history in the Muscle Shoals area. Emboldened, he took an old folk tune played by multiple artists like Doc Watson and reworked it with drums, organ and a modern groove. The result is “Die for Alabama,” an epic anthem that melds the best elements of bluegrass, rock and even gospel in the addictive chorus: “End is near, got no fear/Brave boys cheer, ‘Die for Alabama.’”
Hodges ends the album with tongue-in-cheek entry “The Americana Dream,” a skewering of hipsters and posers that’s nevertheless so sly and sweet if feels like the playful remembrance of an era.
“That song is really kind of the pot calling the kettle black,” Hodges said, pausing to reflect on leaving that world behind with firekid. As he reflects in many of the songs on the album, he’s on a journey of discovery: “I’m doing something different now. I really don’t know what it is.”