The Hillsiders played country when country was not cool in England - as the UK’s leading country band, they helped introduce thousands of people to the music. The band’s origins go back to 1959 when Kenny Johnson (b. 11 December 1939, Liverpool, England; lead vocals/guitar) formed the Country Three. Johnson, joined by Joe Butler (b. 12 January 1939, Liverpool, England, d. May 2007; guitar), changed the group to Sonny Webb And The Country Four, taking his stage name from the American country stars Sonny James and Webb Pierce. In 1961, following an argument, Johnson regrouped as Sonny Webb And The Cascades. Butler played bass and they were joined by lead guitarist Frank Wan, who had been with Clinton Ford, and Brian ‘Noddy’ Redman, of the Fourmost and Kingsize Taylor And The Dominoes. Playing the beat venues frequented by Merseybeat groups, they brought their tough environment to country music and so pioneered country rock before the Byrds. Their publicity proclaimed, ‘For that country flavour and the best in pops’, and their repertoire can be gauged from recordings at the Rialto Ballroom in Liverpool for Oriole’s This Is Merseybeat albums. The songs included George Jones’ ‘Who Shot Sam?’, Bob Luman’s ‘You’ve Got Everything’, Hank Locklin’s ‘Border Of The Blues’ and Buck Owens’ ‘Excuse Me’.
At Ozzie Wade’s country music club in Liverpool in May 1964, Sonny Webb And The Cascades became the Hillsiders. Brian Hilton from Group One joined as lead guitarist when Frank Wan switched to steel. Wan, who tired of life on the road, was subsequently replaced by Ronnie Bennett in 1966. The Hillsiders had a residency at the Black Cat club in Liverpool but they spent time touring, working in Germany with Red Sovine and often backing visiting American artists. Bobby Bare and George Hamilton IV both made albums with the group. The Hillsiders made numerous records in their own right, starting with an appearance on Decca Records’ album, Liverpool Goes Country.
The Hillsiders won numerous country awards and became well known through the radio programmes Country Meets Folk and Up Country. The packaging for 1972’s By Request featured genuine requests and included the band’s most popular stage numbers - ‘Proud Mary’, ‘Crying In The Rain’ and ‘Me And Bobby McGee’. However, they were also writing more and more of their own material, leading to 1973’s self-penned Our Country, which included the excellent ‘Across The Mountain’ and ‘Blue Kentucky Morning’, a song the band had written for Patsy Powell.
The promising Butler-Johnson partnership ceased when Johnson left the Hillsiders in January 1975 to be replaced by Kevin McGarry from another Liverpool band, the Westerners. As the Hillsiders sold more of their Polydor Records albums at shows than in the shops, they were encouraged to set up their own label, Stile. Ronnie Bennett left the Hillsiders to develop his own steel guitar company and he was replaced by Dave Rowlands. Both the Hillsiders and Kenny Johnson, with his new group Northwind, moved towards a more powerful-sounding country music and both developed strong, original material. The 15 - 25 album, their fifteenth in 25 years, included guest appearances by Kenny Johnson and Ronnie Bennett and featured a new version of their first single, Diggy Liggy Lo’.
Butler left the Hillsiders in 1993, largely because of his commitments as a broadcaster on local radio. He was replaced by Mick Kinney from another Merseyside band, Phil Brady And The Ranchers. Butler then went on to play in a well-established part-time band, Hartford West. The Hillsiders were notable for being the first UK band to pick up on the potential of the Mavericks; says McGarry, ‘We were performing their songs long before anyone had heard of them and then they got known through CMT. People have said to us “That American act is doing your songs”.’ In 1997, the Hillsiders received the Ambassador Award at the British Country Music Awards.