Whether they’re playing for thousands of people at Carnegie Hall or a handful of curious passersby on the subway platform at Grand Central Station, The Ebony Hillbillies bring history alive with the still vibrant sound of Americana.
As one of the last black string bands in the U.S.—currently based in the concrete hills of NYC—the Hillbillies keep an important legacy alive with a rootsy, homegrown style that many forget was a key element in the genesis of all the music we cherish as uniquely American—jazz, blues, bluegrass, rockabilly, rock and roll and country. Bringing a fresh urgency to the genre for a 21st Century world in need of some deep musical education, the ensemble led by Henrique Prince (fiddle, vocals) and Norris Bennett (banjo, mountain dulcimer, guitar, vocals)– featuring Gloria Thomas Gassaway on vocals and bones, William “Salty Bill” Salter on acoustic bass with A.R. and Newman Taylor Baker on washboard and percussion–creates an untamed and joyful vibe that echoes across the generations and transcends all racial and cultural boundaries.
Already an institution on the streets of Manhattan and on numerous concert and festival stages worldwide, they’ve maintained their grassroots credibility while inspiring heartstring tugs and toe-taps in fans of every type of music imaginable—pop, country, bluegrass, folk, rock, jazz and beyond. Collectively they have worked with the greatest pioneers and trailblazers of American Music…i.e. Pete Seeger, Odetta, Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba, James Brown, Aaron Copland, Herbie Mann, Oscar Brown, Jr. Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Bette Midler, Horace Silver, Ahmad Jamal, Joe Henderson, etc… With a nothing’s off limits repertoire that pays homage to tradition but keeps an eye and ear on the present and future, The Ebony Hillbillies play a mix of tasty originals, unique renditions of classics we know and love (“Cotton Eyed Joe,” “Shenandoah,” “Liza Jane,” “Oh Susanna,” “Cluck Ol’ Hen,” “Jericho”) and wonderfully unexpected contemporary pop/soul songs like Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.”
Nashville may think it knows and owns country, but they ain’t heard nothing yet. In fact, the genre as we know it might not exist at all if the music the Ebony Hillbillies make wasn’t blazing a trail all those generations ago.
“These songs are part of Americana,” Prince says, “but because of the directions commercial music has pushed everyone into and the fact that in black communities, mainly because of the banjo, the music was maligned because of its association with Jim Crow and other unpleasant things, the art form has been somewhat forgotten. Old time string band music is important because the roots of the modern jazz and blues, including the first evidence of syncopation, can be found there.
“Imagine,” he challenges us all, “if all this time, nobody knew about Bach. What a gaping hole that would leave! In the same way, you’re missing a huge part of history if you leave out the string bands. It’s hard to explain why I’ve dedicated my life to making this music. There’s just something wild and endearing about it that connects me to the music and its glorious past.”
“This is a part of who we are,” Prince adds. “More than simply keeping an important tradition alive, we’re knocking down the wall and letting people know that this music is still exciting to listen to today. It gets people asking questions and we love that.