Hustle Souls is playing the spectrum. “We say we’re a song band for jam-band people, and a jam band for song-band people,” says bandleader Billy Litz. “We try to make music that’s fun, danceable, and makes people feel good — and that we enjoy grooving out to. That’s important. But we hope that there’s some substance there.”
The name is a playful nod to Muscle Shoals, the Alabama town that achieved worldwide fame for its recording scene beginning in the 1960s — merging blues, country, gospel, and roots music into hits for artists ranging from Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding to Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. (Current arena fillers The Drive-By Truckers, though not a soul band, are a second-generation remnant of the phenomenon: lead singer Patterson Hood’s father, bassist and trombone player David Hood, was integral to the Muscle Shoals scene.)
“For me it wasn’t even the music, per se,” says Litz. Instead, he explains, it’s the “mythical, magical” way a “backwards small town that shouldn’t be anything … turns into the center of the world. I found that very interesting.”
But even though he describes the genre (including the legacy of the Stax Records label in nearby Memphis) as “amazing,” he emphasizes that Hustle Souls isn’t a tribute act. “We do go in more of a roots-revival/soul-revival direction … and the truth is that [that kind of] music is just super fun to write. It sounds good and it’s just a great melody and a groove. But then you can also do whatever you want, harmonically. The freedom’s all there.”
A prolific tunesmith who does a solo show every Tuesday in Asheville at Urban Orchard, Litz claims he had no intention of starting a soul band, or one of any other particular genre, when he began recruiting players. “I had a bunch of songs written, more in kind of an indie-folk vein,” he says, “but the rest of the band had a lot of R&B and soul influence. We found that it was the sound that really worked for us, and that’s what we enjoyed doing the most. We were always, if anything, intentionally eclectic. We all had such different backgrounds that we sounded like a lot of different things, until the last six months to a year, [when] we’ve really come around to the soul vibe.”
Hustle Souls features guitarist Chris Everett, bassist Sean McCann, and drummer Tommy Moore, as well as Litz on lead vocals, keyboards, trumpet, and harmonica. “I didn’t want to do like a Billy Litz songwriter thing with a backing band,” he says. “I wanted it to be a fully collaborative thing.”
Litz grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland, and studied music at U of M Eastern Shore. Feeling the itch to travel after graduating, he decided to join the Peace Corps and served in the village of Mukalashi in Central Province, Zambia.
“No matter what I did, I was always wishing that I had a band,” he says. “I played a lot of music while I was traveling, but never had the stability to grow a project for the number of months and years it takes to really get something going.”
Back in the U.S., Litz visited Boulder, Austin, and Portland, before deciding to move to Asheville. “Musically it’s a good fit for us,” he says. “Asheville’s pretty open-minded. There’s a history of bluegrass, but if you go out there are all kinds of music.”
His main reason for staying is his band. “Finding people that you can work with and create with and rely on — it takes a lot of hard work and patience, and no matter where I was with this band, I don’t think I’d move away from it,” he says. “I would say that the only two things in life that you use the term ‘break up’ for are a romantic relationship and a band. You don’t hear of a business breaking up or a sports team breaking up. I’ve failed at it multiple times, so I know that’s it’s very difficult to do, and I’m trying to hold on to it for as long as I can.”
The bandleader notes that the group members all play multiple instruments, and also have experience leading bands. Plus they all sing. “They know what I’m going through when I’m trying to explain this vision I have. And it’s a big part of our project that all four of us are singing on everything. It’s something that I always wanted, and I think they picked up that I got excited every time we got a new harmony worked in. Now the vocal arrangements are part of every song, and we’re always pushing them and trying to get them tighter and bring ’em out.”
Blessed with a distinctive lead voice — high, thick, suitably retro — Litz was nevertheless a reluctant singer in early bands and his high-school chorus. “I hated my voice with a passion,” he says. “But I loved songwriting — and that’s always been my number-one passion in music, writing songs. So I just sang a lot. Hours and hours a day.”
Hustle Souls is writing and rehearsing material for its first full-length album. “I’ll bring an idea, and they can push it [in] a different direction than I was thinking at all. But by the time we get into the studio, we’ve been playing the song hundreds of times, so you become a creature of habit,” Litz says. “I think we’re pretty good at continuing to listen creatively and change stuff as we go, but I want to get another ear involved in the process as a producer. One more set of ears can’t hurt. I’m interested in hearing somebody else’s perspective.
“Honestly, what we’re really working on more than anything is trying to play [more minimally], make things more purposeful, and that’s what I think the Muscle Shoals and Stax people do so phenomenally well.”
Hustle Souls performs at Southern Appalachian Brewery (822 Locust St.) in Hendersonville on Saturday, February 25, at 8pm. For show information, see sabrewery.com or call 828-684-1235.