LOOKINGGLASS'S HILLBILLY TRAGEDY
by NOVID PARSI
Rick Sims's songs are all in his head. They're also in the heads of the cast of his first play, the bluegrass musical Hillbilly Antigone, produced by Lookingglass Theatre. But those songs can't be found on a single sheet of music. The former lead singer of the punk-rock band the Didjits composes music, but he doesn't actually write it down.
Although Sims could have had the songs transcribed for the cast to learn by page rather than by ear, he decided against it. "I wanted those loose ends so it would give it that authenticity. So when we're having the church singing, it sounds like a church instead of like 'performing a church,'" Sims says. "I feel like that was the same way it sprung out of the hills or the mountains. The people who play this sort of music didn't go to school to learn it. They picked it up through their family, which is how I learned."
Originally from Decatur (when he visited Chicago, "everybody would call me a hillbilly"), Sims was introduced to the guitar and drums by his cousins. "The first time I saw [the instruments], I was like, 'I'm going to do this for the rest of my life,'" Sims says. The cousins then moved to Branson, Missouri ("before it was the new Nashville"), and picked up a country sound that struck a chord with the budding songwriter.
Sims, who lives comfortably off the royalties of his song "Killboy Powerhead" (SoCal punk band Offspring covered it on its album Smash), explains that he got the idea for the musical one day when he picked up a copy of Antigone. "It sounded like the Greek version of the Hatfield-McCoy feud," he says. When he talked about setting the Greek tragedy in family-feud mountain folklore, people's first reaction was to laugh. "So I was obviously like, 'Ah, well, what a stupid idea.' But when I actually started writing it, I didn't write it just to be funny."
In Sophocles' play, after two warring brothers are both killed, the ruler, Creon, honors one brother with a proper burial but orders the other one be left out to rot. The brothers' plucky sister, Antigone, defies Creon and buries her late bro. Unyielding Creon punishes Antigoneâ€”against the pleas of his son and her lover, Haemon. As you'd expect of a Greek tragedy, multiple deaths ensue.
Sims's wifeâ€”director Heidi Stillman, who helms the pieceâ€”relates the Greek theme of the "family cycle and trying to break out of that cycle" to Sims's childhood. Stillman, who helped conceive the storyline, believes that for her husband (and the father of her two-year-old twins, Jude and Sadie, both named for Beatles songs), the connections of his show to his past aren't just musical, but familial as well. "I think I had a really happy childhood, but I think Rick's is a lot more fraught," she says. Sims compares Creon and Haemon's father-son rift to his own estranged relationship with his father, "who I haven't spoken to in 15 years," and mentions his strained relations with his mother. "It's too bad, I guess, that [the play] relates to my family so much," he says with a dry laugh.
Sims also links the ancient Greek motif about blind faith in the gods and in authority to his own religious upbringing. "I grew up with people who swore that God was on their side, and I could either join up or burn in hell," Sims says. Although his cousins were "all Pentecostal born-again Christians," Sims says he's since turned to "a more sympathetic course of spirituality that comes out in the show. I think that not everybody's doomed; I think people get second chances. With all the hard living I've done in my life, I've certainly been given a second chance."
With seeds for Hillbilly Antigone germinating, Sims decided to treat the Greek chorus as a three-piece Carter-familyâ€“style band, which sings and plays an acoustic guitar, a Dobro resonator guitar and an Autoharp. To hone his instrumental skills (he's the Dobro player in the chorus-band) and to get a more genuine sense of early country and bluegrass harmonies and arrangements, Sims studied for months at the Old Town School of Folk Music, the 47-year-old Chicago institution. (While this is his first full-length dramatic work, he's made musical contributions to several Lookingglass shows.)
Stillman contrasts Sims's score, which is inspired by authentic country without parroting it, with more standard musical fare. "I use a bad example because it's not even a play," she says, "but when you go to a Disney movie and it's like Pocahontas, and the person opens her mouth, and it's like a Broadway singer singing in a Broadway style. Why couldn't they have made this music sound like what these people would've sounded like?"
What those people would've sounded like comes through powerfully in rehearsal. As Creon (here judge and preacher), the blind prophet Tiresias (here a sightless grandma speaking in tongues) and the ever-feisty Antigone belt out a song at a church service, you'd have to glue your foot to the floor to keep it from tapping. (Stillman's stompy knee-high leather boots can be seen thumping away.)
"I was a little tired of playing punk-rock bar chords," Sims says of his foray into the genre of musical theater, "and I felt like this was really a chance to expand. Punk-rock guitar is, like, you play a bar chord and you bash it out, and then you scream."
These days Sims's scream has turned more melodic, and his hard living ("on the road, drinkin' and boozin' and one-night standsâ€”and just rebelling at the world") has grown softer. Asked how having kids informs his thoughts about this doomed family saga (and perhaps his own family saga), Sims says, "Maybe [children] give you a ray of hope that you don't have to carry that burden your family lays on you, anywhere from baggage to abuse. Just because your parents had it, doesn't mean you have to hand it down."