RIP Dusty Hill, the ‘Rock’ in ZZ Top’s Texas Rock ‘n’ Roll

Dusty Hill performing in 2008. They don't make Texans like him anymore, and that's a shame.
Dusty Hill performing in 2008. They don't make Texans like him anymore, and that's a shame. Alberto Cabello from Vitoria Gasteiz, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
There’s a moment 2 minutes and 22 seconds into ZZ Top’s masterpiece “La Grange” that often goes unnoticed.

It’s something normally only hardcore music nerds would catch, but it’s worth pointing out because anyone who has ever danced, driven, drank, deviated or created children to “La Grange” has felt the butterfly effect of this tiny detail that kicks the groove into overdrive.

After the rock-solid Texas trio of singer/guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist/singer Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard go for a slight detour that allows Gibbons to take one of his trademark economical guitar solos, the band takes a quick break at the 2-minute mark before coming back together to close things off. After Beard kicks things into gear with another air-drum-worthy fill, the trio locks horns and it’s business as usual, except for one thing.

Dusty Hill is playing two notes instead of one.

Instead of riding the song’s chord by simply plucking away at the A string in time with the beat, Hill bounces between the A and a C, creating an elastic groove that shuffles your feet without your noticing and hitting a frequency that makes your whole body resonate with the power of the blues.

Dusty Hill passed away this week at the age of 72, bringing an end to one of the most celebrated, beloved, and most important, dependable unions in rock ‘n’ roll history. ZZ Top was the same three guys from Texas for over 50 years. Not one lineup change, not a single public falling out, no scandal, no distractions. Just pure musicianship from “The little ol’ band from Texas.”

Five days before his death, the band played their first-ever gig without Hill, who was unexpectedly sidelined with hip issues (at the time of writing, the cause of Hill’s death has not been disclosed), and requested that the band carry on with guitar tech Elwood Francis filling in during Hill’s absence. At the moment, it is not known whether or not ZZ Top will continue with Francis permanently.

When it comes to power trios, ZZ Top was so definitive in its unity that people tend to forget they were a trio. Other trios are either fractured by action or lopsided in their talent: The James Gang had future Eagles superstar Joe Walsh until his departure in 1971. The Police’s success as a musical unit are often overshadowed by Sting’s celebrity status, and Muse’s body of work is essentially 85% Matt Bellamy.

While Billy Gibbons may have been the obvious face and melodic component of the band, his recent solo works prove that his talent is facilitated best when restrained by the minimalist groove-keeping of Hill and Beard.

ZZ Top’s album Fandango! is an optimal example of this. As opposed to forming the bridge between Gibbons’ melodic sensibilities and Beard’s mechanical rhythm, Hill’s bass is more like a second guitar, filling out space and adding “the bottom to the ‘Top’” as the band themselves have said. And when it was time just to keep the rhythm, Hill would step back and do the song’s bidding as opposed to the bidding of a frontman or the audience. Whether the song needed one note or two, Hill just knew. Most people don’t.

Dusty Hill was the onstage comic foil to Gibbons’ showmanship. If only one guy in the band had a ridiculously large beard, sunglasses and Stetson hat, that would be a little weird, but two guys? That’s more like it.

Their commitment to the bit somehow made them that much cooler. Seeing Hill appear in an episode of King of the Hill as patriarch Hank Hill’s paternal cousin made him and the band that more endearing. Rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t that serious, and ZZ Top were never “too cool” for anything. The fact that they were so confident in their style, look, shtick and sound made them that much cooler.

Hill also loaned his bright tenor as lead vocalist for many beloved ZZ Top songs alongside Gibbons. Songs like “Balinese,” “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers” and of course, his show-stopping lead vocal showcase, “Tush.”

Dusty Hill was the ‘rock’ in ZZ Top’s Texan brand of rock ‘n’ roll. Anchoring the band to earth with an ear for the simple nuances in groove making and a fearless attitude that rock ‘n’ roll was not a serious, behind closed doors affair. Hill made millions of people around the world feel like Texans too, for one side of vinyl at a time.

So here are our choices for the 10 ZZ Top songs you must listen to right now to commemorate the life and career of Dusty Hill. We’d normally break them down individually, but we think these songs will speak for themselves:
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Vincent Arrieta
Contact: Vincent Arrieta