The ZZ Top bassman talks about his long and not so strange trip
By Gary Graff
September 2, 2016
He may lay down the bottom, but ZZ Top’s Joseph Michael “Dusty” Hill is hardly in the background. A founding member of the Lil’ Ol’ Band From Texas — still intact after 48 years with guitarist Billy Gibbons and drummer Frank Beard — Hill was born and raised in Dallas and started out playing with his brother, guitarist Rocky Hill, and Beard in bands such as the Warlocks, the Cellar Dwellars and American Blues, along with a fill-in version of The Zombies along the way. Moving to Houston in 1968, Hill and Beard joined forces with Billy Gibbons to form ZZ Top, and the rest is history. Save for a brief stint on TV’s Bones, ZZ Top has been Hill’s place in the musical world through 15 studio albums, global sales of more than 50 million records and a 2004 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (The group’s new Live: Greatest Hits From Around the World collection comes out September 9.) We caught up to him — where else — on a tour bus, which any self-respecting ZZ fan knows is what the group members really call home.
FBPO: It’s been 45 years since the first album. What’s the secret to keeping three guys together for so long?
Hill: I don’t know that there is a secret. But you gotta hit it with the fun part. We enjoy what we do. They’re other people that enjoy what they do for a living; Turns out to be the same for us. That’s as close as I can come to answering the question. There’s a lot of different factors I guess, but the main thing is we just enjoy playing together. Different nights have different things in store for you, and it makes it interesting. That’s as close as I can come to say it.
FBPO: What’s the difference between the three guys back in 1971 and ZZ Top now?
Hill: Difficult to say. It felt so brand new for years when we first got together, because we were still exploring each other. And then it fell into a really cool thing in being able to read each other so well on stage, which is a very comforting thing and very important. Off the stage, I guess you live a little different than you did then. But I knew Frank for five years before this band, since we were really kids, so we had already established a friendship. But really in the mix it’s three different guys, but on stage makes for kind of one person. Other than outside influences, it’s kind of the same, the excitement is still there.
FBPO: If you think about back to the guys you were on the first album, could you have foreseen where this band went musically?
Hill: No. I didn’t have a clue. Billy had different bands before, I had different bands, a lot of different bands. I played in different bands with Frank. I had no real reason to think this would be that much different. My brother was a pretty hot guitar player, so I played with really good guitar players. I played with Freddie King and things like that. But I had no idea until we played together and that was almost spooky; that first song we played together just seemed so natural, and we were just looking to work. Then we got the record deal and we did the first album…and the rest is history. We were so busy putting product out, recordings, and constantly touring. I would’ve thought towards the future, but I was really thinking just about the work. It kind of snuck up on me. I remember they wanted us to come to New York — we were on London Records — and pick up these gold records that we we’d acquired. We hadn’t even got them because we were so busy, so we went up there and they laid them all out in front of us, and I’m like: “Jeez, man, we’re doing good!” It was kind of a shock to see a physical statement of what we’d been doing. I might have thought something then, but I’ve never thought this long or anything, or the success.
FBPO: How did you become a bass player?
Hill: Well, I started singing for money when I was about eight with my brother, and by the time I was 13 my brother played guitar and we had a drummer, and so my brother said, “You need to play the bass. We need a bass.” Most bass players are guitar players first. I wasn’t; I was a singer and I came home from school and there was a bass guitar there, and I played a bar that night. It wasn’t very good, but I kind of learned how to play on stage and whatnot, and embarrassment is a great motivator. If you don’t play well, standing up there with lights on it really stands out, so it behooves you to get your shit up pretty quick.
FBPO: You a minimalist with your playing. You know what’s too much and what’s enough. How did you develop up that sensibility?
Hill: It took me awhile, because early on I just learned the fundamentals. And then I was heavily influenced by Jack Bruce with Cream, and he plays a lot. Even Stanley Clark or Charlie Mingus, a little jazz. So I used to play a lot. But when I started playing in a three-piece, I realized that you have to do the song, not your personal performance, so you have to be tasty with it and enjoy the playing. Writing the song helps a lot; if I’m involved in the writing process, it comes to me. I think one of the best bass players in the world for that is Paul McCartney; he played the perfect part for everything, in every song. Sometimes you don’t even notice the bass — I hate that in a way, but I love that in a way. That’s a compliment. That means you’ve filled in everything and it’s right for the song, and you’re not standing out where you don’t need to be.
FBPO: Which, as you say, is particularly important for a trio.
Hill: Especially in something like a three-piece, yeah. People throughout the years have gone, “Don’t you find it limiting playing in a three-piece?” No! It’s a challenge, but it’s also a blessing. You’ve only got two other guys, so you and the drummer can set up a foundation that is hard to crack.
FBPO: The new Greatest Hits From Around The World album really does reinforce to the audience and the fans that ZZ Top’s natural habitat is on stage. Even though you guys have done some really interesting things in the studio, this is kind of where it all ends and begins?
Hill: That’s right. I just broke my shoulder earlier this year and I had to rehab it, and since it was my shoulder I couldn’t play. Someone asked me what’d I do during all of this? The thing is, when I’m off the road too long, I start bugging all my friends, I gotta find somebody to play for. I’ve done it all my life, so, yeah, playing live for me is the essence of what we do. I love recording and I love everything like that — videos, everything like that — but playing live is what does it for me. So this was a fun project for me.
FBPO: You’ve had two incidents during the past year, with your shoulder and your hip, that have put you on the sidelines. Are they starting to hermetically seal you in the tour bus so you can’t move ’til you arrive at your destination?
Hill: Y’know, one little slip and…I’ve been on tour bus all my life, or most of my life, and maybe I’m just a little more careful. It was just an accident, a freakish deal. It was unfortunate. I don’t like to be dependent on people. I hate to be damaged. I guess everybody does. It was a real drag. I really hated to have to cancel shows; we’ve played in hurricanes and all sorts of things. We go ahead and do the show if at all possible, but if it can’t be done, it can’t be done. It’s not a good feeling. As much as the pain and suffering of the injury, the anguish of not being able to play was at least that bad. After the hip [replacement] there was some talk about sitting on a stool, but I’ve never sat down. I don’t play jazz, I don’t sit down and play. I feel most comfortable when I can move around.
FBPO: The live album has two tracks from London with Jeff Beck guesting. What was that like?
Hill: Beck was just a pure pleasure. We’ve known Jeff for a long time, and I just love when we play together. We were touring and we asked him to come on stage, and he really loves the song “Rough Boy,” which you might not pick Jeff Beck liking that type of song. But he really loves it. He’ll come out and do that with us and a couple other things. And then “16 Tons,” a Tennessee Ernie Ford song, that was just a fun idea and chance to play together. As I stand back towards Frank and I see Jeff Beck and Billy up there together, it’s a fun little pocket for me to be in.
FBPO: What are you thinking about for some new ZZ Top music?
Hill: We’re all on the road right now. We’re also shooting a documentary; I don’t know when that will be out. So we’ve got a few things in the fire right now. We’re always talking about new material, but I don’t really know that we have a schedule for anything. But we’re always working on stuff. There’s a lot of old stuff, there’s a lot of new stuff that we’ve dabbled in. There’s a lot stuff in the studios that we never released, but I don’t know that we want to use that. We could sit down and just write a new record or do other people’s material. We haven’t figured out which one to jump on yet.