50 Years on the Road with Bill and Sue-On Hillman

Brandon Sun, Thursday, June 6, 1974


Mama Tried
Boil Them Cabbage Down (fiddle)
Green, Green Grass of Home
Steel Guitar Rag (guitar)
Battle of New Orleans
Funny Face
Catfish Bones (original)
Kolymka (fiddle)
Rock Medley
Somewhere My Love
Silver Threads & Golden Needles
Orange Blossom Special


Mama Tried
Funny Face or Snowbird
Anniversary Song or Kolymyka
I Can See Clearly Now
Put Your Hand in the Hand
Irish Scotch (fiddle)
Proud Mary - Credence Medley
Green Grass of Home
Cajun Songs
Walk Right Back
Steel Guitar Rag (guitar)
Somewhere My Love or Look What They Done
Orange Blossom Special ( fiddle)

CNE may be biggest break yet 
for Bill and Sue-On
by Rolf Pedersen ~ Sun Staff Writer
The Brandon Sun, Thursday, June 6, 1974

This summer, as in other summers, Bill and Sue-On Hillman will draw away from their country home near the little town of Strathclair and set out on one of their musical tours. But this year things won't be quite the same.

After a month-long tour of the Montana fair and rodeo circuit, the couple will lead their folk-country-rock group, Western Union, to the grandstand of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

Is this the break they've all been waiting for? Bill thinks it is.

"We're kind of anxious to do it because it's always been difficult for a band from Western Canada to make it in Toronto. There are a lot of musicians right around there and they're the ones they look at first."

Not that Western Union (which will probably include Barry Forman of Rivers, his son Kent, and Kerry Morris of Strathclair) is going to be the headline attraction. It won't be. At best it will be one of a number of acts. At worst it won't get to play at all.

The significance is of the foot-in-the-door variety. After eight years as leader of a pub, dance, and recording group, Bill has his eye on bigger things. National exposure is part of his picture.

"The encouraging thing is that we've been picked up by William Morris Agencies. They're one of the biggest booking agencies on the continent, and that's going to help. That, we feel, is going to turn into a bigger break than just appearing at the CNE."

For Western Union, of course, national and international exposure is a natural stop. For what started as a purely local enterprise -- all members of the group have their roots firmly implanted in Manitoba soil -- has gradually developed into a province-wide career that is as impressive as it is unique.

Week-days, both Bill and Sue-On teach high school. Barry Forman, the third year-round member of the group, runs an auto dealership. Weekends, the trio is on the road, sometimes to local night-spots, but increasingly to Winnipeg. In summer, they tour the country, playing at fairs, rodeos and hotel lounges. 

A hectic schedule, you might say. And yet not so hectic that quality is cast aside. For musicianship and a unique sound to which Bill's songwriting and arranging ability are principal contributors, is their strong suit. Songs such as Blue Shallow River and In Sadness -- both of which are included on Western Union's third album -- are clearly sensitive, poetic contributions that in other circumstances would probably be strong hit parade contenders.

That none of their songs hs so far won mass admiration probably has little to do with the group's ability, which is impressive. It is part of the classic, vicious promotional process by which unsung talent and their potential audiences are left out in the cold. 

The cycle is familiar to scores of talented singing sensations, and it goes like this: The surest way to promote record sales is through radio exposure. But paradoxically -- and tragically for the creative and economic health of the record industry -- most major radio stations avoid discs that have not already hit the top of the best-seller lists.

And so it goes for Western Union. But despite the obstacles, says Hillman, the group has made considerable headway here. It has won air time in Toronto, and in local Montana radio stations along the summer tour routes. Its current trouble lies elsewhere. 

"We're having a hassle with both the customs and the musicians' union down there," he complains. "They want proof that you're absolutely wonderful; that you're doing something that nobody else is doing. They don't like any foreign groups in Montana that might take any work away from American groups."

The bitter pill, he says, is that the tight restriction on foreign entertainers entering the United States only works one way. Similar strictures do not apply to American entertainers entering Canada. In Winnipeg, they're all over. 

The solution? Persistence, suggests Hillman's approach. Letters, letters, and more letters. Gradually they wear down the resistance and cut through the red tape.

"Things are beginning to pick up a little bit for us," he says.

Fred McGuinness Brandon Sun Column: 00.11.30
The Western Union Television Show: Barry, Jake, Bill, Sue-On
Russ Gurr and the Western Union: The Federal Grain Train Show
Sue-On and the Western Union: Bill, Sue-On, Barry Forman
Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame
CD Album No. 12: Bill and Sue-On Hillman
WestMan Nostalgia
by Fred McGuinness
2000: There was a welcome addition to my e-mail recently; a note from Bill and Sue-On Hillman. One or the other, or perhaps both, sprang to the keyboard once they saw a recent column on the old grandstand shows.

I assume this is Bill speaking. "I've had a long love affair with the shows... first as a farm kid, when one of the year's highlights was Brandon Fair and its grandstand show."

He goes on. "Later it took on a different dimension when I was involved as a performer at the fair and in a number of CKX radio and TV live remotes from the fair. (Our guest on one of these shows was an up-and-coming impressionist from Ottawa: Rich Little.)

Bill and Sue-On later took to the road with Russ Gurr and his Federal Grain Train troupe. As such, they appeared as a part of many grandstand shows across the West. They have happy memories of working with vaudeville performers who had worked all over the world, and now were appearing on the big variety shows.

(Hey there, Bill and Sue-On: there once was a time in the '30s when I would go to the summer fair in the morning so I could visit the grandstand performers.

They parked their trailers in the middle of the racetrack. They were always pleased to chat with locals. I was impressed with the number of children with them, most of whom spent endless and tireless hours learning how to juggle, walk the slack wire, or develop some talent that would have them follow their parents in show biz.)

Back to Bill and Sue-On. In the company of Barry Forman they were put under contract by the show promoters, Bardine Productions from the U.S. west coast. Bardine put this trio on their western U.S. circuit of state and county fairs and rodeos. They worked under the name Sue-On and the Western Union.

Alas, the end was in sight. Bill says he has many happy memories of having been in the outdoor show business, even if they were then fading in the face of electronic competition.

Quick! Let's have a change of pace.

As a commercial web-page artist and designer, (Hillman Eclectic Studio) Bill has just finished an assignment with the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame. He directed me to open the site he had created for the Agricultural Hall of 

I did as I was bid. This turned out to be quite a treat. There are pictures and biographies of all 100 Manitobans who have been elevated to this charmed circle.

I could easily spend a weekend reading the citations for these distinguished citizens. They include Jimmy Moffatt, Reg Forbes, Donn and Sylvia Mitchell, plus 97 others, whose good works cover most of the provinces's first century.

Bill Hillman and his talk about performers makes me smile.

In one of the last years in which the winter fair was staged in the Wheat City Arena, the featured guest was Leroy Van Dyke, famous for his rendition of "The Auctioneer's Song."

I thought it would be a helpful promotion for both the Sun and the fair if I could get some local people to meet him. I tracked him down by telephone and asked him if he would co-operate. He said yes, with two provisios: no alcohol, no smoke.

In the paper we asked for persons who would like to dine with Leroy. The mail arrived by the truckload. (Well, almost.)

We had someone pick a number at random, 30 or 40 as I recall, and we all had a dinner at the Canadian Inn with The Man. It interested me that this quiet, self-effacing fellow could exude so much energy when he had a mike in his hand.

Curious follow-up: Occasionally, when I'm at a rural meeting, someone will come up to me and tell me they were at that unusual gathering.

The last one was a bank manager at Neepawa.

~~Fred McGuinness is a Brandon-based freelance writer.
With a bit of Lady Luck...
Thursday, August 16, 1979
     Top local band "Desperado," are hoping Lady Luck will bring them a share of fame and fortune.
     For that's the title of the single they hope to have released in Britain in time to fill their fans' Christmas stockings.
     It is one of three songs they wrote for an LP they have just finished recording as backing group for top North American vocal duo, The Hillmans, currently riding high in the Canadian charts.
     The LP will be released in Canada and when the single is issued on this side of the Atlantic -- under their own name and featuring vocalist Alun Edwards -- it could be the big break for the five semi-pro musicians.
     They are all Teeside lads who have been in the vocal rock group scene for a number of years. Desperado came together three years ago and steady work in clubs in the area has gained them quite a local following.
     Pictured waiting for the sound of success from the tape are (left to right): Mike Sandbrook, Colin Bradley, Alun Edwards, Paul Duckers, and John Wittingham.
     "We are going to have a tape made of our three tracks which will be available at our bookings," explained the bass guitarist, Mick Sandbrook, whose friendship with the Canadian husband and wife team led to the album work.
     "They sent us over arrangements which we worked on before they arrived, then we went into the studio and recorded 24 songs in just three days -- that was quite a sweat."
     "It was our first attempt at writing and we're really pleased with the result, we tried to write three songs to reflect the sort of music we like. It's very American influenced."
     With family and job commitments weighing heavily the thought of going professional, if they were ever offered the chance, would mean a difficult decision.

SINGLES: DEMO CITY ~ April 5, 1980
Neil Hooper surveys your demo cassettes.
The best each week wins a record token... or TEN free copies of  your cassette.

DESPERADO of Stockton-on-Tees get a very full, confident sound on "Lady Luck", most of which is down to their intelligent use of synth. On this number there is a string section keyboard arrangement, but later numbers use it for a brassy fill as well. Always just another part of the arrangement with no emphasis on it just because its an expensive instrument. 

Their music and approach smacks of clubland, particularly the vocals which have that green silk shirt and bow tie sound about them. "The Joker" again demonstrates the completeness of the arrangements. Any criticism comes down more to personal taste than anything else. I'd like to see a bit less smoothness and rather busier drumming. 

On the other hand this could well upset the tight balance the band have achieved overall. "Bring Back The Good Times" washes a bit too blandly around the lugholes but has an irresistible lilt to it. If I'm not careful I'll get caught syncopating again. The band obviously know their market and seem to have produced the ideal music for it. The musicianship is faultless, if occasionally laid back, the vocals are almost sickly smooth and the arrangements rich and well observed.


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1. Gig Notes: 1-10
2. Album Notes
3. Guitar Tales
4. Prairie Saga
5. Roots
6. Photos
7. Media
8. 100 Songs

.Bill and Sue-On Hillman Eclectic Studio