STRATHCLAIR - At first glance, denim-clad Bill Hillman looks
like any rural Manitoba cowboy. It's only on closer scrutiny that the decidedly
Oriental flavor of his appearance becomes apparent.
Around the guitarist's neck hangs a 24-carat gold medallion with
his first name spelled out in Chinese and English. His jean shirt is embroidered
with almond blossoms and his large belt buckle gleams with a Far East motif.
"Sometimes I think he is more Chinese than I am," says his vivacious
wife Sue-On. "He's adapted very well to my culture."
These are the Hillmans, a husband-and-wife country music team known
throughout rural Manitoba. The long-time residents of Strathclair, a hamlet
about 300 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, are former Manitoba Entertainers
of the Year.
In July the Hillmans, with sideman Kerry Morris, will be featured
at the Call of the Wild Mountain Music Festival at Boggy Creek.
"It's more like country and eastern," laughs the 40ish school teacher
as he ponders how to describe their musical concoction.
After almost 20 years of entertaining, Sue-On remains something of
"Hillbilly Chinese drummers are hard to come by," laughs husband
Bill. "We've never downplayed the Oriental side. Rather than hide a difference
we capitalize on it."
Even their impressive brick home, built by his grandfather in 1920,
exemplifies the meeting of East and West. Old oak paneling and bamboo
furniture combine in tasteful harmony. In the basement, Bill's assortment
of shiny, metal guitars is offset by simple, traditional Chinese musical
instruments lining one wall.
The house is the centre of their modest recording empire. Their eight-track
studio is the heart of their own label, Maple Grove Records. The Hillman
discography lists 10 albums, including three recorded in England.
Thought the Hillmans perform virtually every weekend of the year
and tour extensively during the summer, their music is a sideline.
Bill, a graduate of Brandon University, is a high school teacher,
first and foremost. So was Sue-On, now in her mid-30s, until she gave birth
to the first of their two boys.
"Basically it (music) is my hobby," says Bill. "We play with it.
We dive in and out. It's part of our social life."
Like music, all his hobbies get out of hand. His collection of old
radio shows involves 10,000 to 15,000 tapes and discs. He has 1,000 classic
movies on tape and thousands of vintage TV shows. Bookshelves are stuffed
with science fiction, comic books, and numerous first editions of Edgar
Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan.
"Anything I do, I attack with a vengeance," he says. "Everything
I've come in touch with I want to hold on to for future reference."
It was as a youth that he became enamoured with Elvis Presley and
later the guitar. He taught himself to play by listening to Presley and
Johnny Cash records.
"My first love is old rock 'n' roll. So much of what was rock 'n'
roll is now country. I guess I'm country because of the way things have
"I've always had an appreciation for all music. I can't understand
these people who hate this or that. I don't like to see camps set up. I
can't think of any music I don't like," Hillman says.
During the early '60s, he played in The Blue Angels, Del Keith and
the Dovermen and the Shadows. In 1962 he also joined the Country Gentlemen,
a C & W band that appeared on Brandon TV. During that period Hillman
met his future bride in nearby Newdale.
Sue-On was born in China but was smuggled into Hong Kong as a baby.
She and Bill were married in 1966.
When her husband went on tour, "I didn't want to be left on the sidelines,"
she recalls. And slowly she eased her way into becoming a Country Gentleman.
When the group needed a keyboardist, Sue-On drew on her classical training
to fill the gap.
"It was kind of weird. When she joined, she was like a guest," Bill
says. "Then, when she became a vital member, we changed the name of the
band to Western Union."
Later, when the group's drummer left, she picked up the sticks, after
Bill taught her how to keep a backbeat.
"It was frustrating," says Sue-On. "You have to get your hand and
feet going at the same time. It was hard work. I don't know if the feminists
will like me saying this but drumming is hard work for a girl."
But on the grandstand circuit in Western Canada and the U.S., a female
Oriental drummer playing C & W was a drawing card. "I felt like a curiosity.
You didn't see many Chinese on stage but I was always one for jumping around.
I had a ball. I like having an audience."
couple of years ago Sue-On helped spark some life in a very subdued audience
at Brunkild. For the last set, she took a turn on the drums and within
seconds, the place was on fire -- the heat of a spotlight set the bass
drum aflame and the crowd, most of whom had been to a funeral earlier in
the day, came alive.
"People thought it was part of the act," recalls Sue-On. When folks
started throwing beer and water on them, the band feared they might be
"The whole thing seemed to shock the sadness out of the audience,"
says Sue-On. "After we got the fire out, we started playing Smoke On The
In and around the Brandon area, the Hillmans have a high profile.
They've appeared on TV since the '60s, and perform in anything from the
concert hall to a wilderness shack, from conventions to weddings. And they've
linked up with companies such as Federal Grain which set up tours.
"We've always tried to go through the back door rather than in by
the front door," Bill says. "We've always tried a different approach. We
knew we wouldn't get ahead with a career of one-nighters."
Many marriages involving husband-wife entertainers have been strained
by artistic differences and the ravages of the road. The Hillmans' secret
is that they keep their disagreements in the studio.
"We don't carry any of the problems out of the basement," says Bill.
"Maybe to the kitchen but not any farther."
The two take part in every facet of the recording business, from
the production, the photography and graphics on every album cover, to the
distribution and promotion. Basically they sell their LPs from the stage
during breaks in their shows.
"I can't say that any of the albums have made money," Bill says.
"The profits go back into the operation."
But in a highly competitive profession, it can be frustrating to
rein in the dream of stardom. "I've been chasing it (the dream). I've walked
the streets of Nashville. Maybe we don't have 100 per cent commitment but
we've sent the records out.
One of Bill's dreams is to go to the West Indies and do a country
But he can look back with satisfaction on his career. Besides 30
scrapbooks of past glories, there are his two songs, One Night Stand and
Bring Back the Good Times, which hit the Top 10 in Western Canada. There
have been the national television appearances, the performance for Princess
Anne in Brandon, and the three summer tours of England. Not bad for a pair
of school teachers who moonlight as entertainers.
"I feel successful," Bill says. "Only about one per cent of all bands
succeed. We've succeeded more than most.