of NW USA ...and BACK


Click for full-size collage poster


Click for full-size collage poster
In 1974, after many summer tours with Russ Gurr's Federal Grain Train show, followed by a year of exhibition shows for Treflan Chemicals, Bardine Productions of the USA, invited us to represent them in auditions for the NW USA Grandstand circuit. We did well, beating out many Nashville acts and the Bardines took over management of our American appearances. Through them we also obtained William Morris Agency representation. We immediately told the Bardines that we planned to increase the size of the band to come up with a bigger show, but they returned with a flurry of personal letters and calls insisting that the act stay as a trio. Among the reasons they cited was the problem of obtaining work visas and clearances with the American Musician's Union, as well as the danger of bringing in a different act from that seen by the Fair Boards who had booked us. We had to prove to the unions that we were offering an act that was totally unique and different from anything American bands could offer. A singing Chinese girl drummer and recording / television performer seemed to fit the bill and we got our visas.

Cindy and Charlie Bardine were show business veterans who had worked the closing days of vaudeville and who had been immersed in all facets of show business throughout the 20th Century. They took us under their wing and offered invaluable show biz advice. They coached us in everything from stage entrances/exits and how to milk applause and encores, to costumes, and to surviving on the road as a family unit . . . and how to depend on and look to your mate for support and friendship in the crazy and often stressful and lonely life "on the road."
Words and Music by Bill Hillman
(Written in Missoula, Montana on the 1974 Summer Tour)

Rolling down the highway -- we're southern bound
Wind from the bus blows the sweet grass 'round
Kalispell, Missoula and their rodeos
Play a little fiddle and a dosey doe

Dancing and prancing -- the ponies a-flying
Cowboys cussing and their ladies a-crying
Pick a little tune, a jig and a song
Montana crowd wanna sing along

Your song goes on
Echoing through the sky
I'll sing your song
Till the day I die

Phantoms and shadows on the far horizon
Stories of the redman and herds of bison
Railroad, wagon, trader and miner
Lawman, outlaws, and old moonshiners

Shaken outa my dreams by the tires a-whining
Just another sound of the Old West dying
Can't live the past but I'll sing it in song
Kindle old times as we roll along

From Hillman Album Vol. 7 

Recorded on Tour in England
Listen to MONTANA

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.

Radio Ad run by Montana radio stations:

Hi everyone! I am Bill Hillman... and I am Sue-On  of the Western Union... and we will be appearing in person at the Central Montana Fair in Lewistown on July 24. 

We've been pretty lucky in the past few years and have had soome pretty big recordings in Canada... and now we will be entertaining our American friends for the first time this year. We hope our music will please everyone as we do some Country, some contemporary and let's not forget Barry Forman and his 8-year-old son Kent on twin electric fiddles. 

We sure hope we will get to meet all of you when we appear at the Grandstand during the 1974 Central Montana Fair.

Grammys '69 Harper Valley P.T.A. (Live) by Jeannie C. Riley
Grammy Awards Show 1969
Radio Ad run by Montana radio stations:

"Hi everyone... we're the Western Union.
We've been pretty lucky over the past few years with some hit shows and recordings in Canada and now we will be entertaining our American friends for the first time this year.

The show is a lively one featuring Oriental drummer, singing star Sue-On Hillman, along with husband Bill, with some of your favourite country rock sounds and contrasting ballads.

We'll throw in some old time and cajun fiddle to give full variety to our shows. We sure hope we will get to meet all of you when we appear on the Grandstand at ___ "


Newspaper ad: Jeannie C. Riley and Western UnionBill and Sue-On Hillman Promo PhotoBillSue-OnBarry and his fiddle

An evening grandstand show somewhere in MontanaOur summer tour of '74 took us all over the American North West, where we were billed as the Bardine's feature act, Sue-On and the Western Union from Canada. We worked mainly evening grandstand shows at county and state fairs, and rodeos. Although we worked as a trio, withSue-On on drums, Bill on guitar, and Barry Forman on bass and fiddle, we sometimes hired a local drummer to sit in on drums for part of the show so that Sue-On could work the crowd -- moving and dancing all over the huge stages with a hand mike. Other performers on the bill included country singers Jeannie C. Riley, Charlie Louvin, The Blackwood Singers and Hee-Haw's Archie Campbell, as well as many international variety/ vaudeville acts. We revelled in the many backstage stories that the other entertainers shared: tales of the Grand Ole Opry, the escapades of the early country stars, the excitement of the Bob Hope military tours, the glamour of the Ed Sullivan performances, the glitz of Vegas, and the naughtiness of the Marx Brothers and other experiences in the last days of vaudeville, etc.

Near the end of the tour, one of the local musicians we hired to allow Sue-On to join me up front for a few numbers was the son of  a politician who was about to move to Helena. They had a huge white Great Pyrenees dog that they couldn't take with them and asked if we would like a dog. After checking out photos of this breed of dog in one of the exhibition kiosks, we boldly offered to take the dog back with us to Canada. Mariah of the Plains (Mya) was a beautiful registered one-year-old. We arrived at the border crossing on the way home after it had closed for the day, so we had to sleep over night on the lot in our Funcraft converted van. Unfortunately Mya was in heat so we didn't get much sleep as she panted and shook the van all night : ) She was the first of a long line of Pyrenees pets we've had over the years.

New Years Eve Dance at CFB ShiloNew Year's Dance at CFB ShiloOne of our many Winnipeg appearances
Following our return from the summer tour we returned to a full slate of appearances at halls, gyms, arenas, concert halls, universities, festivals, military bases and bars. We even did northern tours where we played the Trappers Festival at The Pas and flew into isolated Indian Reserves to perform in their school auditoriums. Our TV show carried on, but we now worked as a trio with regular appearances by guest artists. Although we were now touring on our own, Russ Gurr gave us a call to back him on two television specials.

The Western Union TV Show ~ Mid '70s
CKX-TV Scripts for two 1974 Specials
Russ Gurr 
with Sue-On 
and The Western Union

CKX TV Special 1974 (No. 1)
Russ Gurr
and The Western Union

Open: You don't have to go to Switzerland
1500 albums down the drain
Barry Forman.... Fiddle - Orange Blossom Special
Sue-On and Western Union ... singing
On the 23rd day
Bill Hillman.... guitar
Raging Waters

Special 1994 - (No. 2)
Open: Blue Hills of Brandon
Western Union.... singing
Barry Forman.... Fiddle
Old White Tommy
Legend of Tom Lamb
Our ongoing recording sessons concentrated on original material and I wrote many of the songs to feature Barry's cajun and rock fiddle styles. This emphasis on fiddle is shown in Album No. 5 ~ 14 Original Songs that we released in the summer of 1975. By now, Sue-On was doing all of our session drumming. We backed Barry on two fiddle albums, one of them featuring Barry's nine-year-old son, Kent (this young virtuoso went on to play violin with numerous symphonies in the US and Canada).
Bill working on Hillman album number 5Fun and Fiddle with Barry FormanBarry and Kent Forman Fiddle AlbumVolume 5: 14 Original Songs
The band was at a crossroads at the end of 1975. Barry's Ford dealership and young family were demanding more and more of his time and finally he made the decision to leave the band to spend more time with business and family. Sue-On and I had to decide whether to go on the road full time and put everything into a music career . . . or stick with our secure roots in Maple Grove and continue on with careers as educators and weekend / summertime musicians.

Barry owned a chain of successful car dealerships in numerous Manitoba locations until his death in 2011.
Bill retired from 30 years of teaching high school -- in the same school -- in 1997.
Bill was then recruited by Brandon University to fill the position of Assistant Professor - Faculty of Education.
1992-2002: Sue-On and Bill spent much of their time running SOO'S, their Brandon restaurant and showhall.
After selling their restaurant in 2002, Sue-On also moved to a teaching position at Brandon University.

July 30, 1943 - November 17, 2011
Barry Forman Remembered: The Music Years

In the next chapter in the Hillman Musical Odyssey, 
singer/keyboardist Kevin Pahl joins the group.
The new Hillman Trio makes three tours of England, 
records four more albums and wins 
Manitoba's Entertainers of the Year Award

Listen to 100 of our songs online

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