Bettini and The Hellbillies make their mark

Bettini and The Hellbillies make their mark

Published by: David Cate
April 7, 2023

If there are any references to "Godzilla" in my writing, it most often occurs when speaking of Kingsport's Tom Bettini.

In the late 90s, I interviewed Tom for an article in the local newspaper. He had just come off the road after a meteoric run with his band Jackyl. They made platinum records and toured with some of the world's loudest and hardest-working rock and roll bands. During that time, their band was one of the acts to play the second Woodstock in 1994.

With songs like "I Stand Alone Today" and "Lumberjack," I had to know what it felt like to step onto that stage with over 300,000 fans attending. As he turned the knob on his bass and stepped out on edge, Tom answered, "I felt like Godzilla."The menace of Tokyo and the all-around good guy electrified super dino is quite a memorable image, which undoubtedly relates to Tom's distinct personality. It's safe to say Tom was and is still famous, not because of his past, but rather his passions which still roar in East Tennessee.Many would agree Bettini is a force of nature. That means a lot, too, if you consider the whole of Mother Nature. He's also one of those homegrown natives that made it to the top of his game.

A Kingsport native and DB graduate, Tom picked up the bass guitar out of high school in 1978. His first band Tyrant didn't waste any time picking up the deepest, darkest, and loudest rock of the time - Black Sabbath and Judas Priest were mentors of this early rock band.

From there, he would play with several bands before being asked to join one of the most famous rock acts of the 90s. Jackyl would tour the world with bands like Aerosmith, AC/DC, and Motley Crue, and among other things stepping onto the Woodstock stage - Godzilla meets MTV fans worldwide.

Over the years, Tom has birthed local bands with some of the region's best rock and metal performers. And therein is the signature that always amazes me about Tom. When it comes to performance, there's no one better than Bettini on stage with a Rickenbacker guitar. You can't keep your eyes off of him.

Earlier in the year, I had stopped by their rehearsal studio to listen to the new band, Kris Rowdy, and The Hellbilles. They were forging their sound in a small garage retrofitted with black lights, amps, and music gear.It was only a short time after that a post on Facebook stated the band would appear at Capone's in early March. My response. "I'm Attending" button.

There were young people lined up in a strand of three on Main Street in Johnson City. It was 10 o’clock and being the old man on the edge of Saturday night, I was rethinking my plan. I texted Lisa, Tom's wife, to let her know that I was headed out. It's good to have friends.

Lisa came and got me, and I made it into the show just as the band was sparking their setlist.

Capone's has mostly stayed the same over the years. Named after Johnson City's favorite gangster tourist, it's still the best room in East Tennessee for any rock music. The first question in my mind is, where's Alan Prince?

Anyone who has played the stage knows they have worked with the very best. Alan Prince is one of the main reasons Rock and Roll is still alive at Capone's. He has to be the longest-running continuous sound engineer in East Tennessee, with 32 years of players and stages, most every weekend.

From the top of the stairs, it was good to get an overview of the new band Tom is forging with his bandmates.Kryss Rowdy and the Hellbillies is an all-original rock and roll band from East Tennessee that fuses overt Southern metaphors into an unapologetic thunderclap that rings like a barrage of mortars through the mountains here in East Tennessee.

Tom, as always, was iconoclastic. Perhaps the word is a bit lofty, but it's the first one that came to mind. He was dressed in a black suit, playing his bass with the intention of an army captain firing howitzers and lobbing them into enemy territory.

Rachell Merrick is a fresh surprise on drums. She's a determined player and watching her fuse a dirty Southern metal groove with the boys in the band is a special treat. She pulls no punches.

A newcomer to the band is a young guitarist from Bristol, Chuck Love. He's a young gunslinger that plays his guitar held low. He's got an infectious smile and is a confident performer that's fun to watch. That night was one of his first performances with the band.

Kris Rowdy is the frontman and songwriter for the band. He's true to his name, too. He's the Mad Max of this entourage, writing most of the lyrics of the songs. He's a southern boy ready to make his mark in the mountains and fearless in doing that on a chair or right in the center of the crowd.

Rock and Roll, at its molten core, was always about rebellion. Anarchy aside, American rock and Roll was also about "the show."Growing up in the 70s, the parodies of Kiss, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, AC/DC, and Cheap Trick - each of these bands always pushed the limits with often tongue-in-cheek entertainment. That formula is alive and well here in East Tennessee, and one of the most original bands from this genre can be found in the Hellbilly sound.

Simply put. The band's got heart. They also have a well-oiled machine ready to leave tracks from city to city.

A lot is happening with this band, including a busy touring schedule later this Summer. But at the center of it all is my buddy Tom Bettini, keeping rock and roll alive in East Tennessee. So, if you ever see him in action, don't miss it. You won't be disappointed.