A cross between a mischievous character from Mark Twain’s America and a young Dolly Parton, Music Traveler ambassador Hillary Klug earned her chops on the fiddle as a full-time busker on her path to becoming an internationally renowned recording artist, the all-American buck dancing champion, and a YouTube star. A Tennessee native, Klug is an all-around spokesperson and protector of the Appalachian dance style of clogging, which she’s keeping alive through her 21st-century interpretation of the tradition. MT caught up with her to discuss how choreographing a Kim Wilde cover began her career, the value of Music Traveler for young learners, and the importance of streaming for aspiring musicians.
Do you remember the first record you bought with your own money?
Yes, I do, but the answer will be very embarrassing. It was some stupid little pop CD from Walmart, it’s some early 2000s version of the Spice Girls called No Secrets. I had gotten it because I’m into dancing and I saw the album cover with a girl band and they looked really cool. I remember the lyrics went “we’re the kids in America, oh! We’re the kids in America!” I think it’s a Kim Wilde cover. I got their CD and listened to it over and over again and choreographed dance routines in front of an 8-foot-tall mirror in my parents' bedroom. I’ve always loved dancing and that was the early days of dancing and watching myself dance.
Tell us about your first fiddle
I was 13 when I got my first fiddle. It was a StringWorks student model. Growing up we didn’t have a lot of money so I made a deal with my mom. She told me she would buy it but I had to pay for half of it and would have to pay her back for her half if I stopped playing. I worked really hard for the money and never stopped playing.
So you’re not from a musical family?
Nobody in my family plays music, dances or sings. In that sense, my story is different than that of a lot of musicians I know. My dad is a carpenter and works for himself and my mom also works for herself. I quickly came to understand the discipline it takes to have my own business and hustle gigs. That’s what I got from my family.
Any advice for young musicians starting out in the performing arts?
I have forged my own path as a dancing fiddler where there was not a career for that sort of thing. Who does dancing fiddle playing for a living? That’s just something I've made work. I would encourage anyone to dream big and shoot for the stars because you can forge your own path. You don’t have to follow in other people's footsteps. You can do your own unique thing. And, if you’re not having fun then make it fun. I made the fiddle fun because I added dance. I spent 2 and a half years making a living street performing. That’s not typical for a professional music career and when I first started, I wasn’t any good. But I developed my skill and ability to perform.
Having said that, we imagine you still find it important to have mentors.
Absolutely, for me that’s especially been true in the world of clog dancing. My mentor, Thomas Maupin, who’s 84, has won the national championship 7 times. He’s passed the torch to me, I’m his protégé and now it’s my responsibility to keep the tradition alive.
What challenges do you think you’ve had to overcome as a woman entrepreneur?
I really appreciate all my fans and followers and I want to encourage all the engagements and comments that motivate me to perform and help boost my videos. However, sometimes they are too focused on my looks rather than my talent. I try to delete inappropriate comments about my looks and sometimes I receive nasty messages that I have to deal with. Back in the olden days, people used to write nasty messages on bathroom stalls that they wouldn’t say in person. Facebook has become the bathroom stall of our times. At first, I was afraid of what people were saying and of people judging me or other artists. I’ve overcome that. Women entrepreneurs in music need to know who they are and encourage followers to appreciate their talent. You’re always going to be criticized, so you have to be strong.
What do you like about Music Traveler?
It's like Airbnb for the world of music and is a wonderful resource that empowers musicians to find time and space to be able to practice. It’s a great resource and tool to have when you are traveling. And also if you have a space and need money it’s great for people who want to rent out their space. What could be more synergistic for someone who loves music, making a little money while hosting fellow musicians?
Do you think Music Traveler could help young learners find a love for music?
Just seeing a musician's space can be very inspiring for a young musician, so of course coming to practice in a space where a professional plays and records is a huge inspiration and opportunity to absorb their energy.
Ever been in a situation Music Traveler could have helped you out of?
Oh yeah, definitely! I’ve faced all sorts of problems related to having a band and needing to rehearse, but being unable to do that form a hotel room or Airbnb rental. Often there’s either not enough space or there’s the issue or not being able to make noise. You need a place where you can make noise as a band and that’s not always possible to do from someone’s porch!
Do you still engage with people as a street performer when you’re traveling?
Whenever I am traveling I perform on the street for fun. When I’m in Europe it’s just such a fun way to share my music with people and such a different level of interaction than at a concert, because people don’t expect that they’re going to participate in a performance. By surprising them you bring a different smile to their faces. Especially with kids, it’s so cool to show them a genre of music they didn’t know existed. I love inspiring and encouraging kids.
Any place in Europe you particularly enjoy performing?
Galway, Ireland is my favorite! The music and tradition take you back to another time. You go into the countryside and it’s like my version of a fairytale because they honor their traditional music and culture and love to get together and play music and have a good time. It’s such a magical atmosphere and love sharing their tunes with outsiders.
What does Tennessee have to offer that people don’t know about but should?
I think more than things that people don’t know about, Tennessee has a lot of things people from around the world do know about but don’t immediately connect to Tennessee. Nashville is the country music capital of the world and home to the Country music hall of fame. But we have all sorts of music, not just country. We have old-time appalachian bluegrass music and Grand Ole Opry where the genre music made its name. We also have Memphis where Elvis is from and where blues music developed.
Then of course we’ve got Dolly Parton! She was a huge icon in the femenist movement and she’s a huge inspiration to me. She’s an amazing entrepreneur and an amazing person who is so loving to everyone. IT doesn’t matter what you believe or where you are politically or religiously she loves you and has music for you. I wish she would run for president.
Where do you see the future of music?
The industry is changing. Covid has been a reminder that live performances, social media and the internet are going to play a huge role in the future of music. Because of the internet you don’t need a big record label backing you. If you have raw talent you don’t have to have connections in the music industry. You can put your music out there and if people love it you’ll take off like wildfire. That’s what happened to me!