Tim W. Jackson
May 2, 2023
Life on Merry Hill
A couple in their 30s based in Florence, Alabama, playing music with bluegrass roots might not seem to fit the bill of alternative, but that’s why we don’t judge books by their covers.
Dillon Hodges and Heidi Feek make up the duo firekid, a moniker originally created for Hodges’ music pre-Feek. But this enigmatic pair marches to the beat of its own drum— namely a drum machine programmed by Hodges to bring a different sound to roots music and to appeal to a wider audience.
“We want to make music that sublimates the horror of reality,” Hodges says, adding that they are keenly aware of the problems and struggles of the world but want to take the view of gratitude and let that inform their art. “It’s a distraction really,” he continues, “but also an anchor to something. It’s firm ground when nothing else matters. It’s liberating.”
Hodges comes across as remarkably intelligent and a deep thinker. Feek, who always seems to exude empathy and calm, is perhaps a salve for Hodges’ runaway mind. Their music is what brings many to know firekid, but their values and the life they’ve created for themselves are exceptional departures from stereotypes. Growing up in traditional Southern homes and living in a politically conservative part of the country, being atheists, socialists, and prison abolitionists is about as badass as it gets in Northwest Alabama.
Hodges started to play guitar at age 11. While the Shoals area of Alabama where he was raised is technically Southern Appalachia, the music the area is known for is the rock and soul that came out of the area’s studios in the 1960s and ‘70s. In fact, local cover bands still play many of those songs, such as “Mustang Sally,” made most famous by the Wilson Pickett recording from FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals.
Bluegrass—popular in middle Appalachia—is actually uncommon in Northwest Alabama. But Hodges’ teacher and neighbor, Mark Campbell, had bluegrass roots, and Dillon quickly became obsessed with the music and the style of guitar playing known as flatpicking.
“We thought he was going to be a writer,” says his mother, Karen. “When he was in about 4th grade, he would write things that we just couldn’t believe were coming out of someone so young. But once he picked up [the] guitar, we thought, ‘Well maybe this is his calling.’ I guess he’s really doing both.”
He set a goal for himself to win the National Flatpicking Championship and would travel to play at bluegrass competitions. But then he won! At age 17, his lifelong dream had already come true. He was the second youngest flatpicking champion but afterward, he became somewhat aimless and bored before even graduating from high school. He came back to Florence a champion, but few really cared about bluegrass locally.
He attended the University of North Alabama in Florence and continued playing music. A few years later he created firekid, releasing his first album under that name in 2015. Self-described as “experimental Appalachian,” Hodges says part of his goal was to bring the music that he loved so much to a younger audience with plenty of pop influences and electronic sounds.
Meanwhile, says Feek, “I brought my own stamp and creative energy to firekid.”
This ain’t your granddaddy’s bluegrass. The firekid brand has a groove.
Heidi + Dillon
Each having married and divorced in their 20s, Dillon and Heidi met at the suggestion of a couple of folks in the Nashville area, where each was living. Musically, there was some overlap. While Feek’s solo albums brought to life influences from yesteryear, Hodges was trying to bring the music he loved to the masses by making it more modern. So, they connected, as friends, playing music and bonding through the tough times they were experiencing individually. For Feek, that included being part of a very public national story: Joey + Rory.
Heidi’s father, Rory, had married fellow singer and songwriter, Joey Martin, 10 years his junior, in 2002—making Joey a stepmom to Heidi and her younger sister, Hopie. Joey + Rory had moderate success as a duo. The two had a daughter of their own in 2014, Indiana, born with Down syndrome, and just a few months later, Joey was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Much of the nation latched on to the gripping story that saw Joey succumb to cancer in 2016. She was buried in the family cemetery on the Feek farm in Columbia, Tennessee.
Meanwhile, Heidi says she understands the interest.
“It was a compelling story,” she says. “There was the music plus life and death and then a young child with special needs. But living through that was much different than just reading about it from afar. It was hard and then actually got even more complicated. It also tainted my view of the music establishment.”
Having been friends for a couple of years, Hodges and Feek officially “got together” in that same year, after Hodges was divorced from his college sweetheart. In a cruel and obviously unexpected twist, his ex-wife, Elise, died in a hit-and-run accident just a few months after the divorce, bringing up yet another host of complicated feelings. Needless to say, 2016 saw traumatic circumstances from which both Dillon and Heidi had much to recover as individuals while trying to build a life together.
With firekid a vague enough name, Heidi slid into Dillon’s life and his music project, bringing her own beautiful voice and songwriting skills to what was now a duo.
The two moved back to Florence from the Nashville area, in part to be closer to Hodges’ family and to add distance from Feek’s.
Dillon’s mom, Karen, is usually seen at firekid shows in the Shoals. Meanwhile, Feek’s father, Rory, has been less accepting of his progressive, non-religious daughter’s life decisions. In fact, sister Hopie fled the Feek farm to move in with her sister and Dillon in late 2022.
“I love living here,” Heidi said. “I love having my sister here. I love having roots.”
Karen Hodges says she is thrilled to have a larger family in the area.
“We love Heidi,” she says, “and we know that Hopie moving here, too, really helped make Heidi’s life complete. I always wanted five kids but could only have three. But now I have five! I love the life they are all building.”
Like many musical acts that made the majority of their money by touring, 2020 was a bit hellish for firekid. Various bands sought an array of solutions. On the Twitch platform, firekid managed to eke out a living and find a sense of community.
Initially known as a streaming service for gamers, Twitch expanded to include entertainment, sports, music, and more. At first, firekid just played music on the site and then began to live more of their lives online.
These days, the duo can be found on Twitch four or five days per week cooking, puttering in the garden, gaming, watching videos or movies, answering audience questions, having a bluegrass jam, or recording in the studio.
Financially, the two have survived the past couple years mainly via Twitch and Patreon.
“We love the community we’ve created on Twitch,” Dillon says. “And it’s interesting that it really is a community. People have gotten to know each other and interact. It has become a special thing.”
So much so, that firekid has no real plans of touring these days. They are content to continue building their Twitch following, work on new music projects, and play a few local shows (which they also stream on Twitch).
Now the Twitch community knows the duo by their username, merryhill, coined by an early Twitch follower who nicknamed the couple’s property in Florence. Literally on a hill, the quaint old house and grounds are themselves an alternative statement compared to the path of their peers. Not caught in the trappings of “keeping up with the Joneses,” their house is relatively sparse with a vintage refrigerator and stove in the kitchen, where they stream their cooking nights.
The Twitch “Garden Gang” assembles outside where flowers and shrubs fill the yard. A small greenhouse allows some plants to grow year-round. The house, which is actually quite close to town and the university where Dilon graduated, feels like it’s out in the country. It’s a bastion of simple living and a perfect space for Heidi to exercise her green thumb. She arranges flowers and creates wreaths as a side hustle. Hodges is slowly becoming a plant expert, too.
Recently, firekid received the good news that they will have a bigger (paying!) role in the PBS show Reconnecting Roots, which they’ve been part of for its first three seasons. The show’s third season just launched in April 2023. Through culture and history, host Gabe McCauley reconnects Americans to their roots through an array of topics.
Along with Mandy McCauley, firekid has been instrumental in taking iconic songs from the American public domain and rewriting and reimagining them for the show. The new firekid video for “In the Gravel Yard”, which is currently available for the duo’s Patreon supporters, will debut on Reconnecting Roots the week of May 19. (Check your local PBS listings for that episode and for when the show airs in your area in general. And stay tuned for season four, when firekid will be producing a host of songs for the series.)
Here’s firekid along with Mandy McCauley performing the show’s theme song live.
Having released its last album, “Muscle Shoals Metaphysical”, in 2021, the duo has been in the studio of late and has new tunes ready to roll out. The songs will be released as a series of singles, eventually culminating into the four-song EP “The Merryhill Sound.” “In the Gravel Yard” is the first single.
With the doubling of banjos and an array of synth sounds, firekid again is again creating alternative roots music. In the video below, Hodges and Feek discuss their new EP.
“Alternative” comes in lots of different forms. For firekid, it’s being authentic despite where they live and what others expect. They are true to themselves and create music that they love. And they are slowly bringing others into their wonderful world.
For more on firekid, visit them online and follow their social media for the latest updates and releases.
*Cover photo from firekid Facebook
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Tim Jackson is a seasoned journalist and author with a penchant for all things dark, macabre, and somewhat sinister. He lives in Tuscumbia, Ala., with his artist wife and his remote-chewing dog, Maple.