Billy Southern: El Chivato

Andrew Olson

Reader Weekly

Billy Southern entertained the early evening crowd and sold a few of his latest CD, El Chivato this past Friday at Thirsty Pagan Brewery in Superior.

Being that the Twin Ports are a “port” town, many people either grew up here or they have ended up here. Southern has done both.

“I grew up in Duluth,” Southern said. “Though I spent a lot of time over seas while in the service. I lived in Norwayfor about 5 years, Shanghai, China for a year and Tokyo for 4 months. I started playing guitar while in the Marine Corps because I was bored and poor. I bought a car and couldn’t afford the insurance, so I worked a side job. I don’t know how things are now, but back then the military didn’t pay enlisted men very much.”

A lot of musicians begin playing the guitar and earn their calluses on a few well known songs, Southern’s story is similar.

“I’ve been playing since I was 20. I came home on leave and found an old acoustic guitar my dad had. He showed me how to play “Day Tripper”, and I was hooked. I brought that guitar back to base in California and found a guy in my unit who could really play. He started showing me all kinds of tunes.”

Southern’s first CD, Swamp Dog, was released in 2007 and recorded, mixed, and mastered by Jake Larson. The title track was the catchiest tune and showed a blossoming songwriter.

“The first CD, Swamp Dog, was unreal,” Southern said. “I started working part-time for a neighbor who sells tanning beds and supplies. The guy I worked for directly was Karl Anderson, my bass player on Swamp Dog. We got talking about music one day and I found out he played in a couple bands in town. At the time he was in the Antmen, and I opened for them a couple times. Karl was great in helping me aroundDuluth and on the album. He also introduced me to Jake Larson, the recording engineer on both Swamp Dog and El Chivato. I love his style. He doesn’t over analyze your music, but he’ll let you know with a simple, “uh, let’s do another take” when it’s no good. Both CDs are pretty much live with only a few overdubs. I love it. Barry Schwartz played some really great guitar on both albums backing me up as well. He and I played out as a duo quite a bit for awhile.”

The albums Swamp Dog and El Chivato were both recorded at Clubhouse Studio right here in Duluth.

“The Clubhouse Studio is a Co-op type studio on 3rd St and 8th Ave. East,” Southern said. “Or somewhere around there. It looks like an old auto repair garage because that’s what it used to be. I’m not sure who all has recorded there, but I know of Boku Frequency, The Acceleratti, and Charlie Par just to name a few.”

When listening to Southern’s music many bands’ influences can be heard. While most of his songs have a folk-country feel, the guitar parts have many rock undertones.

“My influences keep changing,” Southern said. “Right now I’m really into Sam Baker. Eric Rhame, another local songwriter and good friend, turned me on to him. He also introduced me to Fred Eaglesmith who I can’t get enough of. We saw him at the Red Mug not long ago. What a songwriter! Incredible... I love Todd Snider, Townes van Zandt, Steve Earle, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and many more.”

The song "The Way We Live" off of El Chivato stuck out while listening and it had this Stone Temple Pilots meets southern rock sound. It was catchy, but I was curious how the songwriter would describe it.

“It (“The Ways We Live”) is about the ignorance of living blind to things going on around us. We live in a superficial society. Reality TV that’s anything but real. It’s all bulls#!t. It’s about how people can see something wrong, but they choose to blame others for it. It’s us. We need to change things. I don’t know… I’m getting more cynical by the second.”

Personally I really liked El Chivato more than Swamp Dog. It had more back up instruments that stood out and you could definitely see Southern grow as a songwriter.

“What changed from Swamp Dog to El Chivato,” Southern said. “I think the biggest thing was adding Jillian Lantry’s fiddle and vocals. I think I had more confidence this go around too. I didn’t wonder if I could make a CD like I did prior to Swamp Dog. I heard Bob Dylan spent a lifetime surrounding himself with great musicians, so I just did the same thing. Jillian, Karl, Barry, Greg Tiburzi, and I had Jake Larson record it, plus Seth Johnson did the artwork again. The heavens were shining on me again. Ha ha.”

So where has Southern been playing around town?

“I’ve played everywhere in Duluth/Superior, from the Brewhouse, Carmody’s Beaner’s, Amazing Grace, Sir Bens, Red Mug, to of course my favorite Thirsty Pagan Brewing. I’ve also played shows in Des Moines, Mason City, Minneapolis,Eau Claire, and Brainerd. Mainly in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. I’d love to really travel and play, but I’m trying to support a family too.”

What are Southern’s plans for his two albums?

“My goals for the CDs were met when I told Jake I was satisfied with the final mix of each one. It’s art, I mean I’d love to sell thousands of CDs, but the point of it all was really just to make CDs I liked to listen to. So, I guess it was self-serving writing those CDs. I still listen to them, and I still love each one.”

Making a CD is never an easy task and requires many people’s assistance. Swamp Dog and El Chivato are no exception.

“Karl Anderson (Bass) is a great bass player. He has a knack for finding exactly what I’m looking for in the different moods of songs. Listen to the bass on “Over There Again” or “Stupid and Elated” just to mention two songs. Barry Schwartz (Guitar) is an excellent guitar player. I’m a mediocre guitar player at best so I would show Barry a new song and then ask him what the hell I was even doing. He knew. Ha ha. He can play it all. Jillian Lantry (fiddle/vocals) set El Chivato over the top if you ask me. She is so good at both. I just wish she still lived in Duluth. Lastly, Greg Tiburzi (Percussion) is a hell of a drummer. Not to mention an awesome singer/songwriter too. He and I talked about joining songwriting forces to make a CD some day. When my life slows down again I’ll be giving Greg a call.”

You can purchase either CD at Southern’s live shows or at To have a listen or learn more about his upcoming shows visit