Hammer and Song
How gifted craftswoman Michelle Belanger balances music and carpentry
By Grant Britt • Photograph by Sam Froelich
By day, she swings a hammer. Come the night, Michelle Belanger swings as a Mystery Hillbilly, wielding a guitar and channeling Patsy Cline, Wanda Jackson, Elvis, and a slew of bad boy and girl rockabilly and country movers and shakers.
Belanger developed her hammer-swinging technique more than 30 years ago while studying young child development in community college. “I found out how much money I could make doing that, and I realized either I needed a husband with a real job or two jobs,” she says from her Winston-Salem home. An opening at a woodshop connected to a hardware store and lumberyard gave her an opportunity to learn all about wood and how to use woodworking equipment. She started out doing small jobs in her home state of Michigan, but an open-ended trip to North Carolina gave her opportunities in both music and in carpentry.
Belanger started out working part time as a helper with a Triangle-area carpenter, working on porches and decks. Belanger then branched out, working for other builders before a recession ended her job. “I just thought, well, let’s put up an ad,” she says. “I was sick of having to prove myself with all these guys, especially the really young ones, who were totally disrespectful.” Once she started out on her own, the joy in carpentry returned. Her business is called Jill of Many Trades. “I do a lot of punch lists,” she says, “help people move into houses.” She also builds screened decks and porches but specializes in doors. “Any kind of door that doesn’t work, I can sometimes come in and just make it work better, make it finally close and latch.”
The jobs provide her with a nice living but also have an important side benefit. “It’s mostly stuff I can do myself so I can have the freedom to schedule around my music.”
Belanger’s musical career blossomed at 18 when she attended her first Wheatland Music Festival, an old time/bluegrass festival in Remus, Michigan. At another, the Spirit of the Woods Folk Festival in Brethren, Michigan, Belanger learned how to call square dances. “They would let me strum along on guitar at the dances. I’m a naturally good dancer, so I just fell into the dancing part of it really easily,” she says. Her balance and moving skills were honed as well over her years of doing heavy-duty construction projects by herself. On her Jill Of Many Trades Facebook page, she recounts a challenging staircase replacement: “When I was lifting the 2×12 boards that made up the diagonal stringers, I was reminded of Fred Flintstone when he got the order of brontosaurus ribs, causing his car to flip over sideways. I didn’t flip over, but I had to have the balance just right and perfectly centered to stay upright. It is a testimony to my skill that a 5’4’’, 115-pound gal can handle something so big with aplomb.”
A trip landed her in North Carolina in 1986, and she began making the rounds of various bluegrass and old time festivals, with encouragement from a Greensboro-based band, The Swamp Cats, who had befriended her in Michigan. “I spent the week in between hanging out with those guys and had an absolute blast,” she recalls, crediting the band with “helping me get established.” She quickly enlisted the help of another Carolina-based musician, Mike Lightnin’ Wells, an acoustic folk/bluesman who produced and played with Big Boy Henry, Algia Mae Hinton and George Higgs.
“I had this really powerful voice, and I wanted to do something with it,” Belanger says. “At one point, I wanted to learn some old blues songs, so I contacted my old buddy Lightnin’ Wells, went down to his house and brought some beer and some food, and he made me a couple of cassette tapes with a bunch of old blues stuff he was into.”
But it was a musician friend at the Wheatland Festival, which Belanger attends annually, who suggested a new direction.
“He said, ‘You’d be good at rockabilly; you should check out Rosie Flores and Wanda Jackson,’” Belanger remembers. It was just what the musician had been looking for; “the perfect bridge between old rock and R&B and blues, more connected to my people in old time and bluegrass world,” she says. “Next thing I knew, I started diving into that stuff.”
That led to the birth of The Mystery Hillbillies, the band she leads today.
At Prissy Polly’s in Kernersville, the main attraction is hawg, both Eastern and Western style. But on a Thursday night earlier this summer, honky-tonk and rockabilly were front-and-center as the Hillbillies stood flat-footed on the floor, cranking out an eclectic set list that ranged from Big Joe Turner to Elvis, from Patsy to Willie, with stops in between for Hank Williams and Bob Wills. Belanger has a big voice and filled up the room with her take on Patsy Cline’s “I Can’t Help It,” Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee creeping into Patsy’s space. Later in the set, Belanger introduced her rendition of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” calling him an “an amazing poet: crazy, fun and vivid.” She held up a picture of Berry, kissing the hand of Themetta, his wife of 68 years, which she then propped up on the mic stand, only for it to fall over. “That Chuck, he never does what he’s told,” she quipped before ripping into song.
A few weeks later at another gig in Pittsboro, The Mystery Hillbillies had a different cast of band members, including Belanger’s hubby Calvin Johnson who rotated in and out depending on where the gig was. Guitarist John Worthington of The Hometown Boys, among other bands, lent an eclectic mix of jazz and surf with honky-tonk twinges, and found notes that Gene Vincent didn’t know existed on “Be Bop A Lula”; it slid some slippery jazz underneath Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” and in a cover of Neil Sedaka’s “Stupid Cupid,” ripped out surf rock licks underneath Belanger’s powerful, energetic Wanda-ized whoops.
Belanger says she wants be remembered as much for her attitude as her music. “I feel I am, to some degree, known as somebody who is an inspiration to women who imagine themselves leading a band, being all brassy and charismatic and confident and capable and just being able to go, ‘Follow me, boys!’ And also somebody who plays some good dance music. Those are the things I’m going for.”
Her music speaks for itself, but she’s a pretty good spokesperson for her carpentry business, as well. Just check out her Jill Of Many Trades Facebook page (facebook.com/JillOfManyTrades.Carpentry/). “Hiring a woman carpenter has advantages,” it says: “[Michelle] cleans up her messes and pays attention to things like not spreading paint or dirt over your light-colored carpet with her shoes.” “She’s just a very interesting person,” Belanger says of herself, a gal who can wield a musical axe as easily as a hammer, nailing it down perfectly. h
Grant Britt writes frequently about music, culture and history for Seasons’s sister publication, O.Henry.
Need some help in your home or office? Give Michelle Belanger a call at (336) 767-4241 or send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org to set up an appointment for a visit. She’ll be glad to help.