A handful of Church Hill neighbors threw a little autumn pig-picking party back in the late '70s. It was so much fun they kept the party going every October, and now thousands make the trek to Libby Hill Park for High on the Hog. This Saturday marks the event's 25th birthday with more barbecue, music and beer. Plus this year Texas R&B queen Marcia Ball tops the bill. No one is more surprised that the party has survived for a quarter of a century than Hog organizers.
"Beer, barbecue, beans and bands. That's the whole point," recalls chief pig cooker Larry Ham. "It wasn't really for a cause."
Cause or no cause, High on the Hog became an anticipated party for locals through the years, but the event many know today belies its humble start. Ham recalls that he and his Church Hill neighbors Bobby Long, Dave O'Kelly, John Cochran and Randy Smith were talking in 1977 and he inadvertently got the ball rolling.
"I said I knew how to cook a pig. They said they knew how to drink beer. Let's have a party." The group found a party site on Libby Terrace at 28th and East Franklin streets and invited 30 or 40 neighbors. Ham cooked one pig, and the boys debated about whether to buy one keg of beer or two.
"People brought covered dishes. It was that kind of thing," Ham says.
The next year, they decided to repeat the fun. By now, another neighbor, Chuck Wrenn, was involved and music became a part of the party. The group moved to the alley behind the organizer's homes on the 2800 block of Franklin Street for Hogs 3, 4, 5 and 6, and crowds swelled to hundreds.
By now, a flatbed truck served as an alley band stage, and locals such as Don' Ax Me Bitch! played. Wrenn recalls the group survived a rainstorm during Hog 4 by playing under a hand-held plastic tarp that covered the players and the crowd. Ham and others continued to cook increasing amounts of barbecue on grills over hardwood. Nearby kitchens were commandeered for chopping areas.
The gathering was not advertised, associated with any group, or intended as a revenue generator. But crowds grew and by Hog 6 Wrenn says revelers downed 57 kegs of beer. No one owns up to remembering details of those first parties but it's clear they were special.
"Back in the underground days it's a wonder we didn't burn down Church Hill," Ham says with a laugh.
Wrenn agrees. "It had no legitimacy at all," he says. "It was just a wild ass thing in the backyard. It was a lot different spirit than it is now."
By Hog 7 in 1983, Long, O'Kelly, Wrenn and others were starting to think about going "legit" with a move to Libby Hill Park. Some favored the idea, but others thought a move was a bad idea.
"We beat our heads around about that. There was some sentiment it was too big," Wrenn says. "But we did keep on doing it and it's gone on to become a real tradition."
The city granted necessary permits with both reluctance and a game attitude. The Church Hill Association also gave support, and the food and beer sale profits were donated to the neighborhood group and the Church Hill Crime Watch.
The party grew through the '80s and '90s until thousands reveled in the park every Hogtober. In the late '90s the annual affair went through temporary changes in size and venue. But now that it's back in the park, an ambitious spirit continues to surround the event. Planning starts early each summer. Three hundred and fifty volunteers are recruited. Suds flow from 200 kegs of beer, and Ham and his crew of 50 cook, chop and serve half a ton of barbecue. Cooking starts at 3 a.m. Saturday, so the first Eastern North Carolina style pork is ready by 1 p.m.
But what really put the bow on the package through the years is the music. It was always of high quality, and performers such as NRBQ, Bill Kirchen, Evan Johns and the H-Bombs and Deanna Bogart appeared. The Silver Stars Quartet gospel group opened the show for years. The Good Humor Band was a staple at many parties and they reunite once again this Saturday. Some of Richmond and the region's best bands have also performed, and this Saturday's lineup includes Billy Ray Hatley and the Showdogs, the Wall-O-Matics, and Julie Johnson & Her Patsy Cline Band. Music starts at noon and ends at dusk.
This year's headliner, the Marcia Ball Band, brings R&B and boogie to the party. No stranger to a good time, Marcia coincidentally began fronting her first band 25 years ago playing Austin and touring Texas. She went on to destroy clubs and festivals across the country and in Europe with her hard rocking boogie-woogie piano, soaring voice and first-rate bands. Always a favorite at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and influenced heavily by Professor Longhair, Irma Thomas, Etta James and Otis Spann, Ball slowly but steadily garnered credit due. She won the 1998 W.C. Handy Female Vocalist of the Year Award and was nominated for a Grammy that same year for her collaboration with Irma Thomas and Tracy Nelson. During the Clinton years, Ball and her band played the White House with B.B. King. Her latest CD, "Presumed Innocent," received praise from critics and fans, and it showcases both her party song and ballad style.
Party organizers say High on the Hog is different from other Richmond music events. There is still no admission fee, and the charge for drinks and pork is nominal. Ham characterizes the event as a "great, fun party." His advice: "Bring $10 and have a great time."
Asked about the event's future, Ham sticks to the present.
"Let's get through 25," he says. "We kept thinking some young bucks will come up and take our place. But they're nowhere to be seen."
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