• Independence native pays homage to his beloved hometown with a song

  • When it comes to his hobbies, Mike Hillen is somewhat of a Renaissance man.

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  • When it comes to his hobbies, Mike Hillen is somewhat of a Renaissance man.
    Hillen took guitar lessons as a kid, but he set the instrument aside as he pursued other interests.
    Like chess, his first love. Hillen, a 1970 Truman High School graduate, pulls a framed photograph out of a bag Tuesday afternoon at Main Street Coffee House. It shows him, at age 13, playing chess against four college students at a time.
    He pulls out another photograph. Hillen also was a wrestler and did judo. Forty-two years ago, he competed in judo at the national level and took third place. Yet another photograph shows a 30-year-old Hillen in 1982, wrestling a live bear at Municipal Auditorium.
    Hillen’s interest in music really took off, though, about 10 years ago when he acquired a karaoke machine that he initially intended to sell. Instead, he kept it, “and I fell in love with it and just started singing like crazy,” he says.
    But songwriting was a bit more of a struggle. Hillen tried to write a song spiritually, “and just couldn’t do it,” he says. “I finally turned it over to the Lord. He waited two years, and then, all of a sudden, he gave me my song.
    “After that, they just flowed. I couldn’t stop writing.”
    Since then, Hillen’s sung at his congregation, Pleasant View Christian Church in Independence. He also performs regularly during Tuesday open mic nights at Main Street Coffee House and as part of the Song Circle of Kansas City.
    “There’s nothing out there like it,” Hillen says of his songs and their quirky, fun titles and themes. “I have a ball with my music, and I just never know when a song is going to come to me. I don’t ever sit down to write a song. The song just comes to me in my writing.”
    Listing American singer-songwriter Neil Diamond as a main influence, the 60-year-old Hillen has written more than 200 original songs in recent years, with titles as varied as “Danger on the Highway,” “The House Sitters,” “Help Our Fellow Man,” “Her Jealous Ways” and “Going Out for a Bite” and “Elephant in a Tree.”
    But his real achievement is a song paying tribute to his hometown, simply called “Independence.”
    Harry Truman, the three trails, the Vaile Mansion, Santa-Cali-Gon Days, the Independence Center mall and other features of the fourth largest city in Missouri all receive a shout-out in “Independence,” a song Hillen says he was inspired to write after his neighbor, Angie Kearney, encouraged him to do so.
    “It was just on my heart. It kept coming to me, and I just said, ‘Mike, you need to write a song about Independence,’” Kearney says. “I love this place, and it’s a lovely little town.”
    Page 2 of 2 - Kearney described Hillen as inspiring and a man of “just talent.”
    “He can write a song at the drop of a hat. The Lord has blessed him with that,” she says. “He’s always calling me up, ‘You’ll never guess what I just wrote a song about.’”
    The part-time roofer’s main goal with “Independence”? To perform it at Santa-Cali-Gon Days, a setting he says would be perfect for it.
    “It’s home,” Hillen says of the city. “I just like the warmth of it, and it’s a really good place to live.”
    He’d also like to see some of his songs published one day.
    “I love any chance I can to get in front of people and share with them,” Hillen says. “I feel like I pour myself into every song.”
    “I’m getting too old to fight bears,” he says, laughing. “The good thing about my music is that it’s one thing I can do until I die.”

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