Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sharing a Six Pack and Galaxing with Wild Ponies

Wild Ponies (web | Twitter) recently released Galax, their third full release as a band and fifth including two albums under Doug and Telisha Williams' own names.

For Galax, Doug and Telisha opted to leave the studio and temporarily relo to a barn that belonged to Doug's late grandparents in Galax, Virginia. The duo rallied a mix of musicians - Fats Kaplin, Will Kimbrough, Neilson Hubbard and Audrey Spillman from Nashville - and a handful of legendary, local players.

After a few run-throughs, the makeshift, all star band spent the next few days laying down tracks - without playback. They recorded in the morning as well as evening to embrace the varying sounds of the barn and chirps and croaks from neighboring critters.

The resulting effort includes original music, traditional songs, a reprise from a previous Wild Ponies album, and a cover of a Jon Byrd song. Each song - though complementary to the whole - includes a variety of instrumentation: pedal steel, banjo, fiddle, upright bass, Telecaster, etc.

Galax opens with the up-tempo, bluegrass'ish Sally Ann. The song is rich with fiddle, Telisha's upright bass, harmonies from all, and echoes of the barn.

The second song, Tower and the Wheel, was included as a fantastic, original track on the band's previous album, Radiant. But it's even more striking on Galax with the varied musical arrangement and recording location.

Hearts and Bones takes the tempo down a healthy notch. Telisha's vocals are spot on. Depending on the song, she can range from sultry to funny to biting. But she can also be truly deep in meaning and rich in delivery - including on songs such as Hearts and Bones.

As the album heads for the homestretch, the band covers songwriter Jon Byrd's Jackknife, a song that emanates influences of Kristofferson If you haven't already done so, check out Byrd's discography if you want legit, contemporary country music.

On the doorstep of Americanafest in Nashville in September, Doug and Telisha recently took time to share a six pack with me about their new album.

TMC: Though East Nashville is now your home, your roots are in Virginia. When did you brainstorm the idea to record an album in Doug’s grandparent’s barn?
D&T: We actually went there right before we recorded Radiant to get away and finish up some of the songs for that record. Nobody lives at the farmhouse anymore. There’s no cell signal, no internet – the perfect place to escape and focus for a few days. Once we were there and settled in, we were struck with the idea to do this record, and it felt so urgent. We started making calls and working towards it as soon as we left the farm!
TMC: Did you schedule your slate of songs to be played and recorded during specific times of the day based on expected weather, critter sounds, moods of the musicians, etc.? Or did you jump around and experiment with the ones you planned to tackle?
D&T: I’d like to say it was that coordinated, but we were really just throwing the arrangements around and playing music together. There were specific songs that we wanted specific instruments on, but we didn’t consider what the weather or wild life were doing. We weren’t listening back as we recorded, so we didn’t really know that we were capturing all of that until we got back to Nashville. We did decide to save Hearts and Bones until it was dark and a little cooler outside, and we opened up all the doors and tried to get a little cross-breeze in the shed, which is why the night sounds are so prominent on that one.
TMC: Which songs, if any, did you record during multiple times of the day so that you could compare versions later?
Basically, we’d present a song to the group, play through some ideas on the arrangement, then hit record. Once the arrangements were worked out, we’d only play the song 2 or 3 times. We all knew when we had the take. It’s a feeling – not perfection. The only time that we did a song at different times, is the last song we recorded, Hearts and Bones. We did one or two takes and it was just so hot. We decided to take a break, head down to the New River Trail, splash around in Chestnut Creek, and wait for the sun to go down. Doug’s mom made an amazing meal, we lit some candles in mason jars, left the shed doors open, and gave it another swing. Right before we recorded, Neilson looked at Telisha and said “You told me before we came here that this shed was your favorite place in the world to sing. Think about why, and sing that.” Of course, she completely bawled her way through that take and it was completely unusable. But we knew we had the right vibe- just thinking about that lyric “Every heart beats and breaks,” and the people who weren’t with us anymore, but who are still so much a part of that place and a part of our musical lives. My grandparents would’ve been so proud. Anyway- we did it one more time and that’s the one that made it on the record.

TMC: You included Tower and the Wheel on your last album, Radiant. How did you revisit the song for Galax knowing the recording setting was going to be much different?
D&T: We wrote that song on that trip to the farm that inspired this whole project. We had to include it on the record. That Catawba Tree is just as much a part of our lives there as any family member. She’s been providing, in one way or another for a lot of years, and she deserved a spot on the record. Also, since the instrumentation was going to be so different, we thought revisiting the song could be interesting.
TMC: Y’all wrapped up the recording and returned home without listening to tape. How confident were you that a solid set of recordings had been captured? Or were you a bit nervous or anxious about a solid effort that may not have yielded what you’d hoped for?
D&T: As we were loading up the cars to head home, Doug put his hand on Neilson’s shoulder and said, “If we get home and there’s nothing on those hard drives or they get stolen on the way, it doesn’t matter. What we just experienced is enough.” It’s true. Playing music with those people in that space in that moment was enough. It was so fun and full and real and special. We were pretty stoked when we got to hear what was captured, though.
TMC: You obviously were excited about recording this type of album – and were focused on recording while also enjoying the moment of the sessions. But did you also allow yourselves to brainstorm or absorb ideas for possible projects down the road?
D&T: We do usually have our next project swirling around in our heads, but we don’t this time, and it feels okay. Galax is coming out just over a year after Radiant, so it feels good to just enjoy this time. We’re really excited to get out and tour this record in the US, UK, Holland and Germany. I know we’ll be inspired along the way, but for now we’re just going to enjoy what we made in the shed.
After several appearances during the week of Americanafest, Wild Ponies' official Galax release show is Monday, September 18th at the Family Wash in East Nashville. From there, they hit the road - hopefully in a town near you. Get this album, go see 'em play, meet them, enjoy their genuine niceness, and buy 'em a PBR or shot of bourbon.