The Wild Ponies
The Wild Ponies released one of the best albums of this or many other years, Galax, sounds like somewhere Asterix might live, but isn't. They became friends with the UK's Country Gentleman, Bob Harris, and... Since it often seem to be the UK's flyover country despite its hulking bulk, touched down to play two incredible concerts in Birmingham. Way back in January they appeared at the Thimblemill Library in Bearwood and in the autumn, at the Kitchen Garden Cafe in Kings Heath. Made me wonder if they were even from Nashville as it says on the tin....
Outsideleft: Before I saw you live, I was concerned that maybe you weren't really even Americans living in America, you been to Birmingham twice within a year, there aren't many people in the UK that would hazard that? Whereabouts are you from?
Wild Ponies: Ha! No, we’re Americans living in America. We live in East Nasville now. When we moved there, it was one of the Bohemian Meccas of the New South. Over the last few years, as it happens to a lot of those type neighborhoods, it’s become more trendy and pricey. But it’s still gritty and there are still amazing writers and players and eccentric characters who call it home. We still love it.
OL: Are there places you've visited on this tour, where you find that the things that people do that leave you wistfully wishing oh I wish we did this at home? I lived in California for 20 years and one of the first things I noticed was, maybe because America is its own continent, that there was so little time for anything from the outside to penetrate the psyche or the news cycle.
Wild Ponies: Hey! Don’t leave out Canada and Mexico! But I see what you mean, and you’re probably right. Let’s see- what do we wish we could take home?
1 M&S at services. Seriously.
2 The way people drive. Not which side, but just how POLITE people drive!
3 How polite audiences are. It’s unnerving at first – always takes a show or two to get used to it.
4 Castles. It would be cool if we had some nice castles. And maybe a wizzard or two.
So much more. We love touring over here.
As far as the news cycle, I think that’s breaking up a bit. Or maybe it’s just the bubble I live in. We’ve got lots of friends all over the world, as do the rest of our friends in the US. I actually read a lot of my news on the BBC app.
OL: The show at the Kitchen Garden Cafe was stunning, what a pleasure to be there listening. That place is a pretty cosy venue... Is there currently a good size hall for the Wild Ponies, you really seem to connect with audience there, they were so close, and maybe at times for the encore because you were standing amongst them?
Wild Ponies: Thanks for the kind words! We really appreciate that. That was our first time in Kitchen Garden, but it’s really a special little room. Like you said, very cosy. We like to remove as many barriers as we can between us and the audience. When I think back on all of my favorite shows through our entire carrer, the ones that stand out are always the ones that are PACKED! No matter the room size. 40 people packed into a room designed to seat 38? Perfect. 1000 people jammed under and spilling out the sides and back of a festival tent? Love it. It’s about the energy exchange, and when people are closer together and closer to us, we can help make it happen.
OL: The story telling just works between songs and I don't think that always does, but you seem to have that intrinsic genuine American warmth and empathy at a time perhaps as you alluded to during the show, there's a push back politically against empathy. I don't really think of country bands being political - but then maybe I'm not thinking hard enough...
Wild Ponies: I think that’s two or three questions in one. But maybe not. I’ll give them all a go : )
Sometimes we don’t tell all the stories, and the stories change and shift as we remember things and play different rooms with different referances. And sometimes we really don’t tell any, we just play songs and have fun and hope the message penetrates. As far as empathy, I’m not claiming any of this for myself, but here’s what I think is true: In order to be a good songwriter, you’ve got to have empathy. You’ve got to be able to not just see through someone else’s eyes, but really feel through their soul.
I would argue that country music is basically a popularized American folk music, and that it’s always been political. Sometimes subversivly, sometimes not. In pop country, there’s been a trend to sort of stuff that down a bit since probably the early 2000’s. But it’s still on the fringes. Looking back, from the Carter Family to Johnny Cash to Hank Williams, Lorretta Lynn, Hazel Dickens… All VERY political. For us, we don’t have anything at all to do with mainstream pop country. We’re really in a completely different industry even. When you look at what’s coming out of East Nashville and the roots scene and the Americana world, we’re basically whipped into a political frenzy right now. As an example, here’s a link to a record I co-produced earlier this year called Strange Freedom: Songs of Love And Protest – [Listen on Spotify]. (you can also just search it on iTunes)
OL: From the moment I heard Love Is Not A Sin, I wondered if an incident or a friendship inspired that, or whether it's more a response to the cultural climate, it's an important song in the country vernacular, in any, for gay people, straight people and maybe younger people who aren't sure what they are? In its own way is a companion piece to the Drive-By Truckers What It Means. Ultimately it celebrates the lives of ordinary people. If anyone is ordinary, I kinda hate the expression...
Wild Ponies: I agree. There is no ordinary. And I think yeah, that is exactly the point. That song was triggered by Mike Pence when he was the governer of Indiana. He pushed through a “religious freedom” law that basically allowed businesses to discriminate against gay people. I just don’t understand why anyone would be AGAINST putting more love in the world, right? Just seems so backwards to me.
OL: I think American music’s regionality is a great strength. Hazel Dickens - what lead you to covering her music?
Wild Ponies: Actually, several of the things you asked leading up to this. Not only is she an AMAZING singer, but she was also a very progressive, very political person. She’s been our “matron saint” for years. Love her to death. And the regionality… she was born in the same town as Telisha’s grandmother, so there is that.
OL: Galax is your beyond great new LP - although to me sonically it sounds like you've drawn from the annals of country folk time for the instrumentation and arrangements, it also sounds like a giant leap forward for the band, there's a one-ness to the entire set, can you talk a little about how that came about? (OMG my questions are so often longer than the answers possibly could be...)
Wild Ponies: We really wanted to take some of the great players from Galax, folks that we’d admired for years and known since I was a baby, and put them in a room with some of our friends from Nashville and just see what happened. It was fun to watch. It didn’t take long for cultural barriers to melt and respect to grow. I think everybody had a really good time experiamenting and stretching. Doing it the way we did, with no monitoring and no playing back, it really just made everyone play for each moment. It’s a pretty honest, Zen way to do it.
OL: Gearbox seems like a fascinating locale for your record...?
Wild Ponies: Gearbox is fascinating. They’re great at the analoge masering process. That’s what they’re all about. It’s nice to have a record label that’s SO incredibly invested and interested in the actual sound quality and not just the profit margins.
OL: Bob Harris, I remember not being a fan of his, I guess I was a little punk kid when I became aware of him, but he really has carved out a niche and I think is the only national broadcaster to champion country music... What did you do for him, his session and so on?
Wild Ponies: He really has. He’s been great to us – as has his entire family. We just did three songs in an Under The Apple Tree session for his son Miles. Be on the lookout for those!
OL: I give up, What's Next for the Wild Ponies?
Wild Ponies: Oh good lord - I don’t know man. I really don’t. We’ve got a few things in the works, but we’ll see what actually happens. I’m loving the configuration we’re in right now, and I really feel like we’re playing great together. We’re just having a blast every night on stage. I think we’ll try to ride that for a little longer…
Galax is available here right now, and in most fine record stores
Wild Ponies in Outsideleft here, The Wild Ponies are the Best Thing they Put in the Library Since Books and here, Wilder and Wilder