Wild Ponies was performing a cover of the Patti Smith version of “Gloria” at a benefit show when guitarist and vocalist Doug Williams was struck by the line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.”
“It just made me think that conceding that any kind of love was a sin was giving up more ground than you needed to give,” Williams says by telephone from his home in East Nashville, Tenn. “It made me look at how we think about love and relationships and wonder how anyone could be offended by two people being loving, wonderful contributing members of society. So I sat down the next morning and wrote this song.”
The song is called “Love Is Not a Sin,” a recently recorded track that Williams describes as “a pro gay-marriage hymn” for the band’s forthcoming as-yet-untitled 2015 project. It’s one of a handful of new tunes Wild Ponies – which also features his wife and musical partner Telisha Williams on bass and vocals, and Megan Jane on drums – will be road testing on their current U.S. tour.
“Things That Used To Shine,” the 2013 studio debut of Wild Ponies, who previously toured and recorded as acoustic folk duo Doug & Telisha Williams, spent nearly six months on the Americana Music Association Top 40 chart, topping out at No. 18. Released on Ditch Dog Records, the label they co-own with Kristen Bakevich, “Things That Used To Shine” marked a subtle musical departure from the couple’s earlier work while tackling some difficult and personal subjects, including Telisha’s own story of being sexually abused by her stepfather on the track “The Truth Is.”
“What prompted me to start talking about it was the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, as well as the abuse in the Catholic Church,” Telisha Williams says. “It really made me think as a survivor myself how big an impact dealing with the disclosure of the abuse can have on the healing process. I wanted people to be able to talk about sexual abuse more openly. When you put those two words together, people cringe and they don’t want to talk about it. I feel if we could talk about it more openly that might be the thing that creates some change in the statistics. So I decided to put my story opening out there.”
Telisha Williams says she worked on “The Truth Is” for several weeks, trying to be open and honest, but she kept getting stuck on the last line. She shared the lyric “I’m more broken than brave / there’s things I still think about every day,” to which Doug Williams suggested, “like his footsteps in the hallway.”
“When Doug gave me that last line, it was like a tidal wave,” she says. “We had to pull over and shed some tears. That’s when I realized I had not dealt with the trauma itself. I had spent all this time on how my mother handled it instead of the fact that I was abused by this man.”
Much of the album was written during a time of healing and transition for the couple. While songs such as “The Truth Is” and “Trigger” cover disturbing themes such as sexual abuse and murder, “Things That Used to Shine” also includes the rowdy “Broken” about their sputtering RV, and the sweet “Valentine’s Day.”
“A lot of this record was written as we were moving from our hometown of Martinsville, Va., to Nashville,” Telisha Williams says. “Leaving our hometown and establishing ourselves away from where we were raised gave us a little more of an objective view of some of the things we had gone through.”
Within a week of meeting each other in high school, Doug and Telisha Williams started playing in a rock ‘n’ roll cover band that they never bothered to name. Although Telisha Williams went to Old Dominion University and Doug Williams went to Virginia Tech, they began dating after high school. The couple played the occasional coffee shop gig together, and then found modest success with their first national release, 2007’s “Rope Around My Heart.” Two years later, “Ghost of the Knoxville Girl” became their real coming-out party, spending 15 weeks on the Americana Music Association’s Top 40 chart.
The 12 songs on “Things That Used To Shine” were recorded in three days by Grammy Award-winning producer Ray Kennedy, who has engineered records for Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Sheryl Crow, to name a few.
“He’s just a brilliant guy who is really invested in the art,” Doug Williams says. “He’s going to make an artistic, interesting record no matter what. Before we recorded anything we would go to the studio and just hang out talking about everything from what we wanted to sound like to what kind of tea we liked – just anything. We spent a ton of time getting to know each other. We realized after making the record that was all part of his process.”
Now the band is looking forward, already booking dates through December with plans to tour both the U.S. and Europe as well as finish recording their sophomore Wild Ponies album.
“The first record has done better than anything we’ve done in the past,” Doug Williams says. “There’s been a lot of growth, but we still have a ways to go to get to where we want to be.”