Wild Ponies Just Might be Americana’s Next Dark Horses
You’re a happily married couple who share a 24-7 existence, mostly writing songs while roaming free in what’s left of the open country. Yet when you put your first two names together, the act sounds like a finger-snapping folk duo resembling the fictitious Mitch and Mickey, who were reunited in the 2003 mockumentary A Mighty Wind.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but … If you like your lyrics dark, your melodies moodier, your Christmases not quite so merry and your sound (particularly the fiddle) a little bit creepy, what do you do?
If you’re Doug and Telisha Williams, you’ve already quit your day jobs. Then you eventually jump in a dilapidated RV that’s the inspiration of a song called “Broken,” get out of the town where you played in an anonymous rock ‘n’ roll cover band in high school, make frequent stops to Nashville, then emerge as Wild Ponies after pleasantly discovering that the group name isn’t taken.
And you thought becoming a roots-rock star was easy. With Things That Used to Shine, their Wild Ponies debut album released in September, the Williamses finally are making a living as full-time musicians. The success is modest, but these rambunctious dark horses are enjoying every minute of it, and pulled off Interstate 95 on the way to Newark in mid-November to discuss their experience over speakerphone.
“It’s the best thing in the world. I’m having a ball,” Doug Williams said, happy to forget about those lean years doing “nothing very exciting” while employed by a furniture company in the small Virginia town of Martinsville, where he grew up and met Telisha. “I mean, it’s hard. We’re getting to the point now where some months we can actually pay more bills than others. And that’s a good thing. … No amount of money could convince me to go back to a straight job now.”
Officially, Wild Ponies are still a duo, but they bring drummer Jake Winebrenner along for most tour dates and occasionally add a fourth member during what Telisha calls this “transitional” phase. Committing to move away from the folk scene, they’ve developed a sometimes raw, sometimes raucous, often rockin’ sound that will hopefully attract a wider audience. And with “The Truth Is” and “Trigger” covering disturbing themes such as sexual abuse and murder, Things That Used to Shine doesn’t have a lighthearted ditty among the 12-song bunch.
Their friendly and cheerful nature belies the serious tone of their material, though an acerbic wit occasionally creeps into the rowdy “Broken” (The only thing I can’t break is even) or the sweet “Valentine’s Day” (I don’t need flowers, they don’t last anyway).
Wild Ponies jumped the pond in October as an opening act for Rod Picott, finding appreciative audiences and venues throughout Holland, Germany and the United Kingdom where, according to Telisha, the music isn’t “a background kind of thing.” They’re already planning a European tour for 2014, but back in America are willing to “fill a date and rock a bar if we need to.”
The motivation to spread the word by touring nonstop appears to be working because they sold out the initial pressing of 3,000 copies on the road — before the album was released on the Ditch Dog Records label they co-own with Kristen Bakevich. The record is climbing the Americana radio charts, reaching No. 18 this week on a list that includes heavy hitters such as Avett Brothers, Band of Heathens and Head and the Heart.
“Well, we were sort of prepared for the brand shift to take a year or even longer if needed. But it actually has taken off a little quicker than we thought. … Wild Ponies is more representative of what we do sonically than Doug and Telisha was,” said Telisha Williams, who was so attracted to the beauty of an upright bass that she abandoned all her other instruments and learned to play it after buying one at the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax, Virginia, a few years ago.
“When you hear two names like Doug and Telisha, I think what you picture in your head is two people with acoustic guitars singing folk songs and love ballads,” Telisha added. “It’s a very rainbow feeling thing, which is fine and great, but it’s totally not what we do.”
That’s evident from the opening lines of “Make You Mine,” which Telisha delivers with a vigorous snarl that brings to mind another Williams who’s not related.
Comparisons to Lucinda are inevitable, along with rough-and-tumble daring duos such as Shovels & Rope and honeyhoney, and Americana’s current power couple, recent newlyweds Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. All of them know how to capably cover shaky ground, but exploring deep, dark places seems to come naturally for Wild Ponies.
Before they became the Williamses in 1998, Doug and Telisha grew up in the same town but under extremely different circumstances.
Doug was born in North Carolina, moved just across the border with his native Virginian parents when he was 12 and, with one little sister, said, “I was really lucky with a great family,” that included “fantastic grandparents on both sides.” His grandfather taught him to play the banjo and his mother and aunt taught him how to play the guitar. He went away to study history and philosophy before coming back to Martinsville in his 20s to get married.
Three years younger, Telisha also learned music as a youngster, with her Uncle Sammy from the White Family Quartet teaching her how to sing by sitting at the piano and “making me match pitches.” The tight harmonies from the church gospel group inspired Telisha, who sang at her uncle’s funeral shortly after the Williamses got married.
She found solace in song, but otherwise experienced a far more complex upbringing when her house was forever divided after her parents divorced and her older sister and father moved out.
Belonging to a family she said was drowning in “a deep well of secrets,” Telisha kept quiet while becoming a silent victim of sexual abuse by her stepfather.
“The actual trauma of the abuse, it’s almost less damaging than the secrecy and the way that it’s handled afterwards,” Telisha said. “I feel like we’ve got to start making this a more comfortable topic to talk about and get away from it being so taboo and shameful because that is really what creates the environment (in which) that abuse can happen.”
The fact that her mother decided to “stay with the perpetrator” (Telisha said they eventually divorced but “she was seeing him two years ago”), only added to the suffering.
“I’m completely estranged from her now,” Telisha said. “We have zero contact with each other. And it’s because of that. It’s because of her choices.”
Previously hesitant about publicly addressing her past until incidents involving Penn State and the Catholic Church made the news, she found therapy and songwriting as ways to express herself. After earlier earning a master’s degree in psychology from Old Dominion, Telisha also could draw from her previous job with Piedmont Community Services as a mental health therapist working with child victims of abuse.
“Obviously, I had that job because I was drawn to that work and clearly still trying to work out some things for myself in the process of receiving all that training and doing that work,” Telisha said. “But I also have a lot of levels of knowledge related to victims of abuse. I understand as a victim myself, I understand as a professional who has worked for victims. I understand at several different levels kind of what victims’ needs are and also the advocacy side of it, too, of what victims need communicated to the public, some of the conceptions that people have.
“People think that victims don’t want to talk about it ’cause it makes them uncomfortable, but what makes them feel uncomfortable is that people don’t want to talk about it.”
Now that it’s out in the open, the Williamses appreciate the well-meaning fans who send thank-you emails and lend their support at the merch table, but Telisha said, “I don’t want that to ever, the performance of those songs, to be about me. I really want them to be about the conversation that needs to happen. And I kind of feel that that’s happening.”
Initially sharing her story through a press release was difficult, she said, yet “I feel so strongly about the work and talking about it being so important that I just sort of take a deep breath and steady myself and decide that that’s … it’s what has to be done. It’s the right thing.”
Everything I own is just a little bit broken
Though they continued to play music since their days at Martinsville High and had “great bosses” who allowed them to take time off to play weekend gigs, the Williamses decided to pick up the emotional pieces and live in an RV with a hot radiator and a leaking transmission for a year before establishing themselves in East Nashville in 2011.
“There was this dream that you could just, like, shift easily and slowly from one career to the other, but it really doesn’t work like that,” Telisha said. “So we made the jump in 2005” to pursue music full-time.
During their trips to Nashville, they received moral support and business advice from Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart and eventually became part of a warm community of musicians. The Williamses cohost the weekly East Nashville Song Salon songwriting group and “Whiskey Wednesdays,” a radio show on EastNashville.com.
As Doug and Telisha Williams, they made two indie albums before influential Thirty Tigers president David Macias (“he’s always been super-friendly and helpful to us,” Doug said) put them in touch with established producer Ray Kennedy.
The Williamses found Music City Nirvana the first time they visited Kennedy’s Room & Board Studio in the Berry Hill district, where they walked past his five Grammys and went upstairs to meet him in the control booth.
Doug Williams recalled Kennedy, a formidable figure who’s worked with many key players on the all-Americana team, saying, “Look what I found today. These are the original mixes of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (which he co-produced with Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle). These aren’t the ones Lucinda used. We used different mixes. But these are the original mixes that I really liked.”
It turned out to be “a pretty monstrous day for us,” Doug said, and Kennedy soon recruited standout musicians such as fantastic fiddler Casey Driessen and Russ Pahl (peddle steel, baritone and electric guitars, banjo) to play on the record.
With Kennedy, the foursome celebrated New Year’s Day 2013 by starting to track every song for Things That Used to Shine, completing it in three days. Harmony vocals and other instruments were added later.
As the working relationship developed into a friendship (Telisha taught Ray and Siobhan Kennedy’s 10-year-old daughter how to sew), the producer played John Prine some of the Wild Ponies songs while they were mixing the record.
Liking what he heard (maybe their “Valentines Day” duet brought him back to his precious harmonizing with Iris DeMent on In Spite of Ourselves), Prine wanted to see them play live, so the Williamses put on a show that he attended last April at Mad Donna’s in East Nashville.
“We talked a little bit before and for maybe a half-hour or so after the show,” Doug wrote in a subsequent email of Prine, who recently was diagnosed with operable lung cancer. “He was very encouraging, very gracious. He said he hoped to be seeing a lot more of us soon.”
Receiving such valuable validation, Wild Ponies have no desire to give up their night jobs or any plans to start a family, feeling content with Annabelle, a lab/hound mix they adopted at the Martinsville SPCA.
They’re pleased with the reaction to their music, but don’t see a significant change in their lives since, Doug said, “we’re touring our asses off, so we don’t have time to notice.”
“It’s like the difference between being a parent and being an aunt or an uncle and watching your child grow,” Telisha said, recalling an analogy her husband often makes. “When you’re a parent, you see the kid every day, and so you don’t see the kid change that much because you’re right in the middle of it. But when you’re an aunt or an uncle and you check in every couple of months, there’s a big shift. And so I do think there is a shift.”
Supported by a team that includes booking agent John Laird of the Americana Agency, they feel comfortable enough with each other to share more than husband-and-wife responsibilities and songwriting duties. The Williamses take turns managing their careers, and joked about it during this give-and-take:
Doug: “We have a Magic 8 Ball and a pack of Tarot cards …”
Telisha: “To help with our decision-making process.”
Doug: “It works out as well as most managers, I think.” (both laugh)
Such a funny exchange is just an example of how they can lighten the mood. Just don’t ask them to lighten up their music.
The Williamses will spend most of the upcoming holiday weeks on the road primarily in the Northeast performing Decembersongs with Rod Picott and Amy Speace, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter who helped start this tradition in 2010. Some of the songs they will perform are on an album available at bandcamp.com, and they promise to put on a fun show, but don’t expect a gleeful group of carolers taking a sentimental trip down memory lane.
Doug laughed about writing “these really dark, heavy Christmas songs” and covering Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper,” a bleak and reflective song of the season that Roy Orbison recorded in 1963.
“I think if you’re gonna invest in a song, it should have some weight to it,” Doug said.
Their methods might vary — “I don’t think there’s any song that we’ve ever recorded that doesn’t have at least a little bit of a stamp with us both on it,” he said — but Doug and Telisha aren’t afraid to collaborate or experiment.
Their cowriting partners have included Speace (“Trouble Looks Good on You”), Sally Barris and Amelia White, yet another busy East Nashville artist with an upcoming album that includes two songs written with the Williamses.
While participating at Lamb’s Retreat for Songwriters in northern Michigan, Doug and Telisha each turned in separate assignments — the rollicking round-and-round trip of “Massey’s Run” and a granddaughter’s wistful understanding of “Iris” — that turned up on their album. (From left, Doug and Telisha Williams, Rod Picott and Amy Speace, with Annabelle relaxing.)
“We just taught there last weekend again and had two more assignments that turned out to be really interesting, creepy songs,” Telisha said. “So we’re interested to see where that goes.”
Asked if he ever foresees them switching gears to more upbeat fare, Doug pointed out that he doesn’t even like lighthearted movies, then added, “I’m kind of interested in possibly trying to write some songs that provide a little bit more open affirmation maybe, but still heavy.”
These Wild Ponies certainly seem strong enough to carry that weight around.
Wild Ponies publicity photo by Justin Hall.
Decembersongs group photo by Stacie Huckaba.