Wild Ponies to play Winston-Salem
*Editor’s note: Telisha Williams’s name was spelled wrong in the print version of this article. It has been corrected online.
My conversation with Wild Ponies started out on the subject of biscuits, oddly enough. Bojangles’ biscuits, to be precise. We landed on that topic because Doug Williams, one half of the duo that fronts the band (the other half being his wife, Telisha), asked me what my go-to biscuit was. He was asking because I told them I was calling from a Bojangles’ parking lot in Valdese, and that I’d just had breakfast. The roots-country-old-time band was in Maine, doing a run of dates through New England and down the East Coast that will eventually bring them back to something like home turf when they play at the Muddy Creek Music Hall in Winston-Salem on Oct. 12.
The subject of home and place was part of our conversation, too. When I’d told Telisha that I was contacting them in hopes of getting something in the paper before the Muddy Creek show, she said that Winston-Salem felt pretty close to home for them, which makes sense since the two grew up around Martinsville, Virginia, just over 50 miles from here.
The themes of heritage, strength, and family hover over Wild Ponies’ most recent record, Galax, from 2017. Galax, of course, is a small city in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia. Wild Ponies recorded the album there in a barn on property owned by Doug’s family. It’s a spot that has a lot of meaning and history for the Williamses. It’s where they held their wedding reception and where they had their first dance as a married couple.
Wild Ponies operate out of Nashville these days but heading back to Galax to record made a kind of poetic sense. That was where Doug, who plays guitar in the band, had his musical roots, where he’d picked as a kid, learning songs from his grandfather and from a circle of musicians in the area.
“My grandparents and my parents are from Galax,” Doug said. Before deciding to record there, he and Telisha took a visit back to the area to have a break from touring, to decompress, and to think about future projects. “It works real well to kind of disappear up there.”
Bringing a few of their Music City collaborators up to the mountains to jam and record alongside some of the regional players that Doug had known for years presented a kind of organic blending-of-the-worlds aspect to the project.
And the recording of Galax was thoroughly organic, with the musicians in a tight circle without any playback equipment. You can literally hear the sound of the barn, the country, the air and specifically the insects on some of the tracks, with cricket chirping coming through on the more stripped-down songs, like “Hearts and Bones” and “Jackknife.”
That mix of spartan sturdiness and confident sensitivity characterizes the sound of Wild Ponies. Telisha and Doug played together in a rock cover band in high school in Martinsville, and Doug had gotten into jazz during college — he said he still worships John Coltrane. But it’s almost as if the music of the Virginia mountains is baked into their DNA. It was only after working on their original material and recording it for a while that they realized they had essentially been writing old-time songs, in form, theme and harmonic structure, Telisha said. One can imagine that a song like “Pretty Bird,” with its message of quiet endurance and motherly love, wouldn’t sound out of place if it were sung by the Carter Family.
Details from the natural world and the outdoors populate the songs of Wild Ponies — old trees, the smell of the rain, birds, dogs, country roads, pastures, they all give the music its flavor.
“I consider that part of my life, to be an observer,” said Telisha, who sings and plays upright bass in the group, when I asked her about the kinds of things that she zeroes in on for her songs.
When I asked the two about the way many of their songs focus in on objects, as opposed to, say, dialogue or blatant expressions of feeling, Doug said, “We do everything we can to put you as close to us as we can.”
That proximity can pertain to the realness of the details or perhaps to the nearness of the sound of the recordings themselves, and those insects that make their way into some of the songs on Galax.
When the Williamses set out to make the record, they knew they wanted to leave the arrangements a little loose and open, to allow the individual players to let the songs breathe and surge where they needed to. You can hear spots where much of the music recedes, and Telisha’s voice is essentially the only thing happening. There’s an intensity to the simplicity.
“We did not pre-direct any of that,” Telisha said. “We were all standing in a tight little circle together playing the songs.”
If everyone got the inclination to quiet down and let the singing stand out, that’s what happened, or if someone wanted to cut loose with an instrumental solo, they did.
Honesty and realness are tough qualities to cultivate, but having those ideals in the back of your mind as you write and record music can help guide things. Wild Ponies have several new projects percolating for the coming year, but they’re not entirely sure which one will “bubble up first,” as Telisha puts it.
“We’re kind of letting the songs lead the way.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Wild Ponies at Muddy Creek Music Hall, 5455 Bethania Station, Winston-Salem, on Sat., Oct. 12, at 8 p.m. muddycreekcafeandmusichall.com