The backstage is littered with plates of food, cold and half-eaten, strewn out across the leather furniture along with guitars, beer bottles, ketchup, stage clothes, cowboy boots and hats. Chicks swim in and out in schools, like skirted calamari, taking turns hugging the boys; the smell of a band on the road is in the air — visually, not malodorously. Ricky Young, one of the band’s front men, is drinking a beer and running through Freedy Johnston’s “Bad Reputation” on acoustic guitar:
“I know I’ve got a bad reputation, And it isn’t just talk, talk, talk. If I could only give you everything You know I haven’t got.”
It looks like the typical rock ‘n roll scene, but something is askew. Instead of the usual diabolical atmosphere that makes the fish stop swimming in the tank when a rock band comes rolling into the room, there is sweetness in the air — a somewhat calming tone that gives this band a totally different feel. It’s not ego, sarcasm, stale beer and pantyhose swirling through the air; instead there’s a sense of effervescent harmony, camaraderie and acceptance. As the band starts warming up backstage before going on to a sold-out 3rd and Lindsley crowd, you can hear it come out right away in what they do. Lead guitar player Preston Wimberley sits down at the piano and starts running through “Georgia on My Mind.” The rest of the band gathers around and just starts singing along, leaving one with the impression they’d be perfectly content doing this for the rest of the night were it not for the 500 or so fans awaiting them on the other side of the wall.
Are these guys for real? No Bon Jovi fist pumps or pre-show weight lifting here. They seem so happy and at ease in the moment it’s almost as if they were going nowhere.
But that’s far from accurate.
The Wild Feathers eponymously titled debut album was released Aug. 13 on Warner Bros Records. With a steady stream of roadwork that has included opening slots for folks like Paul Simon, Ryan Bingham and Willie Nelson, as well as what seems to be solid music biz support from heavyweight establishment figures, it could just be that these young ducks are queuing up for what could be a crazy wild feather flight.
The record, produced by sonic alchemist Jay Joyce (The Wallflowers, Emmylou Harris, Cage the Elephant), is solid American fare with soaring harmonies, insightful songs and arrangements, and a rock ‘n roll edge. “When we did the record everything had just started. They didn’t have a drummer yet. Preston and Taylor had just moved here. It was a lot of work,” says Joyce. Perhaps more important than his prowess as a painter of grand sonic landscapes is Joyce’s ability to bring a sense of cohesiveness to a record.
“He’s kinda fucking hard on ya in a good way,” says bassist Joel King.” He didn’t let us get away with anything. If we were half-assing it or were getting too fucked up drinking he’d say, ‘Y’all get the fuck outta here and come in here tomorrow and be ready to go.’ In the long run he’d always make us better. He’d make us fight for our own bullshit. That’s why ya get a producer though, ya know? If ya don’t want that then just get an engineer and record your tunes. In the end, he didn’t feel like a producer, he felt like a part of the band and that’s what ya want.”
By recording one song a day, start to finish, everyone stayed engaged. “We’ve been in studio situations before where everything was built, track by track,” says Young. “It gets so boring, and you’re thinking, ‘Really? This is how records are made?’ Jay’s approach kept everyone involved; kept the energy level up.”
Fred Eltringham was recruited to play drums on the record. “I told him the situation, and that I needed him to hang with the band,” says Joyce. King adds, “I think the key to having a career as a musician is the ability to hang. You can be a great player, but if nobody wants to hang out with you, who cares? Fred’s an incredible drummer, and he’s a blast to hang out with — he kinda showed us how it’s done.”
The band’s live shows are no exception. Fierce guitars and drums offset the often beautiful and wistful harmonies. Drummer Ben Jarvis comes across like an inbred cousin of Muppet drummer Animal and gives the band a credible live dimension that eclipses the schlocky safe element of ‘70s country rock or contemporary Music Row drivel. They take turns on lead vocals and harmonies effortlessly — even within the same song, in a way not unlike The Band — without it sounding disjointed or inconsistent. It all flows in a credible, natural sonic dimension.
There’s a diversity going on here that is unique these days, a chemistry of opposites, personalities and abilities that seem to all come together to make a greater whole.
Joel King is the sweet, talkative mover and shaker. He seems to have a way of gluing it all together; of doing whatever it takes, even going as far as switching from guitar to bass as his main instrument after the band went through bass player after bass player. Ricky Young looks like he rolled out of the Dust Bowl somewhere in a flatbed Ford with his acoustic guitar in tow. His innocent vocals and playing offer a classic Americana dimension to the band. Taylor Burns, on the other hand, is the quieter one and carries a passion that takes the whole thing to a deeper level.
As the band ran through its set at 3rd and Lindsley, the first few songs were great. But then they went into the dirgey Burns tune “How.” It was a turning point in the show and everything after that carried a deeper intensity and feeling; the whole thing went up a notch. His passion and depth seem to take the band to a higher level. The happy-go-lucky Preston Wimberley brings lightness and sets a musical bar as he switches effortlessly between guitar and pedal steel. He’s like the band’s musical smoke machine. Then there’s the newest member, drummer Ben Jarvis. He’s like a bubbling volcano, bringing a Keith Moon-like element of uncertainty to the proceedings — a rock ‘n roll joie de vivre, as it were. One gets the feeling with him that you never quite know what’s going to happen next. He’s the element of surprise.
It’s a band in the highest order.
All hailing from Texas except for Oklahoman Joel, each member grew up with a deep sense of southern musical traditions, while at the same time being raised on artists like Led Zeppelin, Neil Young and Tom Petty. (Which was apparent at 3rd and Lindsley when they ran through a Zeppelin and Petty tune at the end of the night.)
Eventually Ricky and Joel both wound up in Nashville, where they connected in 2010. Occasionally, they’d get together to write music and play. They’d kick around Stones songs, riffs they’d written, ideas here and there. “Ricky and I wanted to do something with a bunch of singers, not just one lead,” Joel says. They had a vision of a band where each member was as indispensable as the next. Of course, finding the proper matches for something like this is no easy task, for with strong voices often come even stronger egos.
Mutual friends suggested Taylor Burns, whom they said had strong electric-guitar skills. Next they found Preston, who rounded out the loose harmonies, and added guitar virtuosity. The four gathered to play music in Austin, and it clicked nearly instantly. Instead of a battle of wills, it was effortless. The Wild Feathers found their missing pieces and were born; leading them to become what Joel calls a “four-headed monster. Not a bad four-headed monster — a good one.”
It’s another hot, muggy summer day in Nashville. Rolling into Riverside Village, neck bones are the special at Bailey & Cato, and as we enter the Village Pub yesterday’s beer and pretzel dogs hang in the air. The mood is quite different from the pre-show hoopla from 3rd and Lindsley. Joel and Ricky are relaxed and talkative and seem to be happy for a few days off before heading out on the road again. PBR tall boys and cigarettes start jaws a-flapping. The boys start reminiscing about what it was like when they first threw everything they owned into the car and moved to Nashville. When Joel first got here from Tulsa he arrived at the place he was staying and the door had been kicked down and the house completely ransacked. Shit was broken and scattered everywhere. With nobody home and no one to contact, he huddled in the back room and tried to sleep through the night. The cops had left an incident report on the kitchen table for whoever might happen to show up. The bloated corpse of an overdose victim had been found just a week prior to King’s renting another place. “We got it real cheap,” he says with a smile.
Ricky lived in Cleveland Park. “The SWAT team used to come and take all the guys across the street away every week,” he says. “They’d handcuff them with plastic ties and march them all into the paddy wagon. It was rough but we never got hassled the whole time we lived there. We were poor, and we worked shitty jobs for a long time. I look back and wonder sometimes how we made it through.” After a few years kicking around Nashville an A&R guy named Jeff Sosnow at Interscope Records started sniffing around, eventually flying them to L.A. to play for some “people.” He set them up businesswise, signed them to a development deal and it looked like things were moving in a positive direction. Recording and performing started happening and the excitement started building. Then, the next thing they knew, they were getting dropped.
“We we’re devastated,” Young says. “We were like, OK . . . is this it?”
But Sosnow believed in them and told them to hang tight, that everything would be all right. A month went by, and then more time until Sosnow wound up landing at Warner Bros. Finally he called and said that he was going to offer them a deal. The roadwork continued, the record got made and the rest is history.
Another round of PBRs are brought to the patio table. The boys pause for a moment as Memphis Slim comes spilling out of the speakers onto the wooden deck of the bar. A Harley Davidson gooses it round the corner in the heat. Cigarettes are exchanged and lit.
“That was an uncertain time,” Ricky says. “We didn’t know what the fuck was gonna happen.”
“But really, when I look back on it, that’s really when we cut our teeth,” says Joel. “When we thought we were gonna have to do it on our own we booked a tour, brought Preston on board and figured out who we were as a band. We wouldn’t be the band we are today without all the shit that’s happened to us. We still did what we had to do.”
In the Wild Feathers song “Hard Times” the lead vocalist croons:
“Every wind that blows my way
Picks me up easy
I don’t carry the weight.”
There’s an acceptance as a result of all the shit these guys have gone through that’s refreshing. Doing without and continuing to give us everything they haven’t got has seemed to make them better and molded them into who they all are as individual parts of a bigger whole.
“Everything I haven’t got,” as the Freedy song so eloquently puts it, has turned out in the long run to be the greatest gift. Knowing this seems to have made them better, more unique and the band they are today — and in the end has made them all the better for us to listen to.