Wild Ponies (aka Doug & Telisha)

Wild Ponies (aka Doug & Telisha)

Written during a busy year on theroad, Things That Used To Shine is an album about leaving somethings behind…and meeting others head-on. It’s also the studio debut of Wild Ponies, a Nashville-based outfit fronted by Virginia natives Doug and Telisha Williams, who have previously toured and recorded as acoustic folk duo Doug & Telisha. Released by the band’s newly formed independent label, DitchDog Records, Things That Used To Shine finds Telisha opening up about the skeletons that have haunted her closet for years. Grammy-winning producer Ray Kennedy (Steve Earle, LucindaWilliams) recorded the album’s 12 songs in three days, running the band’s harmonies through the same pre-amps once used by the Beatles. Casey Driessen, Russ Pahl, Jake Winebrenner and other heavy-hitting roots musicians also make appearances, beefing up the band’s songs with everything from organ to pedal steel.

Before forming Wild Ponies, you toured the folk circuit for years under a different name.

Doug: That’s right. We released two records as Doug & Telisha Williams, and then we briefly talked about changing our name to “Telisha,” because it would help make a cool fan-club name: the Telisha Militia. But since we’re traveling full-time as a band now, it just felt right to make the transition to Wild Ponies.

What else separates Wild Ponies from your previous work?

Doug: I think Wild Ponies is an evolution. The first album Telisha and I ever made together was a totally acoustic record called Rope Around My Heart, and in no way is this new one an acoustic record. This is more aggressive. This time, it feels like we finally made a record that captures the sound we’ve been hearing in our heads for the past 10 years.

The album deals with some heavy subjects, including Telisha’s abusive stepfather.

Telisha: Well, part of what prompted that was the bad news that came out about Penn State, as well as the abuse in the Catholic Church. Everything was kept secret for so long, and I think that’s part of the problem. People feel like they don’t have permission to talk about those things, they’re too taboo. One out of every four females has been abused, so if we can all be a little bit more open and talk about it, maybe we can create some change. I don’t think we wrote this record to be a trauma recovery record…but that just happened to be what we were dealing with.

Was it difficult to write songs about such a personal subject?

Telisha: I had help. We do a “song salon” in East Nashville whenever we’re at home, where you play a song for a group of writers and they give you feedback. I’d taken one of our new songs, “The Truth Is,” to the salon a couple times and people kept saying, “This song is about truth, but you’re still holding some things back.” They knew I was playing it safe. So a little while later, Doug and I were driving back from a tour in Minnesota, and I was trying to write the last line of the song. I had this part that went, “I’m more broken than brave; there’s things I still think about every day,” and Doug added, “like his footsteps in the hallway.” He nailed it. It was like a tsunami took over my body. I had to pull over.

Doug: In one way or another, the majority of the album deals with loss, rejection, abuse or starting over.It’s about trying to find places where people don’t necessarily have a voice, or don’t know how to speak out on their own, and we try to give them some sort of a voice.

One of your biggest influences, Hazel Dickens, had the same mission.

Telisha: She’s kind of our matron saint. She wasn’t afraid to speak up for other people, or for herself.

Doug: She was super influential when it came to women’s rights, workers’ rights, union rights and so on. She was doing this bluegrass mountain music, but it was crazy progressive.

You tracked the album in three days, with Jake Winebrenner on drums and Russ Pahl on pedal steel. You guys must have been moving fast.

Telisha: We wanted to play together at the same time to capture the live sound. On most of these songs, I’m recording my vocals and my bass at the same time. Live shows are what we love the most about this business, so why not try to capture that?

Doug: And there’s an honesty you get from a live recording that you can’t get from overdubs.
Telisha: Maybe I could sing better if I wasn’t playing bass at the same time, but it wouldn’t be as authentic. This is what we do. This is how we sound.

Before moving to Nashville, you were based in Martinsville, VA. What made you decide to leave?

Telisha: In the year before we left Martinsville we spent about 180 days on the road (according to our IRS documents), so we were out quite a bit. It’s hard to come in and out of a small town. People have their routines, and you become less and less available to be a part of that, so slowly you lose touch. And we didn’t know until we left, but I had to leave to really dig in and deal with my trauma. I never knew when I might pull up to a stoplight right beside my abuser, or my mother. I needed space—emotionally and geographically—before I was able to make some choices and deal with the trauma. I’m not sure that Martinsville would’ve let me do that. Doug: So we spent about a year just living on the road in the RV and with friends, going from show to show.

And after the tour was done, you decided to move here?

Telisha: Well, the van broke down while were visiting.

Doug: We stayed in a friend’s garage for about a month, then we found our own place in East Nashville. We wrote a song inspired by the RV, too. “Broken.” Most expensive song we’ve ever written. Plus we were really craving an artistic community, wanting to live among people that were like us. People that stay up until 2, and sleep ‘til 10 and go out with friends on Tuesday nights. We wanted to be in the same time zone as our neighbors.

In Nashville, did you find the community you’d been looking for?

Telisha: Definitely. We just jumped in. We started co-hosting a weekly Song Salon. We started doing a radio show on EastNashvilleRadio.com. I’ll always consider myself a Virginian, but my family relationship was so fucked up when I was growing up. I was abused for four years by my mom’s husband, and she supported him throughout the investigations before actually bringing him back into the home. As a result, I feel like I’m very motivated to create my own family and a community, wherever I go.

Doug: When we were recording the new album, we kept talking about getting a big gospel choir to join us for one track. We hadn’t figured out who, or when, or how we were gonna do it, but Ray called us one morning and woke us up by saying, “Hey, it’s the day to do the gospel choir. Meet me at 11. With a choir.” And we were like, “Wait, what? Today?” But within an hour, we’d called up enough friends to form a great choir, with some of the best singers in the world. They came to the studio and sang on that song, and it was beautiful. To me, that’s community.

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