Telisha and Doug Williams of Wild Ponies are now based in Nashville but have a deep connection to Galax in South West Virginia, famous for hosting the Old Fiddlers Bluegrass Festival. The married duo decided to record this album in a shed behind Doug’s grandfather’s farm in Galax, combining talented local musicians with professionals from Music City. One listen to Galax and you are there, talking a walk through those fields, heading towards the sound of some of the sweetest music you’ve ever heard.
The bluegrass classic of Sally Ann is a simple and honest tune made for hoedowns, whisky, getting the ceilidh started. Doug’s grandfather said the song ‘oughta been the goddam national anthem’ such is the ubiquity of its performance. Yet played by these talented musicians it feels invigorated anew. Tower & the Wheel is from a previous Wild Ponies album, now stripped back and recreated with some lovely banjo playing. This song has a real poetic quality to it and the vocals are sweet and understated, reminding me a little of Amanda Shires.
Pretty Bird is spare and sparse, written by Hazel Dickens and once covered by Linda Rondstadt. Sung here with real sorrow and grace, this is a mountain song about freedom and trying to escape where you’re from. It’s haunting, sounding like it could be a funeral lament. To My Grave is about drowning yourself, but is strangely upbeat in comparison to the previous song. To drown is to give yourself up to a higher power who can transform you into something better and that’s something to be joyful about. On Hearts and Bones you can actually hear the sounds of the farm – crickets and birds echoing among the steel guitar and voices. This is a weepie with bones turning to dust, stars fading and falling. The importance of connecting with nature is woven through the textures of these songs.
Jackknife tells the story of a working man, whose Mama warns him to keep his bible and a jackknife in his pocket for protection. This is a story song, sung by a female, but told in a way so you feel like you’re out there on the dusty roads with him, a real wandering star. Goodnight Partner is a rueful musing on time and the importance of music. The songs you sing don’t have a riddle/ they’re straight from the heart/ they can soothe your soul/ the things you remember from before you were old. This is what folk music is, what it can do. Telling the stories of the past to help you cope with the world now.
The final song, Here With Me, is one of two songs on the album sung by Doug and is based on poems written by his grandfather Perry Frye. This is a song about love, about family and about keeping someone’s memory alive. You wish they were with you of course, like the song says but even after someone has gone their spirit is always present – you breath it in the place they once lived, in the songs they sang and the music they played.
Galax is a collective performance that has been recorded with due respect for Appalachian music traditions. Wild Ponies have successfully honoured a shared past but this is no history thesis, these songs feel relevant and fiercely alive. So breathe in the sweet country air, sit down by the fire, pick up a fiddle or a banjo and start singing along.