Publicists regularly refer to their new clients as "up and coming." Even more frequently, the phrase "next big thing" gets tossed around. For the Americana band Wild Ponies, both expressions are actually rooted more in fact than fantasy.
The band, comprised mostly of Doug and Telisha Williams, has been touring relentlessly in support of its 2013 album "Things That Used to Shine," a moody and sometimes rockin' but always intimate 12-song display of their families' secrets—both good and bad.
"At the end of a show, the audience knows a lot more about us than we know about them," Telisha said, laughing, with a sweet, southern accent from her home in Nashville, Tenn. "We expose ourselves through our music and we feel strongly about that."
For Telisha, much of her music is about disrupting the discourse—or lack thereof—of difficult topics. Many of the songs on Wild Ponies' current album were written after the abuse scandal that rocked Penn State. She was watching the news and every day, some new sordid detail was being released alongside fresh stories of the same sorts of scandals plaguing the Catholic Church.
"Being an abuse victim myself, I really feel that the secrecy that surrounds the abuse can be much more damaging than the abuse itself," said Telisha, who also worked as a psychologist before pursuing music full-time. "People think the victim doesn't want to talk about it because it's an uncomfortable subject. And, obviously, it's a traumatic experience. But, I feel that how it's handled determines how that victim will heal and be able to thrive after the abuse."
Not all the songs on the album tackle weighty issues, though. The inspiration for "Broken" was the ramshackle RV that the Williams' were touring in during 2012.
"The RV is finished," Doug said emphatically. "It didn't end well but it ended. Our new ride is very rock and roll. We're usually either in our Honda Element or we rent a minivan."
Yet another song is a simple acoustic nod to Telisha's grandmother, who lived in Ridgeway, Va., in "a little two-room shack where she raised 15 children."
The diverse catalog of Wild Ponies almost serves like a dictionary definition of Americana music, a genre of music that's often difficult to describe, even for musicians categorized within it.
"Americana, to me, is a little more rootsy," Doug said, as he prepared his home for a group of songwriting friends and contemporaries who meet regularly as the East Nashville Song Salon. "It's where bluegrass, blues, country and even acoustic folk music sort-of meet and come together.
Most importantly, he says, Americana music always tells a story. It's often trying to make a point about American life.
Page 2 of 2 - Telisha agreed, adding that the song kind-of tells them what the music around it needs to be.
"We can get kind-of rockin', have a good time and get dancin' but the song is still the center of the stage whether Doug is performing it or I'm performing it," Telisha explained. "I think maybe that's why it's so hard to describe because it changes with the song and whatever story we're trying to tell with the music."
The Americana genre may be hard to describe but there's no shortage of well-known and successful musicians rounding out the Americana Music Association's "Top 40" list, including The Avett Brothes, Willie Nelson, Mumford and Sons, Mark Knopfler (formerly of Dire Straits), Rosanne Cash, Jason Isbell and Holly Williams (Hank's grand-daughter).
"We spent several weeks [last year] in the Top 20 [on the Americana Music Association music chart]," Doug said, referring to the Wild Ponies current album, which was ranked at 25 the last week the chart was released in December. The album was also included in AMA's "Top 100 Albums" of 2013. "It's pretty exciting. I mean, if you look at that chart, you see Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, The Avett Brothers. It's crazy. But, that's why it's such an interesting genre. There's stuff from everywhere.
As the record continues its stay on the charts, the Williams', of course, look forward, to all the trappings of success. From financial security—currently, they both say their bills get mostly paid most of the time—to every Nashville-based singer's goal: the Grand Ole Opry. But, their music careers aren't entirely about conventional success.
"We get emails from people after the shows. Sometimes, it's just the title of one of our songs in the subject line but the message will just say 'thank you,'" Telisha said. "Those kinds of experiences, for me, are worth so much more than money. They make the long hours of driving and the days away from home all totally worth it. There was a connection in that space and in that moment through the music. And, I think that's really important. To me, that feels like my mission as a singer/songwriter."