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Cover Story: The Wild Feathers

| February 3, 2014


Texas Transplants

The all look like rockstars in their own right.

Standing outside their posh hotel on their first collective visit to San Francisco a few months back, three members of the Nashville quintet The Wild Feathers displayed such quirky, individual style, it was difficult to picture them as the cohesive, Laurel-Canyon-breezy folk-country team heard on their eponymous Warner Brothers debut. In fact, as they each scrolled through their smartphones, looking for remarkably diverse information, it was difficult to even imagine them sharing a meal together, much less a cramped tour van.

First, there was impish Oklahoman Joel King, looking like an 18th century newsboy – or maybe the Artful Dodger – in poofy sea captain’s cap and foppish black jacket and dress boots. He had a razor-sharp wit, was quick to laugh, and his eyes glimmered with curiosity about Bay Area sights he was intent on seeing. Then, there was feather-bearded Taylor Burns, who might have fit in nicely with the Fleet Foxes lineup, who was already togged out in faux-lumberjack wear like some Haight Street hipster. Through his aviator shades, he studied his cellular screen for the best dim sum restaurants in town. Dim sum is what he wanted, and – whether his friends were coming along or not – dim sum is what he was going to get.

Finally, there stood tall, angular Ricky Young, who – like Burns – hailed from Texas. Just sporting a rumpled T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, he could have passed for a veteran punk rock, possibly of a vintage Replacements variety, and he, too, was perusing his phone, combing through text messages from Wild Feathers management and various label execs. Their San Francisco debut was something of a big deal – alongside other hotly-tipped artists with then-new records on the way, like Dido and Fitz and the Tantrums, they were playing impresario Michele Clark’s hotel – held music conference Sunset Sessions. Periodically, Young stares at his screen with a business-minded intensity and blurts “Hold on, guys. I’ve gotta take this.” The other two Feathers just want to go out and enjoy their exotic surroundings. But Young, it seemed, was hell-bent on keeping the group’s day-to-day train on track.

All three are guitarists and lead vocalists. As was Preston Wimberly, who had already taken off on his own tourist trajectory (drummer Ben Dumas wasn’t around, either). But somehow, when these guys come together onstage and in studio, it rings like a cathedral bell – an old-school harmonic convergence approaching classic Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young territory. They harmonize sweetly, but also trade off taking center stage on the mic, and they write separately – a la Young’s swaying ballads “Tall Boots” and “If You Don’t Love Me” – and as a unit, like the King/Burns/Young hoedown/collaboration “The Ceiling,” which just won the SiriusXM Spectrum station’s listener-poll Best Song Discovery of 2013.

Naturally, the musicians decide to head of in different directions, each one set on a different destination. But before they do – as if on cue, in case there was any doubt about their musical cohesion – other artists from Clark’s three-day lineup approach Young, King and Burns humbly, hat in metaphorical hand, to congratulate them on their rollicking set the previous night. “You guys are the best band here!” enthuses one singer/songwriter. “You harmonies are just incredible!” King doffs his cap, bows respectfully and offers a heartfelt “Thanks. That really means a lot to us.” You can tell that he and his bandmates are equally touched and surprised by such compliments. In previous incarnations – when King, Young, Burns and Wimberly all fronted their own combos – praise didn’t come their way that often. They just aren’t used to being appreciated.

How did such an unlikely grouping first take place? Long story, sighs, checking in later, after he’s returned to Music Row. He apologizes for appearing so nuts-and-bolts serious that particular afternoon. “It was our first time as a band in town, and we had a bunch of phone calls going on,” he sighs. “Some of us have been there alone, but I never have – it was my first time. So we really just hung out. And we were pretty busy the entire time we were there, so really, whenever we got a chance, we’d go eat.” What parts of the city did he enjoy most? He gasps. “I loved everything about San Francisco! I mean, what could you not like? My favorite part was the farmer’s market with all the different kinds of food and whatnot. But it’s all kind of a blur. Once we got down to the market, we split up and went and ate in different places. But it was great.”
That’s the one thing every Wild Feather has in common, Young adds. In every town they visit on tour, “We try to eat in all the local spots, so we always ask locals what they recommend. We try to get a taste of what’s really going on, as opposed to eating at Chili’s or Domino’s.” And yes, he says, it can try your nerves, traveling so closely with four other people with diverse tastes. “But no, we don’t fight. There are definitely discussions that might sound like they’re heated, but we get along great, and we really enjoy each other’s company.” They even agree on recent covers they’ve been doing, like Indio’s “Hard Sun,” The Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” and Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s early standard “Listen to Her Heart.”

For everyone except King, it all started in Texas. Young grew up outside of Houston, Burns and Wimberly outside of Dallas. “So we all had different things going on in Texas at different times,” recalls Young, who wound up hanging out with King in Austin one weekend. “And that’s when we came across Taylor – we met through a mutual friend and started talking about this little project we had. And we ended up writing a couple of songs and just spending a lot of time together, and it just kind of progressed from there. And Preston played guitar with Taylor at that time, so it was kind of a no-brainer to recruit him – a two for one package. But by then, I’d already been in Nashville for a long time, and so had Joel.”

Ah, yes. The fabled move to Nashville. In Texas, Young had anchored a straightforward rock ensemble. Why would he relocate to Tennessee? He had good reason. “Nashville is not at all what people think it is,” he swears. “It’s not all corporate country music – there’s an incredible underground rock and roll scene, and an incredible punk and songwriting scene there that’s just not country. And I’m from the South, so I wanted to keep it kind of in the South, so Nashville made perfect sense. And I had a couple of friends there, working in studios, who offered me some studio time. I had a circle of friends there, so I figured ‘Hey – why not?’ And I’ll be honest with you – that was probably the best decision I ever made.”

A few years ago, at 21, Young packed up his truck, left home with his parents’ blessing, and moved in with a Music Row buddy until he could afford his own apartment. Optimistically, he imagined the town’s publishing-house gates swinging wide to welcome his composing expertise. It didn’t happen. “The reality was, everyone there wrote songs. And everyone was good,” he remembers of his first wake-up call.

“Especially the circle I was running in – everyone was extremely talented. So it kind of put me in my place, as far as wanting to work really hard. So I just took a big step back and just focused on writing for a while, before I ever even performed in Nashville. So it was a good learning experience, for sure.”

That period lasted nearly a year, while the aspiring artist worked “shit jobs like every other songwriter, restaurant jobs, waiting jobs.” But he was a quick study. “And I just learned that I needed to write better songs, plain and simple,” Young says. “The quality coming out of that town at that time – and it’s probably even better now – was so high, I think I really learned how to just sit down and write and not settle for a decent tune. I was trying to write a great song, every single time, and not just banging them out for the sake of writing a song. It was kind of a quality-over-quantity thing.” The most important aspect of this lesson? “If a song took me all week, all day, every day, it’s better to have one good one than five shit ones.”

Loosely speaking, Young’s loping, gently-strummed “Tall Boots” recalls the era of that transformative move, licensed to his own ASCAP publishing company, Young Town Mountain; King’s ASCAP outlet is Effecter, Burns’ is Evan Taylor Burns for BMI. “But I don’t really sit down and try to write a song with specific subject matter on purpose,” he explains. “I mean, if I could write like Johnny Cash, I would, where there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. So (“Tall Boots”) was definitely out of a place of desperation, and the realization that you cannot help but grow older. So it’s just whether you enjoy that or not.”

What about the track’s plaintive line “Young man, 23/ Living on amphetamines”? Young coughs, clears his throat. “Hey – it’s just a song,” he laughs. “But there’s some truth to that. And it’s not necessarily from my perspective all the time, either. I imagine a lot of characters when I’m writing.” Another Gary Louris-assisted cut on “Wild Feathers,” the decidedly Petty-ish “American,” was inspired by a monthlong winter trip to England, when the group was trying to figure out which producer to use (they eventually chose John ‘Jay’ Joyce, of Patty Griffin/Emmylou Harris/ Cage the Elephant renown). “It was a weird, questionable time for us as a band,” Young says. “And it was January in London, so it was dark and semi-depressing, and we were kind of homesick and just wanted to get home. That time was really brutal for us, and we wrote that song pretty quick – not every word is literal, but it definitely comes from a place of sadness and boredom, more than anything else.”

The hillbilly-rustic, handclap-propelled stomp “The Ceiling” – co-written by King, Burns and Young, and now The Wild Feathers signature crowd-pleaser – was actually whelped in appropriately backwoods location – in a cabin in the Smokies in Tennessee. “Joel had that riff, and I’d had that chorus written for a long time,” says Young. “Then Taylor had some other stuff going on, and it all just kind of fit together beautifully, both musically and lyrically. So that song was just an incredible, magical piece of writing, because it fit together like a perfect puzzle.”

There are other thematic numbers, too, like “Hard Wind” and “Hard Times.” The only thing is missing is Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Young laughs, but seriously considers this for a minute. “Yeah!” he agrees. “We might do that in concert sometime, just to make it all fit into a trilogy!” How did the Feathers arrive at their multiple-singer schematic? It’s not like The Eagles, exactly, where each member gets to hog the spotlight. “No one wants to see a bunch of egomaniacs up onstage – no offense to Glenn Frey or Don Henley,” says Young, a big fan of The Band and Fleetwood Mac. “We were just trying to make songs that people enjoy, and that we enjoy playing, and hopefully keep ego out of it. Because we really enjoy this, and we’re really big fans of each other. And it kind of dawned on us that we could share – not the burden – but maybe that spotlight. And I love singing, and I know everyone in the band does. But it’s also kind of fun to just sit back, play your instrument, and listen to your buddy sing.”

Ultimately, Young agrees with the initial Wild Feathers
assessment – these guys just don’t look like your typical band. Or even pals. But there’s a kinetic spark that brought them together, that keeps them together, as well. “And I don’t know if I could put it into words,” he says. “But I will say that everyone in the band pulls their weight, equally, in different areas. So responsibility goes all around to everybody, and it’s actually pretty awesome to be a part of that. I try to do my best, and everyone else is trying to do their best. And so far, it’s working. So I just hope it keeps on going!”

But – given their dissimilar appearances – which Wild Feather attracts the most female fans after shows? Young starts guffawing. “Well, Joel’s married, so he’s been the good guy,” he concludes. “And none of the rest of us have girlfriends. But to be honest with you, after the shows we’re too busy working, because we still carry all our own stuff. So we’re usually selling merch or loading the trailer up!”

– Tom Lanham

Appearing February 16th at Double Door, Chicago.

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