Genre: Alt-Country, americana, Roots, Songwriter
Wild Ponies are unafraid to cross boundaries, determined to carry on a heritage that’s been decades in the making. That independent streak also holds true for Doug and Telisha Williams, who take their band name from the small-but-mighty animal that roams their native Virginia highlands.
The married duo’s music draws on old-time tradition while embracing the fierce spirit of the songwriters who inspire them – Hazel Dickens, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, to name a few. On tour, Doug swaps out acoustic and electric guitar, while Telisha plays upright bass. Often supported by a drummer, Wild Ponies’ dynamic live shows are assertive and engaging.
“One of the comments we get more often than not is how much sound comes from our power trio,” says Telisha Williams. “I mean, there’s a lot of sound because we’re both singing and sonically everything’s covered. We’ve got drums and big upright bass that covers the bottom end, which is a nice floor for everything.”
While the duo does cover heavy topics in their songwriting – grief, abuse, fatal decisions – they’re just as likely to chat up the crowd and throw in sparkling songs like “Things That Used to Shine.” And they don’t do sappy love songs, although their chemistry is evident on stage and off.
“We are really lucky. We’ve been playing music together for a long time,” says Doug Williams. “A lot of the people who play with us, they’re obviously leaving somebody at home whenever they go out on the road. It makes it a lot harder for them. It’s easier to get homesick that way. We work together, we live together, we play together — everything we do, we do together.”
Doug and Telisha Williams’ musical story begins in Martinsville, Virginia. They held day jobs after college, but booked gigs on the weekends playing in cover bands. Before long, original songs were thrown into the mix, conveying their fondness for the region’s music roots.
“We come from an area that is very old-time focused. You grow up knowing all these great players your whole life. We had played forever but deciding to do it for a living – to not just play for fun, to make this our livelihood… That was different. We felt like we had something to say with our original songs” Telisha says.
“All my family were writers. My grandfather wrote songs, my mom wrote songs, my aunt wrote songs. And I always wrote poetry and short stories from the time I was a really little kid,” says Doug, who published a couple of children’s books when he was a child himself. “I was always a writer. I didn’t really transition into writing songs until Telisha and I started playing together for a while, but I was always writing something.”
During a visit to MerleFest, a premier roots music festival held on a college campus in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, they intuitively realized that songwriting would be their calling.
“We discovered Guy Clark and Gillian Welch at MerleFest,” he continues. “MerleFest is such a great bluegrass/Americana festival and all the people that were around that festival – we love their music and started discovering the writers there by going to see the players like Sam Bush.”
Telisha adds, “You’re right about MerleFest being really inspirational, as far as songwriting, because the people who were in the Merlefest songwriting contest would stay in the same hotel where we stayed and we would always kick up a jam in one of the conference rooms or lobbies.”
But rather than drop everything and move to Nashville, the duo decided to build a foundation first. To do that, they started releasing albums in Virginia and toured heavily to promote them.
“We didn’t want to just move to Nashville and try to break into the music industry. We wanted to have something going on before we got here,” Doug says. “So we did and I think that was a really wise choice. We were already touring 80 to 100, or maybe 120, dates a year by the time we moved to Nashville.”
“We already had a lot of relationships when we moved here with other musicians, and a lot of other friends, from touring so much and from going to Folk Alliance and the Americana Music Association conference for years,” Telisha adds. “Once we settled into the community, I feel like the writing became even more of a focus. It’s always been a focus. It’s always been what Doug and I hold at the top of what is the most important thing to us. And that’s that the writing is meaningful and matters.”
Their most recent album, Things That Used to Shine, was produced by Ray Kennedy, known for his work with Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith, among many others. The music made a strong showing on the national Americana airplay chart – one that relies on airplay from the album as a whole, rather than just a focus track. That set also marked the debut of the band’s evocative name. (Prior to that, they were simply billed as Doug & Telisha Williams.) As they toured, they realized they had cultivated a dedicated fan base among literary, liberal, blue-collar listeners. They also found an open-armed reception for “Love Is Not a Sin,” an impassioned single that emphasizes equality.
They’ve opened their social circle to fans by offering an annual getaway on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with concerts every night. In fact, the whiskey theme is a recurring one, as their radio show Whiskey Wednesdays and tunes like “Learning to Drink Whiskey” will attest.
When they’re off the road, Telisha trains for long-distance races and paints as a form of self-expression. Doug also runs, and has started writing fiction again when he’s not renovating their charming home in East Nashville. Looking ahead, their biggest goal is to sing on the Grand Ole Opry.
“We’re lucky in that we really like each other, a lot,” Doug says. “I know some married couples or spouses who love their significant other and they know that they are really attracted to them and want to spend the rest of their lives in a partnership with them – but they don’t like them enough to spend 12 hours in a car with them on a regular basis. And we do. We enjoy talking about things. We talk about politics, we listen to podcasts, we just enjoy each other’s company.”