When hillbilly band The Wilders first named themselves, they didn’t realize the moniker itself was a bit of old-time snake oil; less of a description, and more a prediction. The foursome also didn’t know they had the power to invoke a fifth paranormal band member now known as the Phantom Drummer. But this is just what comes to light on their new album, Someone’s Got to Pay, an Americana album sequenced around a real life murder trial (or as the lyrics say, “An old murder ballad come to life”) and filled out with original tracks that conjure up small town crazies and wrecked lives. But don’t let the dark subject matter fool you. The Wilders just got wilder and the music is more engaging then ever.
The Wilders—with a musical soul that lies in the Ozarks—have been heading this way for quite a while. There are the dobro and banjo, old-time fiddle tunes, and allegiances to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. There are the old-time songs, heartbreak, and hard-driving honky tonk subject matter. But out of necessity the Americana band’s early days required drastic measures that set them on a raucous and innovative course.
“We got a lot of gigs in the early days doing what we call the Commando Jam,” explains guitarist and lead singer Ike Sheldon. They would go to a festival they wanted to play, among dozens of bands jamming for attention in the lobby. “We would set up and just wait. There’s always a moment when nobody else was playing and when it would happen we would just say, ‘Go!’ We’d play the loudest, most heinous fiddle tune. Everyone would think, ‘What the hell is going on over there?’ It was totally commando, like sneaking around and pulling out the machine gun and mowing people down with music. You can’t just be strumming in the corner. You gotta make noise. That’s how we would get a lot of contacts. That’s one reason we play like that.”
They recently came to the conclusion that to get the wild sound fans see in their live performances on record, they had to do some counterintuitive things, as a live recording does not necessarily translate a live sound. In a live setting, you can see and feel the energy. But on a recording you have to ramp up the energy levels in other ways. For the first time, the band has included a drummer on the album. And bassist Nate Gawron plays electric on this album on several tracks—something never heard before on a Wilders album. In addition, they used overdubbing to create more layers and complexity. “We’re not becoming an electric band, but it’s time we take this opportunity to do things we never could do before,” says fiddle player Betse Ellis.
When they started the group, band members listened to a lot of early country music, old-time music from the ’20s and ’30s, and early honky tonk. “There’s a good maxim in art,” explains Ike. “You shouldn’t really break the rules until you know the rules. Look at Picasso; the dude was absolutely amazing. He could draw anything perfectly, very detailed and realistic. That’s how he could move on to other things. We said ‘If we are gonna play country music, let’s learn what makes it tick.’ And now that we know, we are reaping the benefits; we can throw the rules out the window. If you want straight Hank Williams, we can do it right. But don’t give me any shit for being just like a rock and roller and totally twisting it around.”
While the band already had high energy on stage, when bass player Nate joined the band the intensity and groove was bumped up a notch, egging the rest of the players on to play even faster and harder. One day when The Wilders were in the studio, guitarist Sam Broussard (of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys) dropped by. Upon meeting Ike he said, “Are you the guitar player?” to which Ike replied, “Yes.” “Well,” said Broussard, “you ain’t much of a guitar player, but you’re a hell of a drummer!” He went on to say, “There’s all these bluegrass guys who say ‘We don’t need drums.’ Well they’re wrong. Someone’s playing drums in every band. It doesn’t have to be on a drum. You guys got a good one going on!”
On their new recording, Glenn Fields from the Red Stick Ramblers guest stars on the drum kit, but the majority of the time, the band is without a real live percussionist… in the traditional sense, that is. “When we get the rhythm going, Nate and I say, the Phantom Drummer shows up,” says Ike. “A guy came up to us after one concert and said, ‘I called my son and told him how great you were. He asked what instruments you were playing and I said, ‘Well, fiddle, banjo, a drummer… Actually I’m not sure if they had a drummer.’ Do you guys have a drummer? It sure sounds like you had one.’ We’ve only got a Phantom Drummer when we all hook up and make that imagined fifth member driving the beat. Our solos and singers are all great, but rhythm is job one. It has to move your ass. If your rhythm sucks, your band sucks. When it’s working right and the Phantom Drummer appears, the band plays itself.”
Hardcore Wilders fans got a taste of what was to come on October’s limited-edition, ten-inch red vinyl EP “Sittin’ on a Jury.” Side One features tracks by Flatt and Scruggs, Hank Williams, and a traditional fiddle tune, while Side Two features “Sittin’ on a Jury,” the original, five-movement work by Phil Wade, who plays the dobro, banjo, and mandolin in the band. The new CD takes those five tracks and intersperses them with more original songs written by the band. Phil sat on the jury of an intense murder trial in Kansas City, which inspired the lyrics of this suite.
All of the album material is original, with the exception of one traditional fiddle tune, “Broken Down Gambler,” from The Skillet Lickers. Betse Ellis’s original hair-raising fiddle tunes soulfully capture the essence of the old-time genre but also channel the spirit of her childhood heroes like Pete Townsend and Jimmy Page. Betse has found a way to balance these influences; traditional fiddlers inspire her playing as do those rock legends. On “Collard Greens,” Betse pays homage to living legend Joe Thompson, who keeps alive a tradition of African-American fiddle style and has inspired other young string bands.
Though you might not notice on first listen, The Wilders draw from a wide variety of inspirations and inject them into the DNA of their sound. They’re not afraid to acknowledge the African-American influence in hillbilly music or to draw on the rhythms and attitude of modern day hip hop or punk rock. Betse’s and Phil’s route to old-time music came via a world music band they formed before The Wilders. Phil—who plays dobro, banjo, and mandolin—played the sitar at one point, but comments: “My sitar/hippie days are long, long gone. I've got the beer belly to prove it.”
“We’re doing whatever we want and that’s what’s really exciting for us,” concludes Ike. “This ain’t sitting on the front porch rocking chair music. We play hillbilly music and we play the shit out of it.”