“I was just like…oh my god. I played a couple of chords and gave it right back. It was incredible.”
Ricky Young had just been handed Trigger, the Martin acoustic guitar Willie Nelson has called his baby since he bought it in 1969. Beaten and battered and with a California-shaped hole worn through the portion of the body normally protected by a pick guard, it looks like an artifact salvaged from a long-sunken ship. It’s one of the most iconic instruments in music history. “It was surreal,” adds Young after another moment of reflection.
Young’s band, the Wild Feathers, released their self-titled debut album on Warner Bros. on Aug. 13. Later that day they kicked off a nine-show tour through the West opening for Nelson and his Family band, some members of which, just like Trigger, have been with the country legend for over 40 years. It was an opportunity not often afforded to bands with only a single album to their name, and the Wild Feathers knew to cherish their time on the road with Nelson and his inner circle. “Their whole attitude and outlook and the way they treat other people, other young bands like ourselves, it was a great learning experience,” says Young. “Hopefully if we’re ever in a higher position and we’re taking other bands with us we can pass that tradition and torch down.”
The Wild Feathers’ reverence for that tradition, the sanctity at which they hold the quintessential American music that inspired them, is part of what has landed them opening gigs for icons like Nelson, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan so early in their career. It’s a tradition that’s practically in their blood. The band’s five members are all from either Texas or Oklahoma and currently call Nashville home. They were raised on everything from The Band and Townes Van Zandt to Tom Petty and The Rolling Stones, the same music they live and breathe to this day. But you don’t need them to tell you this; it’s as clear as the stars over Hill Country as soon as the needle drops on The Wild Feathers, an album bursting with rich vocal harmonies, heart-warming organs, growling electric guitars, twangy acoustic riffs and countless other hallmarks of American rock and roll, which, above all else, is what the Wild Feathers pride themselves on playing.
Their ascension since signing to Warner Bros. earlier this year has been as rapid as their influences are instantly recognizable, but it took years for the members’ individual stars to align as the Wild Feathers. Now mostly in their late 20s, Young and bandmates Joel King, Taylor Burns, Preston Wimberly and Ben Jarvis had been honing their chops for years, both individually and as members of other bands. Young and King were living in Nashville when they decided “on a whim” to head down to Austin to celebrate King’s birthday. Through a mutual friend they met Burns, who was in a band with Wimberly that had been bouncing back and forth between Austin and the Music City. Eventually Burns and Wimberly joined Young and King in Nashville permanently, and with the shared-spotlight mentality of The Band as their model, they formed The Wild Feathers, later adding Jarvis on drums.
The history of rock and roll is rife with tales of clashing egos. It’s why great bands have called it quits prematurely and why supergroups never end up working out as well as it seems they should. The Wild Feathers have three frontmen and songwriters—Young, King and Burns—who had all been used to helming their own projects prior to joining forces. It sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, but it turned out to be exactly the kind of dynamic they’d been searching for.
“I think everyone was at the point in their songwriting and performing careers where they were ready for something a little more challenging and a little different,” Young says. “Obviously you have to be a little more selfless when it comes to sharing singing duties and what not, but I think it just fell into place for us. It didn’t get weird and there wasn’t any tension or anything like that. When you give up a little bit of the spotlight you gain a lot more in other areas.”
Interscope A&R man Jeff Sosnow had been a fan of Young and King’s solo work to the point that he became friends with the two songwriters in Nashville. When they formed the Wild Feathers he signed them before they ever played a live show or recorded a song. But Interscope is a label known mostly for its impressive stable of hip hop and electronically inclined artists, not for bringing along rootsy rock and roll bands. (Their artist most similar to The Wild Feathers might be Phillip Phillips, the boyish guitar-playing American Idol winner.) But a major label was a major label, and the newly formed band was ecstatic at the opportunity. They headed into the studio, but halfway through the recording process they were dropped. “It was devastating,” remembers Young. “But we were just kind of like, ‘Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.’”
And they were right. Not long after they were let go from Interscope, Sosnow left as well and took a job at Warner Bros., a label far more familiar with developing traditional rock and roll artists like Gary Clark Jr., JEFF The Brotherhood and The Black Keys. Sosnow’s first order of business was to sign the now-unaffiliated Wild Feathers. “It could not have made more sense as a family and as far as a musical agenda that we all shared,” Young says. “It really was like a freakishly rare happening.”
They also had the good fortune of going into the studio with veteran session player and producer Jay Joyce, who’s turned the knobs for the likes of Emmylou Harris, The Wallflowers and Cage the Elephant. While at Interscope The Wild Feathers recorded track by track, but Joyce recognized that one of the band’s biggest strengths was their chemistry while playing together, and the entire album was recorded live and on tape.
“Jay brought an entirely new work ethic and just a balls-out rock and roll kind of attitude toward our songs,” says Young. “We’d written a lot of our songs just sitting around a coffee table, so as we watched them turn into these rock songs or these country songs…Wherever the songs went, Jay had a huge hand in that. I hope to God we can make our next record with him.”
The result is an album that captures the experience of seeing The Wild Feathers live, and if you haven’t seen them makes you want to look up the next time they’re making their way through the closest major city and save the date. There are rollicking barn burners like leadoff track “Backwoods Company,” tender acoustic ballads like “If You Don’t Love Me” and all-around, feel-good crowd pleasers like lead single “The Ceiling.”
Each track has the warming effect of a first sip—or in some cases, a first shot—of whiskey, conjuring a certain timeless essence of American rock and roll that can’t be built track by track. There are traces of all their idols, from Dylan to Petty to Neil Young and beyond. As the band’s Twitter bio reads, it’s “like if Led Zeppelin and The Band had a baby in Joshua Tree that grew up listening to Ryan Adams covering the Stones 70’s country influenced songs.” It’s a mouthful, but you can’t say it’s not accurate. A modern edge of distortion and subtle guitar effects is woven through their own unique fabric of heartland country, folk, blues and rock as seamlessly as their voices play off one another. “We’re not reinventing the wheel,” says Young. “We’re just trying to make records and write songs that we would want to listen to.”
Playing the kind of music they were raised on, the kind of music on The Wild Feathers, is just what Young and his bandmates do. Doing it for a living, like they’re now able to do, is what they’ve been waiting for their whole lives. But even when they’re not getting paid, The Wild Feathers can’t help themselves. They even started a “Truckstop Cover Series” on YouTube where they film acoustic renditions of songs like Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and The Allman Brothers Band’s “Ramblin Man” in locations like a gazebo or in their tour van as its cruising down Highway 40 in Tennessee. Just like John Lennon said he was so essentially an artist that if you gave him a tuba he could get something creative out of it, if a guitar, a harmonica, a piano, or even just each other’s voices are present, The Wild Feathers are going to be playing American music.
When I talked to Young over the phone he was at home in Nashville, a rarity considering how much The Wild Feathers have been on the road this year. He and his bandmates were getting ready to drive over to Georgia for their tour manager’s wedding, a telling example of the family-like bond they share with the people they surround themselves with and another reason they were able to connect with Willie Nelson and his close-knit Family band on such a deep level.
Where there’s a wedding, there’s music, and I couldn’t help but ask Young if The Wild Feathers would be contributing to the ceremony. Burns was playing in the wedding, he said, but nothing was scheduled for the rest of the band. Then a beat. “There’s a band playing so I’m sure after a couple of drinks we’ll end up playing,” he relented. “I can almost guarantee it.”