By Kevin Broughton
Sharp storytelling. Gripping and gorgeous five-part harmonies. Arrangements that can swing between fun, engaging, and lively one moment and stirring, booming, and chill-inducing the next. These are the essential elements that make up the sound of The Wilder Blue, the Texas five-piece who put their own spin on rock-influenced country with their eponymous sophomore album.
Recorded at Echo Lab Studios in Denton, Texas, the band self-produced The Wilder Blue with experienced engineer Matt Pence (Paul Cauthen, Shakey Graves). A true collaborative effort, The Wilder Blue is a genuine democracy where ideas, constructive criticism, and value is demanded by all parties.
Built around the keen storytelling voice of primary frontman Zane Williams, Paul Eason’s salient lead guitar, the imaginative tandem of drummer Lyndon Hughes and bassist Sean Rodriguez, and the striking, compelling mind of multi-instrumentalist Andy Rogers, The Wilder Blue are only beginning to scratch the surface of their potential.
In addition to implementing a lone studio for a cohesive sound, the months between studio sessions was an added luxury. This allowed songs and ideas to marinate and work themselves out over the course of band practices, soundchecks, and shows.
The band’s 2020 debut (Hill Country – more on that in a bit) was an under-the-radar gem that cracked this correspondent’s top five albums of the year. The Wilder Blue have raised their own bar in 2022, improving on every aspect of their musicianship, writing and vocals. The self-titled sophomore offering will remind you of the best of The Eagles, Alabama, and so much more. It’s a strong contender for album of the year through just one quarter.
We caught up not only with Williams, but 80 percent of the total band as bassist Sean Rodriguez, drummer Lyndon Hughes and multi-instrumentalist Andy Rogers joined the conversational jam.
Clear up some confusion for me. In 2020 I got an advance copy of y’all’s first album. The name of the band at that moment was Hill Country, but by the official release date that had become the name of the record, and the band became The Wilder Blue, seemingly from lyrics in the song “Dixie Darlin’.” What was the deal with that little double-clutch?
(Group laughter) Zane: Well, what had happened was…When we named the band Hill Country, obviously we were just going for something general, like “Alabama” or “Eagles” or whatever. And I did some searching around to see if there was another band called just “Hill Country.” And there wasn’t. But what I missed was that there was a restaurant somewhere out in the world, and it has the trademark on the term “Hill Country” not just in food services, but in recorded music and live music as well.
And I didn’t realize that until after we released our album, but once we realized, I contacted them. We tried to work out an arrangement, but they had plans for that name in the future, they had the trademark, and that’s what trademarks are for. So we did the old switcheroo and went with our second choice, which I think has worked out well…and it’s kind of a better name, anyway.
Except that I had to go into my iTunes and physically change it…
Ha! At least you did. I was listening to the radio the other day and the DJ said, “That was the latest from Hill Country!”
You had six or seven albums of your own and a very productive career as a songwriter before putting this band together. What made you want to stretch your creative legs and start a harmony-based group, and how long did it take you to assemble the lineup?
This is really the band that I’ve always wanted to have, but it never fell into my lap. A few years ago, I read Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born To Run, which is amazing. And I read some other books that were really good, and they inspired me not just to make another record or write another song, but to make really iconic music that will stand the test of time; really shoot for the moon, musically, and not ever settle.
And that’s what it took for me to think to myself, “Well, just because I’ve never had this certain time of band in the past, why does that mean that I can’t do it now?” I know a lot more people now than I did when I was younger, and that inspired me to give some people a call and see what I can put together. And it was a year-long process, I guess, finding the right people and making that transition. It hasn’t been easy, but every time we get on stage together I’m happy I took the leap.
The band paid for its studio time via crowdfunding. How did that impact the strategy and structure of recording this album?
Zane: Lyndon, you wanna take that one, brother?
Lyndon: Sure. This is really kind of the ultimate for us. We were in a lot of debt after our first album and had made a lot of it back with streaming and record sales, but it can take quite a bit. At our website, thewilderblue.com, we have a thing called The Hideout, where you can sign up for five or ten bucks a month or so. And we used every single dollar of that to go to our record budget, and basically have no debt because of it.
And not only that, we’re not beholden to a label that can tell us what we can record, how long we can record; we’re the producers and the executive producers are our fans. We’ve actually been able to release one song every single month for the last year or so. And we did that every month until we had our second album done.
It’s pretty incredible and the fans get it right away, even before the official release date. It’s freed us up quite a bit.
Quick follow-up. If you’re releasing one cut a month, I assume you’re not going into the studio once a month. Is there some continuity?
Lyndon: That’s a really good question. Basically we’ll go in the studio every few months, and stay there for three or four days and record two or three songs. But sometimes…like on “Feeling The Miles,” it took us three and a half days to do one song. (Chuckles.) We did the whole thing, start to finish, on a tape machine, so it can take a lot of time. So yeah, we didn’t go in with 12 songs, but we could go in with two or three at a time. We went four or five times total, I guess, to the same studio. And we need to get back and do more.
I’d like to touch on some specific songs and the influences that went into their writing. “Feelin’ The Miles” stands out distinctively, I think, from most of the rest of the album. There’s an intense-yet-mellow vibe that evokes the late 1970s…maybe a hint of James Taylor or Jerry Rafferty. How did that song come into being, and what’s the division of labor when it comes to songwriting?
Zane: I guess I’ll take that one. I wrote that song and I write most of them right now, though that was never my intention. We’re always working on co-writing more as a band, as well as guys bringing in outside songs. Those are things like The Eagles did and The Beatles did, and a lot of other bands that we respect. So we’ve got some exploring to do. But since we’re all in different towns, a lot of it ends up, “I wrote this song and brought it to the band.”
With “Feelin’ The Miles,” the original arrangement and feel was very folky and singer/songwriter-y, but we already had a couple songs like that; “Birds of Youth” and “Okie Soldier” are kind of in that vein. So for that reason, the song was just “sitting around,” and I wasn’t sure we could do it or not. And then one day I thought about taking it in a different groove, with a tasty bass line that Sean could get down on; a groovy drum part…then I would definitely want to do the song. I didn’t want to give up on it.
So I came up with that new direction – at least in the broad strokes – and then rewrote the melody of the song and some of the lyrics. So it’s really “Feelin’ The Miles 2.0.” And that’s another really cool thing about our band’s subscriptions, because it’s not public and we can just stick songs up there. The original version is there, too, so our fans and subscribers can see how that song evolved over time.
“Wave Dancer” manages to evoke a Baptist hymn and channel the Eagles’ “Seven Bridges Road” at the same time, with its tight harmonies. It’s got such a big, determined sound to it. I’m guessing it wasn’t a first-taker, with all those vocal layers?
(Laughs) Zane: How many times do you guys think we sang that chorus in the studio?
Sean: Well, we tried it like a million different ways: “Should we record this in a stairwell?” Finally we just did it standing around a bunch of microphones. (Laughs)
Zane: We definitely experimented around on that one.
Zane, you’ve said that life is about the ups and downs, and you don’t want just to write about the ups. This is a generally uplifting album, but it has its moments. “Build Your Wings” is one of Paul’s songs – I’m sorry he’s not here to comment on it – has a line that literally made me stop what I was doing: “It’s hard staying sober with your mattress on the floor.” Dang, dude. Strong stuff.
Sean: Poor Paul was going through a rough time while he was writing that song, and it came across in the lyrics, obviously.
Zane: Yeah, Paul’s had a rough couple of years…been through a divorce. He was speaking to his uncle about this stuff, and his uncle told him that line: “Man, sometimes you build your wings on the way down.” Paul wrote that song and his girlfriend Bree Bagwell contributed some stuff as well. It’s a personal one for Paul.
“The Ghost of Lincoln” closes out the album but it was the first release, complete with a fancy animated video. I think it’s the perfect bookend to “Picket Fences,” and turns into a jam you might here from Bella Fleck. Have y’all had a chance to road test these cuts yet?
Zane: Oh, yeah. Almost all of them by now.
Sean: And it’s also a really good bookend to the show, because Andy really gets cooking at the end.
Zane: He really turns it on on the banjo, so I bet he’s good with the Bella Fleck comparison.
Andy: Ha! Yeah, I was trying to keep myself calm when you said that!
That you on the dobro, too?
Andy: Yeah, I play dobro, banjo, some acoustic guitar…a little mandolin on this record. But yeah, I play a little bit of everything.
And on tour dates: I’ve checked your site, and boys, you’ve got the states of Texas and Montana covered up. Would some gigs East of the Mississippi be too much to ask?
(Group laughter.) Zane: Yeah, we definitely have big plans – nationwide and beyond – for the band. I know we’ll be all over the West coast this summer…we’re playing the Alaska State Fair! East is definitely on the menu. We did some shows with The Steel Woods East of the Mississippi last year, and we’re comparing schedules and stuff now.
But it’s our job to come to you.
The Wilder Blue is available wherever you consume music, but here’s a great place to grab the album.