By Richard Skanse
(Aug/Sept 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 4)
The Ford Econoline 350 passenger van seats 15, which really should be roomy enough for four svelte women who could comfortably stretch out in a VW Bug — or at least tuck neatly into a compact SUV when packing a couple of guitars, mandolins, and a light lunch. But as the Trishas found out not long after buying the van, all that room gets eaten up pretty quick when a couple guitars becomes four or five, the mandolins invite a banjo, and you throw in a small drum kit (drummer included) and an all-purpose “spare” Trisha, equipped with gear of her own and studio-quality solo chops to help fill out the group’s sound onstage. After awhile, the drummer amicably quit, which freed up a seat but no extra cargo space, as the Trishas still travel with a small drum kit to divide up amongst themselves onstage. Throw in a small bag or two per Trisha for clothes and such (nothing remotely on a VH1 Divas scale, but enough for a three-week tour through the sticky deep South), plus boxes of merch and an armful of laptops for conducting essential business (be it band or “jobby job” related) on the road, and there’s really just enough extra room for two babies and a matching pair of adventurous nannies (perhaps a mom or mother-in-law and a younger sister.)
It’s no wonder then why that Econoline — affectionately christened “U-Turn” by the band — now tows a small trailer, which is something it most certainly never had to do during its carefree salad days as a daycare center van. Because when you roll with the Trishas, you do as Trishas do and rise to the occasion, adversity be damned.
“Our van actually went into the shop twice on this last run,” says Kelley Mickwee, two days after the Trishas’ 13-date spring tour of the Southeast — their first road trip since putting the finishing touches on their debut full-length, High, Wide & Handsome (Aug. 7). “But you know, it’s a ’98 with 150,000 miles, so with that in mind, it’s doing great!” Two-thirds of those miles on U-Turn’s odometer are courtesy of the Trishas, who bought the van a little over two years ago. You can still read the name of its previous owner — La Petite Academy — on the hood, though, because Mickwee, Jamie Wilson, Liz Foster, and Savannah Welch haven’t had a heck of a lot of time to tend to a new paint job. They’ve been far too busy fine-tuning their collective songwriting and performing chops, hell-bent on living up to all the attention, opportunity, and responsibility that’s been thrust upon them ever since they fully committed to this whole being-Trishas deal. “This band encompasses our entire lives,” says Wilson, the mother of one of the aforementioned two babies (2-year-old Joanie). “Our family lives and our professional lives — everything.”
It all started three and a half years ago with what was supposed to just be a one-night stand. Just four women singing two songs around one mic as part of a tribute concert to Savannah’s father, renowned singer-songwriter Kevin Welch, at the 2009 MusicFest in Steamboat Springs, Colo. And even that might not have happened, had Savannah herself not initially been so reticent to participate. Festival producer John Dickson was dead set on having her sing at the event — never mind the fact that unlike her brother, singer-songwriter Dustin Welch, Savannah had never really considered herself a musical artist. Her passion was acting. Nevertheless, Dickson asked Savannah personally a few months before the festival and then, undeterred by her initial hesitation, charged Foster, who worked for him at Dickson Productions, to seal the deal.
“I think Vannie had told him something like, ‘Maybe I’ll do something with Micky [Braun, of Micky and the Motorcars, her longtime friend and former boyfriend], but I definitely don’t want to do something by myself,’” recalls Foster. “So John told me, ‘Look, I want Savannah on this thing — make it happen!’”
Foster was already set to play the tribute herself as half of Liz and Lincoln, the short-lived duo she’d formed (at friend and mentor Ray Wylie Hubbard’s suggestion) with her soon to be ex-husband, Lincoln Durham. So she asked Savannah if she’d be up for performing a song or two with her. Savannah then asked Mickwee, who in addition to being her friend and roommate also happened to be dating and occasionally performing with her dad at the time, to join them, and Mickwee suggested inviting her friend, Wilson, who was MusicFest-bound with her own band, the Gougers. Another gifted female singer-songwriter from the Texas music scene, Kathleen O’Keefe (who was married at the time to Cody Braun of Reckless Kelly), was tapped to participate in their impromptu little one-off combo, but she ended up not being able to make their crucial first rehearsal. “We still call her the fifth Beatle,” quips Savannah.
They couldn’t have picked a more perfect setting for that first practice: the guest cabin on the scenic six-acre lot in Wimberley that Kevin Welch had recently purchased and moved to after three decades in Nashville, where Savannah, Dustin, and their younger sister, Ada, had all been born and raised. Kevin happened to be home at the time, but he opted (or may well have been asked) to make himself scarce by scampering down the road to Ray Wylie Hubbard’s house. In turn, Hubbard’s wife and manager, Judy, happily left the boys to their own devices and ran up to Casa Welch for a sneak peek at what she had a gut feeling might be something special.
“I walked into the guesthouse where they were rehearsing, and within one verse and one chorus, I was literally … tears welled up in my eyes,” she recalls. “I screamed, ‘Oh my god, I want to manage you! I saw you first! I get you!’”
She admits to being too close to the girls (three of whom, Wilson excluded, having worked for her at different times in running her husband’s career) to have ever been serious about the management offer, but her instant enthusiasm over what she heard at that maiden rehearsal was sincere. The girls knew they were onto something, too, discovering a personal chemistry Foster readily calls “instantaneous.” Mickwee agrees. “Right off the bat, at that first practice, we were making each other laugh for a solid two hours,” she marvels. “And we still do.”
Amidst all the laughter, they clicked musically as well, successfully working out harmony-enhanced original takes on three of Kevin’s songs: “That’s What I Like About You,” “Satan’s Paradise,” and “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young.” By the time the tribute concert rolled around in January, they’d pared their set down to the later two songs, though “That’s What I Like About You” was not entirely forgotten. Trisha Yearwood had had a Top-10 hit with the song in the early ’90s, which prompted the girls to playfully compliment one another after a particularly satisfying run through with rounds of, “Good job Trisha!” and “Thanks, Trisha!”
“We had to throw together a name really quick, just for the piece of paper that hung up backstage, and so that was that,” recalls Savannah.
Their name may have been born out of an inside joke, but the Trishas’ debut public performance — and for that matter, what they all figured would be their only public performance — pretty much stole the show. Their cover of the cautionary “Satan’s Paradise,” a comparatively lesser-known tune from the 2006 Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch & Fats Kaplin album, Lost John Dean, might have made a nice enough impression on its own, but “Too Old to Die Young” killed.
“I’m getting chills just talking about it, but when they went to that last part of the song and sang it a cappella, you could have heard a pin drop,” recalls Judy Hubbard, who was in the audience. “And we’re not talking about an Uncle Calvin’s or Cactus Cafe kind of crowd; we’re talking about 5,000 drunk, obnoxious college kids — people who normally don’t know how to shut the fuck up. Seriously, people were in tears. Grown men were in tears.”
Objectively, of course, it could have just been the song itself. Welch co-wrote it with his longtime friend and mentor (and fellow Oklahoman) John Hadley right after Savannah’s birth as an attempt to come to humbling terms with his own mortality, and he’s sung that father’s heartfelt prayer (“Let me watch my children grow to see what they become”) hundreds if not thousands of times over the years, and it always strikes a powerful chord with audiences. As the final song of a long night paying tribute to his career — and arguably his best-known song, to boot — it was bound to get a strong reaction in anyone’s hands. But there was just something undeniably magic in the way Welch’s daughter — literally, the song’s original inspiration — and the three other Trishas wrapped their voices around those already poignant words, taking individual turns on the verses and coming together on the chorus, their four voices merging into a fifth, distinctive super voice of almost unnerving beauty. Together, they took the song to a level that no other performer in attendance that night could have touched, be it Kevin, Dustin, Cody Canada, Reckless Kelly or even any of the girls on their own.
“It was very surreal,” says Savannah, who admits she had to try not to think too hard about her own personal connection to the song, let alone the fact that her father was in the audience and probably bawling his own eyes out, just in order to get through it. She wasn’t the only one. “Right after we finished and got backstage, I remember Jamie at one point going, ‘I don’t know how to deal with people crying. Like, I don’t know how to deal with one crying person, let alone a room full of strangers and people we know.’”
There was no Trishas encore that night (how do you follow that?), but somehow they all had to know — within minutes of leaving the stage, even — that there would definitely be a next time. Still, even when the offers started coming in — and as soon as the buzz from Steamboat got out, they started coming fast — the four women proceeded with cautious restraint. The chemistry they shared may have been undeniable, but outside of the odd no-expectations, low-pressure fun gig here or there, none of them had real designs on anything remotely resembling the all-in commitment that they share today.
Initially, in theory more-so than by their direct admission, Mickwee and Foster might have been a little more open to the idea than the other two, given that both were standing at similar musical and personal crossroads in their lives. Mickwee, having recently moved to Texas from Memphis following the end of a seven-year run as half of the Americana duo Jed and Kelley, admits she was “just kind of hanging out” at the time, playing the occasional gig with Kevin Welch or Andrew Hardin but with no real “master plan.” Similarly, Forster was coming up fast on the breakup of her own duo (and marriage), with no plan in place for the aftermath other than a determination to keep on singing and performing somehow, any way she could. For both of them, the opportunities presented by the Trishas ostensibly could not have come at a better time. On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, Savannah still wasn’t even sure she wanted to really sing at all; she remained first and foremost committed to her acting career, with a handful of independent films already under her belt and more on her immediate horizon (including a small role in Terrence Malick’s Oscar-nominated The Tree of Life).
Most reticent of all though was probably Wilson, who of course was already in a band. A nagging seven-year itch and escalating musical differences had strained her relations with Gougers co-leader Shane Walker, so she was more than ready for a change. But the changes she had her heart set on involved starting a family with her husband, Roy, and recording her first solo album — not jumping right into another band.
“That was a real struggle for me,” she admits. “I mean, I wasn’t rejecting it, I wasn’t saying no, but — I had just gotten out of a band, and bands are bad, you know? And all the girls said the same thing; they were like, ‘Yeah, we don’t want to be in a band, either.’ So my plan when I quit the Gougers — I think it was around March — was definitely not to be in another band. In fact, when I finally told Shane that I didn’t want to do the Gougers anymore, he made a smartass comment about me joining a ‘chick band,’ and I told him that I was not going to join a chick band.
“And then I joined a chick band,” she adds with a laugh.
* * *
Here’s one of the cool things about that particular “chick band,” though: Being a Trisha may well encompass all areas of one’s life, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to forfeit your own identity. Wilson helped set that example straight away by making good on her wish to do a solo album, releasing her six-song Dirty Blonde Hair EP in the summer of ’09. It was just something she felt she had to do – not to give herself a safety net in the event the band didn’t work out, but because she was pretty sure it would.
“I could see that the whole Trishas thing was going to happen, but it was still important to me to have something that was entirely me,” Wilson explains. “Just one little thing that I ever did musically that I could say, ‘I got to make every single decision on this record.’ Not that I had any grand illusions about going off and having a big solo career, but I just saw everything else coming into place, and I wanted to take that chance while I had it and make something of my own that I could be proud of years down the road.”
She also got started on that family she wanted, too. In June 2010, after the Trishas’ first full year of playing together, Wilson and her husband brought their newborn daughter home to Yancey, Texas. But before she could even crawl, Baby Joanie was hitting the road with her mama and doting auntie Trishas.
It’s doubtful she’ll remember any of it (at least not without photos), but Trisha Baby No. 1 watched that band grow as much in the first year of her life as they did her. Because even though three of the four Trishas had years of performing experience behind them before their Steamboat debut, pretty much everything they know about playing together had to be learned on the run – if not right onstage. The luxury of pressure-free woodshedding time has proven elusive to them from the get-go — and not just because Wilson lived two hours away from the other girls, who were originally all based in the Austin area. (They became even more scattered last year when Welch moved up to Dallas to be with her boyfriend, Jeff Burns.)
“We got a few show offers right away, like right after Steamboat, but we only knew a few songs — we were basically a Kevin Welch cover band at that point,” says Savannah. But they took those early gigs anyway, cramming and scrambling together enough songs to stretch out over a 45-minute set. Out of necessity, they leaned heavily on covers, supplementing the Kevin tunes they’d already worked up with blues and gospel fare like “Spoonful” and “Moses.” Wilson and Foster also brought a handful of originals to the table, but Welch at that point had only written one complete song and Mickwee had none (“Jed” had always been the songwriting muscle in Jed and Kelley). That didn’t matter much at the time, though, because they had more than enough work cut out for them just finding enough practice time together to nail down the material already in front of them.
“We couldn’t really seem to get together to rehearse unless we had a gig, so finally we went, ‘Let’s just book like a rehearsal gig,’” recalls Welch. “So we booked a Saxon Pub gig on like a Wednesday, just some shit slot that we chose on purpose thinking nobody would be there and we could rehearse and kind of figure out who we were onstage. But then we got there and we all kind of went, ‘Oh shit, there’s actually people here to watch this — we’re fucked.’ And the next week there were more people and then even more people the week after that. So we had to kind of be like, ‘OK, we don’t really know what we’re doing, we’re still learning,’ and at the end of every song we’d go, ‘Wow, we got through that one!’ We had to just broadcast the fact that we kind of knew that we sucked.”
They didn’t suck. But complacency in “good enough” was never part of their collective DNA. Welch, by far the least experienced of the bunch, had already proven that she could sing, and “So Blue,” her one original at the time and still one of the best songs the Trishas have ever been graced with, was a gorgeous peek at the soul of a natural-born songwriter waiting to bloom. But having grown up so in awe of her father and precociously talented older brother that she’d spent most of her life dismissing or repressing any fleeting notion of trying music herself, she still had a ways to go before her self-confidence caught halfway up to her ability. Her acting chops might have helped her mask some of that unease onstage, but she still felt more vulnerable and exposed in front of a mic than she ever had in front of film cameras.
Beginner’s stage fright wasn’t an issue for the other Trishas. Although they were all still in their mid- to late-20s, Wilson and Mickwee had close to 15 years of performing experience between the two of them, and Foster nearly as much on her own. Foster cut her teeth on the Texas opry circuit before spending the rest of her teens and early 20s in a Vegas-style showband revue (“Ladies and gentlemen, Mirror Image!”) and a handful of other Dallas area bands, playing everything from blues to Western swing. (Memo to other Trishas: Try to squeeze the name of that blues band out of her; no, not Soul Doubt — the one you’re really not supposed to know about. Thank me later.) All that seasoning gave them enough perspective to recognize how much potential they had with the Trishas; as Wilson puts it, “We knew we had something — there was something about us that was really, really, cool.” But it also gave them a keen eye for spotting musical blemishes and room for improvement. And they were just jaded enough to where they couldn’t help but take a lot of the booking interest and buzz around them with a pinch of salt.
“It was actually kind of irritating at the beginning,” Wilson admits, “because right away the Trishas were getting all these gig offers for things that like, Kelley and I had never gotten, after we’d been playing music for seven, eight, nine years. So sometimes we were like, ‘You know what? You’re just giving us these things because we’re four girls in a band, and it’s a novelty.’ But we got over it — we took those gigs! You can’t say no to those things. But one thing you have to do is you have to live up to it. So whenever people offered us those great gigs, we took them knowing we wouldn’t get asked back or anywhere else for that matter if we weren’t any good. And that really lit a fire under us and made us really practice, because we didn’t want to embarrass ourselves.”
As a band of women springing out of a Texas music scene dominated by male artists, the Trishas were unquestionably a bona fide rarity. Sad fact is, they still are. But long-established Texas singer-songwriter Terri Hendrix, who became an avowed Trishas fan the first time she heard a MusicFog-recorded live version of “So Blue” on KNBT, takes adamant issue with the notion of them ever being a “novelty.”
“The Trishas are filling a void, but they’re not a novelty, they never have been and they never will be,” says Hendrix. “A ‘novelty act’ would be Tiny Tim — that’s a novelty. But the Trishas are not a novelty because they’re an all-girl band. First of all, they’re not girls — they’re women. They are four women who are all legitimate musicians who came together as a fluke and became a band, and they’re getting booked because they’re a band that can compete on a local, regional, and national level, period. They got booked because they struck a nerve.”
And as for the Trishas’ concerns about delivering performances worthy of those bookings, well, the crowd reaction at even their biggest opening-act gigs in Texas proved they could hold their own. Drummer John Silva, whose longstanding friendship with Wilson (having played with her in the Gougers and on her solo album) netted him a nearly two-year run of gigging and touring with the Trishas, witnessed it all from the best seat in the house.
“I don’t think I ever saw a bad response with them — the crowds were always really good,” Silva recalls. “One of the first big shows I did with them was opening for Reckless Kelly on New Year’s Eve at the House of Blues in Dallas. They asked me to do that one because that venue’s so large and powerful, sound-wise, and because they knew it was going to be a really raucous crowd. They even kind of altered the set a little, knowing the crowd would be rowdier than usual. But what made it really strange, from the perspective of coming from the Gougers, is I remember the Gougers opening some pretty big shows like that, too, and a lot of times we would just get blank stares. People would look at us like, ‘I don’t know what kind of band this is, this isn’t my thing.’ But the Trishas never got that. From day one, they’d get up there and as soon as they started singing, they’d immediately get the crowd’s attention — even people who probably weren’t planning on watching the opening act. I remember they used to open every show with that old gospel song, ‘Moses,’ and it was just a slow build-up with one vocal, then two, then three, and by the first chorus it’s all four voices, almost a cappella. And when you hear all those layers happening, even if you don’t really know much about music, as soon as it hits your ear you just go, ‘Oh wow, what is that?’ It kind of just grabs you. They’re just really good at that.
“So the reaction was always positive,” Silva continues. “And it was funny, too, because whenever we’d get those kinds of responses from a crowd like that, after the show me and Jamie would be like, ‘Hey, remember when we used to do this with the Gougers, and nobody cared? Now we’re in a band and everybody cares.’”
* * *
That “everybody” may have been a playful exaggeration on the level of “we sucked,” but it did include a fair number of folks in Nashville.
The Trishas had a dedicated Music City support team in place almost from the word go, with the principals coming, like drummer Silva, out of Wilson’s Gougers days. Clint Wiley began booking the Gougers out of his own company in San Marcos, and took the band with him to Nashville’s Third Coast Booking Agency after being recruited by one Steve Hoiberg. Third Coast was then absorbed by a bigger Nashville agency, APA, where both men continued to book the Gougers until Hoiberg left to pursue artist management. After the Gougers dissolved and the Trishas were sure they all wanted to be Trishas, Wiley signed the new band to APA (later taking them with him over to another agency, Paradigm), and Hoiberg took them under his management wing at SHO Artists.
“We were lucky in that we got a great agency from the get-go,” says Wilson, “and Clint and Hoiberg were already a really good team because they had been working together forever. So it all just seemed like a no-brainer.”
The development deal one major label came a courting with definitely warranted a good think, though. “We turned that down,” says Mickwee. “It was Sony, the biggest record label in Nashville. And that was pretty early on, too — we were scared of it. But I think we made the right decision.”
“Scared of it” didn’t mean they blanched at the mere notion of inking a deal. They took the label meeting, played a few songs for the execs, listened to the spiel, and politely ran through the list of their own reservations. They all had artist friends back in Texas who’d been screwed at one time or another by the majors, baited by the “we like you just how you are and don’t want you to change a thing” line, only to record albums that never saw the light of day. “We asked them, ‘What happens if we develop ourselves right out of the mainstream? We don’t even know what we’re doing yet — how are you supposed to know what we’re doing? And what if we end up being something you can’t market?’” recalls Wilson. “And they were like, ‘Well, we’ve got a lot of sister labels that we can put you on.’ And we said, ‘Well, they’re not here signing us. Those people don’t know who we are, they don’t care what we’re doing, so we’re just going to get pushed around there, too.’ We really talked about it a lot, and it just came down to us having a bad feeling about it.”
“We really wanted to be, I don’t know if the word is prudent, but just careful,” adds Welch. “And the whole thing was so shady. It would have been really dumb for anybody to get into that deal unless they wanted to be totally mainstream or were willing to do whatever they were told to do. But it was just so off for what we were looking to do.”
The first reality TV show they were offered wasn’t really what they were looking for, either – and neither were any of the three others pitched their way.
“I think we have really lucked out in the things that we have decided not to do,” says Foster. “I don’t think there’s anything that we’ve said ‘no’ to that turned out to be a mistake. And we’ve been fortunate in that most of the time, we’ve all been of the same mind about those things where you’re like, ‘That might be cool for another band, but it would be ridiculous for us.’”
The Trishas may have left Sony’s development deal on the table, but they would soon be seeing a lot more of Nashville. In 2010, they signed a group publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music, and for the better part of the next two years they were going to Nashville for a week out of every month just to write, splitting up into pairs or individually for sessions with different writers.
“For awhile I had to have one of the other girls with me, for comfort, because I had never written a song before I walked into the office for my first session,” admits Mickwee. “And not only had I not written, I didn’t think that I could even do it or even have an overwhelming desire to attempt it. Up until then I was perfectly happy being an interpreter of songs. And then I think one of my first co-writing appointments was with Radney Foster! So yeah, I was scared.”
She got the hang of it soon enough though, just as Welch did with being onstage as the Trishas continued to rack up confidence and identity-shaping performance hours both in and out of Texas, from festival showcases to opening slots for Americana heavyweights like Rodney Crowell, Raul Malo, Dwight Yoakam, and Todd Snider. They also started popping up as featured guests on other artists’ albums, beginning with Kevin Welch’s A Patch of Blue Sky and Ray Wylie Hubbard’s A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C). Somewhere in the middle of all that, they squeezed in time to record the first project of their own: They Call Us the Trishas, which they self-released August 2010.
The five-song EP (they call it a “mini album”) was originally supposed to be produced in Nashville by Snider — an intriguing pairing that surely never would have been green-lit by Sony — but that plan was scrapped at the last minute when the East Nashville misfit was called as a character witness at Billy Joe Shaver’s shooting trial in Houston. They ended up recording it with producer Scott Davis at Austin’s Cedar Creek, where drummer Silva has worked as an engineer for years (he now manages the facility full time). All four Trishas played on the sessions, supported by Silva, Davis and Kevin Welch on guitar, George Reiff on bass, Dustin Welch on banjo, and Trisha Keefer (like Silva, an official unofficial band member at the time) on fiddle. Together they captured the Trishas at their best, with the first four songs showcasing the distinct musical personalities and strengths of each member: Mickwee’s assertive, Memphis-style gritty soul (and Foster’s bluesy harp) on the traditional “Trouble About My Soul”; Wilson’s knack for fetching hooks and bouncy folk on “Give It Away”; Foster’s powerful gospel blues chops on “Rise Above”; and Welch’s hauntingly melodic, Stevie Nicksian “chill factor” on “So Blue.” The pièce de résistance fifth track went back to where it all began, with all four Trishas coming together for arguably the most exquisite recording of “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young” ever committed to disc.
The EP gave the Trishas the perfect calling card to sell on the road and fans a fun-sized sampler to take home. They took their sweet time in following up with the main course, though, as it would be a full two years before the Trishas delivered their full-length debut. In the interim, they made the most out of every one of their monthly songwriting trips to Nashville and plenty of impromptu writing sessions in between, stockpiling 60-something original songs to choose from by the time they went back into the studio (this time, Nashville’s Sound Emporium) to record High, Wide & Handsome with producer/engineer Mike Poole. They pared it down to 14 and one cover, Courtney Patton’s “The Fool.” “Drive,” the Mickwee, Wilson and Jason Eady-penned, download-only single and video they released last winter, didn’t even make the cut — though it’s telling that most of the songs that did were either 100-percent Trisha written or co-written with friends from closer to home, including Eady, Bruce Robison, Owen Temple, Evan Felker of Oklahoma’s Turnpike Troubadours, and both Kevin and Dustin Welch.
“A few of the songs did come out of scheduled writes in Nashville, like the Jim Lauderdale one, ‘A Far Cry from You,’ that we got Raul Malo to sing on,” says Mickwee. “But it was all real organic, and none of the songs were written with the intent of being for the record. We just took all of the songs that had been written by any of the four of us over that period of two years, and started eliminating the ones that didn’t fit.”
The ones that did fit clock in at just under an hour total playing time, making High, Wide & Handsome packed every bit as full as the Trishas’ trusty van — trailer included (that song with Malo comes attached as a bonus track). But the quality of the album from start to finish is every bit as consistent as the filler-free EP that preceded it, with each singer/writer given ample room to shine across a landscape of different moods and styles (winsome to lonesome, folksy to bluesy, rootsy to sultry), even as their four-part harmonies tie the whole thing together into a tightly woven tapestry of sound that can only be called, well, the Trishas.
As for the album’s name, that just had to be another one of those no-brainers. It’s a line out of the first song, Wilson’s “Mother of Invention” — specifically, the first line on the album where all four Trishas merge their voices together. “It’s an old sort of Southern saying that just means carefree and fun in a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of way,” says Wilson. “And it just seemed to fit what we were doing and our style and our entire career so far, which is just … let it happen.”
“Make something out of nothing
An original creation
A dead ringer for the real thing
High, wide and handsome
Taking pennies from a jar
In interesting conditions,
You discover who you really are …”
* * *
The Trishas didn’t sing or play a note at the Smoke Shack in Alabama, but their pit stop there en route to the next gig on their recent tour certainly entertained one local to no end. And all they had to do was pile out of the van to gas up and stretch their legs.
“I don’t even know where we were,” says Welch a day or two later, calling from a hotel at Stone Mountain State Park outside of Atlanta. “But we pulled into this gas station, get out, and there’s this guy parked next to us — you know, black dude in the back seat, big old gold grill. Jamie’s pumping gas, and I think Liz or Brandy [Zdan, the guitar, lap steel and accordion-playing “spare Trisha” recruited after Trisha Keefer left the road to have a baby] was taking a photo of her, and the dude was like, ‘Girl, you’re doing a Facebook pose!’ Then Kelley got out of the van and he was like, ‘We the same age, girl!’ He was just on a roll: ‘Oh, y’all from Texas? There’s nothing but steers and queers there!’ But he called me Amish, because I was wearing like a bandana tied around my head and a long skirt, and then he goes, ‘Sister wives! You’re like sister wives!’
“He had so many great quotes,” Welch continues, chuckling, “but that one stuck, because that’s kind of how we treat each other, anyway. If you take out the music part of it, that really is what being a Trisha feels like, just because of the way we all take care of each other to a certain extent and are considerate of each other. And being on the road together … I would say it’s probably exactly how you imagine it is, with a bunch of girls and babies.”
Yes, that’s babies, plural. Wilson’s daughter Joanie, now 2, had to move her car seat over to make room for a new baby on board this last tour: Welch’s infant son Charlie, born Jan. 30 in her father’s cabin in Wimberley — right where the Trishas themselves were effectively “born” three years earlier. When the Trishas played a StageIt.com-hosted performance from an Atlanta hotel room on June 4, both kids shared the webcast spotlight during “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young.” Getting through that one was tough, alright, though not in the way Welch expected. “We’re sitting on the bed with the babies, about to start the song, and I think it was Liz who said, ‘We’re just missing Elmo,’” she laughs. “So the whole time, even though it was supposed to be this really poignant moment, we were just trying not to crack up. We felt like we were on Sesame Street.”
Hiring an Elmo for the road might not be a bad idea a year from now, because Charlie won’t be the new kid on the Trishas bus for long: Wilson is expecting her second child come Thanksgiving. (The other two Trishas have yet to contribute to the band’s baby count, though both are happily spoken for: Mickwee married Tim Regan, of the Austin indie-rock band Oh No Oh My, in October, and Foster has been dating guitarist/songwriter/producer Keith Gattis for a year now.)
Babies in tow or not, though, all four women are more committed to being Trishas together than ever, with whatever reservations any of them might have had early on long since forgotten. As “sister wives” and friends, they’ve supported each other through motherhood, marriage, and divorce. As bandmates, they’ve pooled their resources and divvied up responsibilities to keep their DIY operation running smoothly: according to Foster, she handles their calendars and email lists, Wilson tour manages and does all the advancing for the gigs, Welch deals with their merch, and Mickwee — aka “Money Trish” — is the accountant. They count on each other to carry just as much weight onstage, too — especially after learning how to make do without a regular drummer by dividing up a small drum kit amongst themselves; Wilson now doubles on guitar and kick drum, Mickwee on mandolin and rack tom, Welch on guitar/mandolin and tambourine rigged up to a kick pedal, and Foster on harmonica, a little guitar and a whole lot of shakers. “So we all pull our own weight in the percussion and drum department, and we all know that we’re a small band so every other instrument is heard, too,” notes Wilson. “You can hear every single guitar, mandolin and shaker, so you have to be on your game and I think knowing that has made everybody step up.”
Instrumentally, they’ve never claim-ed to be virtuosos on the level of say, Dixie Chicks Martie Maguire and Emily Robison; hence the use of lead player Zdan on the road and pros like Kenny Vaughan in the studio for their latest album. But they’ve come a long way over their three years of playing together, working out their kinks in public. “I think one of the things people liked about us in the very beginning was that we were just doing it, even though none of us were very good at our instruments,” says Welch. “I mean, Jamie had always played rhythm guitar and I played a little guitar and Kelley mandolin, but we weren’t bluegrass musicians by any means and still aren’t. But I play a little mandolin now, Kelley’s started playing acoustic guitar on some songs, Jamie’s teaching herself banjo and starting to pick up electric guitar, and we’re all playing drums. So we’re still just kind of making it up as we go, but at the same time we’re constantly wanting to improve.”
“We don’t often get a chance to really step back and listen to the progress that we’ve made, but I did listen back to our first show at the Saxon and even our first time singing together at the Kevin Welch tribute, and it really made me laugh to realize how far we’ve come,” notes Foster. “So we’ve definitely progressed, and we’ll keep progressing, but it’s a constant effort, because we started this band and boom, we went from one speed to the next really quickly, so we’re still playing catch-up …”
“… to be able to do what we always knew we could do,” says Mickwee, finishing Foster’s thought as Trishas often do. “But just in the last couple of years, I’ve had people and friends who saw us in the beginning and who watch us now go, ‘You guys are really starting to actually be like a band.”
And just like any band worth its weight in mileage, the Trishas have weathered their share of rougher gigs. They’ll be the first to admit that they’ve been fortunate in landing pinch-me opportunities a plenty, like getting to record “She Ain’t Going Nowhere” for the album This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark and participate in Clark’s all-star birthday concert last fall in Austin; but their last run through the Southeast found them playing one show in front of four people — in a heavy metal/punk-rock club with “No Moshing” signs prominently displayed. Assorted day jobs — “jobby jobs,” as Mickwee calls ’em — provide another reality check. Mickwee schedules her part-time hours as a personal assistant for an Austin doctor around her tour schedule, but both Foster and Wilson routinely have to find time to tend to non-band business on the road: Foster doing all manner of PR, advertising, editing, and accounting work for Dickson Productions, and Wilson handling all the design and layout work for her parents’ weekly community newspaper, the Wallis News Review.
“It can be really hard, juggling it all,” Foster admits. “I think we’d all like to get to the point where we can write and do songs that we’re proud of, and be successful enough not to stress about having other jobs. Because none of us are scared of hard work, but I don’t think any of us feel like we have the amount of time that we’d really like and need to fully devote to music. And we’ve got a long way to go before we’re able to get there, but at least we’re on the path that we want to be on, and hopefully it will get us to where we need to be.”
“We made a record that we’re proud of, we’re proud of every song, and we stand by all the decisions we’ve made up until now,” agrees Mickwee. “But I think ‘success’ for us means respect amongst our peers and the people we look up to, and I don’t think we’re there — not yet.”
Once again, fellow artist Terri Hendrix begs to differ. “I’m looking all the time for new people, thinking, ‘Who can inspire me now?’” she says. “And there are so many women right now who are inspiring, I wouldn’t even know where to start. But at the top of that list of up and coming women artists in Texas would be the Trishas.”
She’s not alone in her admiration, either. Hendrix was part of last October’s Guy Clark tribute concert at Austin’s Long Center, and recalls firsthand the impression that the Trishas made on the night’s other performers — a veritable who’s who of Americana greats including Joe Ely, Rodney Crowell, Terry Allen, Rosie Flores, Lyle Lovett, Kevin Welch, and Clark himself. “I was backstage with a bunch of seasoned veterans,” says Hendrix, “and as soon as the Trishas started singing their song, everybody moved towards the TV monitor just to listen. Because it was just so beautiful. It was a great band moment for them, because they just sounded and looked like a band without even trying to, with no pretense or showboating. And everybody was really listening, because it was just beautifully, beautifully done.”
Looking back on that night, Wilson describes the whole experience with the same word Welch used to sum up the Trishas’ debut performance three years earlier at Steamboat: “surreal.”
“I remember standing next to Terry Allen and Joe Ely, and telling them, ‘I just need to tell y’all that we may be walking around back here like we’re wide-eyed and just kind of soaking it all in, but that’s because we are, because y’all are our heroes,’” Wilson says. “‘So just think about who you really looked up to and whoever influenced you, and how you’d feel if you were backstage with all of them, acting like you were just a part of it all …’ And they just gave me a hug and said, ‘We understand, that’s cool.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, it is.’ But I just felt like I needed to tell them that, because you only have so many opportunities to tell that to the people that influenced you, and I didn’t want to pass it up.
“There’s so many people that we’ve been able to meet and so many experiences that we’ve had just by being in this band that I don’t know what I would do otherwise,” Wilson continues. “You go out and you meet so many colorful people, and then you come home and get to have your home life. It just seems like the best of both worlds, and I hope that we can make it work and keep playing for as long as we possibly can. Because there’s just not really anything that can replace it.”