Roots rebels The Wilders made their own breaks

Article by Tony Montague, published May 29, 2008 in the Georiga Straight

Getting those first breaks in the music biz is tough for any new band with ambitions. For Americana roots outfit the Wilders, the chances seemed especially limited, as their Missouri/Kansas, base is far from the action in traditional music-industry centres. Soon after forming 10 years ago, the four musicians decided they needed to take a radical approach to attracting attention.

"We used to go to country and bluegrass festivals and conferences - though we weren't scheduled to play," says singer and guitarist Ike Sheldon. "We'd be, like, in a big hotel lobby with regular jams going on, and we'd set up in the middle and wait for a moment of silence, then just go for it - start going crazy, jumping around and playing real loud. It was kind of a punk thing: raise a ruckus and see what happens. It won us a big festival gig and got us noticed by an agent."

Today, the Wilders are one of the most acclaimed old-timey alt-country acts in the U.S., with four albums under their belt. The members haven't lost their punkish go-for-it flair; their recently released disc, Someone's Got to Pay, starts out with a frenetic folk-thrasher, "Wild Old Nory". The Wilders also like contrasts. The second track, "Broken Down Gambler", is an impeccably picked and bowed old-time reel, followed by a short piano instrumental, "(An Old Murder Ballad Come to Life)", that's played almost painfully slowly.

Someone's Got to Pay is built around a real-life theme supplied by the band's banjo, dobro, and mandolin player Phil Wade. "Two years ago, Phil sat on the jury of a first-degree murder trial," Sheldon says. "It was very intense. As the story unfolded, he felt like ‘Hmm... This sounds so familiar,’ and realized it was all the old murder ballads he'd heard, such as ‘Knoxville Girl’ and ‘Pretty Polly’.

"The culprit was a 23-year-old guy whose wife had left him. He decided that if he couldn't have her, nobody else would. He e-mailed his friends and her friends saying, ‘I'm going to kill her and then kill myself,’ and shot her seven times-then took off, without completing the pact before the cops reached him. He was sentenced to life without parole."

Wade was moved to write a song about the crime and his trial experience. The Wilders didn't know how to deal with the nine-minute piece until they went into the studio to make Someone's Got to Pay.

"We decided to tape a section of the song at the end of every day, without thinking about it much beforehand," Sheldon recalls. "Everybody grabbed whatever instrument they wanted and we goofed around for 10 to 15 minutes before recording live. We thought it would be a good idea to hang the whole album on that one song. It seemed like the other compositions were telling parts of the story, in a way-speaking about love, loss, and a degree of craziness."

That number, originally titled "Sitting on a Jury", is split up into five separate tracks, each with a different subtitle, not to mention tempo and feel.

"The whole album has a lot of stylistic variety," says Sheldon. "That's where we are right now. We love country and old-time and that kind of music, and I think we've all put in our apprenticeship learning the nuts and bolts of it."

The Wilders play St. James Hall on Friday (May 30)