The group began – spiritually, if not specifically – when principle songwriter Jason Sanford, at that time acting in open and active defiance to his strict Christian upbringing, wandered into a tobacco store in a Gulfport mall to buy smokes and struck up a conversation with the kid working behind the counter. “He was like this real cool, hip, indie sorta character,” Sanford explains, “and he ended up turning me on to people like Elliott Smith, Bright Eyes, Iron and Wine, Neutral Milk Hotel. That’s kind of how it all started.” His parents were wary of encouraging their son’s budding interest. “They wanted to keep me in this tiny bubble,” Sanford explains.
Sanford would stay up late at night, teaching himself how to play the guitar his father had given him. He certainly had plenty to write about. Just a few months earlier, Sanford’s relationship with Emily Sholes had come to an end, and the heartbreak of that separation powered most of his early songs. At the same time, a childhood friend of Sanford’s, Barry Pribyl Jr., had just moved back to Mississippi from Michigan, and his mother suggested he get in touch with his old friend soon after their return.
“At the time, I was into metal,” Pribyl says. “So I went to this open mic night, and Jason was playing this honky-tonk stuff. I remember thinking, ‘What the hell is this?'”
But the best friendships are built on compromise and the more Pribyl and Sanford started playing together, the more a specific sound started to emerge – one that blended a ragged bar-rock attitude of bands like Uncle Tupelo with a few mild nods toward the iconoclastic end of contemporary country, like Jamey Johnson. Their core in place, Pribyl and Sanford soon began looking to expand their lineup. “Jason started an open mic night at a wine bar,” Pribyl said. “From there, we’d invite 10 or 15 people to come with us out to this abandoned house and we’d just jam. We sort of hand-picked the band from there.” In the kind of romantic twist all great rock stories require, one of them was Jason’s old flame Emily Sholes. Another was Jennifer Flint, whose fiery vocals serve as a scorching counterbalance to Sanford’s down-home croon. “I first met Jason in 2006,” says Flint. “He was in one of his first bands, and I honestly just fell in love with the way he wrote.” Local attention inspired the band to enroll in a Battle of the Bands contest sponsored by Hard Rock, which they handily won, and they soon flew out to Los Angeles to work on their debut with acclaimed producer Greg Collins (U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt) at The Nook Studio.
The results are spellbinding. They turn Blur’s “Tender” into a rousing, gospel-informed hymn, and work similar magic on their own compositions: “Time to Begin,” the first song Sanford, Pribyl and Flint wrote together, hip-swivels like something off Exile on Main Street; the trembling, minor-key vocal melody of “El Luna” recalls both Elliott Smith and Abbey Road-era Beatles and “Woe is Me” is a rollicking country stomp in the vein of Steve Earle. “I was trying to write a real Depression Era-style country song,” Sanford explains, “and so I tried to put myself in the mindset of what people back then were going through.” Though it began as an attempt to channel the loose rootsiness of Old Crow Medicine Show, the result is a barnburner – a big, raucous number with a booming backbeat and deep-fried electric guitar. Whether loud and rowdy or quiet and contemplative, Rosco Bandana balance both extremes perfectly.
“It might sound cliché,” Pribyl says, “but we’re just these humble, good ol’, down-to-earth Mississippi people. And when we play live, you can just see in our faces the joy of music.”
“I want people to feel like they know us,” says Flint. “I want them to feel like they can relate.”
“I hope people get something honest out of our music,” says Sanford. “I hope they’re able to feel something, and to empathize with it when they hear the lyrics.” He pauses, becoming momentarily philosophical. “You know, life and death is in the power of the tongue. And I want to put out music that’s going to heal people.”
When Jamie Wilson, Liz Foster, Kelley Mickwee and Savannah Welch first shared a stage in January 2009, their intention was simply to perform a couple of songs as part of a tribute to Savannah’s father, singer-songwriter Kevin Welch. They had no plans to pursue a joint musical future — they didn’t even have a name, and wound up calling themselves The Trishas on a whim (it popped into their heads because they were covering a Welch-authored Trisha Yearwood hit).
But when magic happens, sometimes you have to give in to its power. The sound of their voices soaring in close four-part harmony so transfixed listeners that night in Steamboat, Colorado, that show offers began to come in, luring them into testing the waters as a group. By that September, The Trishas were showcasing at the Americana Music Association Conference & Festival in Nashville, where Raul Malo caught them. He invited them to sing on his Sinners & Saints album. Ray Wylie Hubbard recruited them for his lauded release, A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There is no c). Warner/Chappell Music signed them to a publishing deal. They toured with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Todd Snider, performed with Malo and joined Savannah’s dad on his album, A Patch of Blue Sky.
All of that happened before they’d even gotten around to recording their EP, the somewhat tongue-in-cheekily titled They Call Us The Trishas. (Astute readers have likely noticed by now that there is no Trisha in the band, though fiddler Trisha Keefer Beckham was an auxiliary member until recently.) That August 2010 release signaled — to them, as well as fans — that their commitment was real.
High, Wide and Handsome makes an even more definitive statement. “We’re in this for the long haul,” it almost shouts. “On our terms.” (The phrase itself means “in a carefree, stylish manner,” as in the prancing step of a spirited horse.) Those terms include collaborating with some of the finest tunesmiths in Nashville and Austin — Bruce Robison, Natalie Hemby, John Eddie and Savannah’s dad, along with his firstborn, aka her brother, Dustin. Jason Eady, Owen Temple and Turnpike Troubadour Evan Felker are among other co-writers. Jim Lauderdale helped out on a bonus, download-only track, “A Far Cry from You,” a Peter & Gordon-worthy gem which also features Malo on vocals.
Though The Trishas are all talented instrumentalists, they also recruited an all-star team to back them during sessions at Nashville’s Sound Emporium: guitarist Kenny Vaughan and drummer Harry Stinson of Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives (Stinson and daddy Welch were Dead Reckoners together); bassist Viktor Krauss (Lyle Lovett, Elvis Costello); fiddler Tammy Rogers (another Dead Reckoner); and steel guitarist/“utility player” Russ Pahl. Veteran engineer Mike Poole produced.
Respect from such major-leaguers isn’t surprising, considering the bandmates’ backgrounds. Memphis-reared Mickwee, the group’s main mandolinist, honed her talents in that music-rich town before becoming half of the duo Jed & Kelley; Wilson was a member of renowned Austin band The Gougers; and Foster, who can wail on harmonica, performed on the Texas Opry circuit and spent seven years touring with a Motown revue before forming the duo Liz & Lincoln. Nashville-raised Welch moved to Austin after high school to pursue acting and screenwriting, and other than a short stint in L.A., has been a Texan for 10 years. Her brother and father eventually joined her, leading to her singing in Dustin’s band.
But together, well … they just keep making more magic, and earning more invitations to contribute to special projects such as This One’s For Him: A Tribute To Guy Clark.
No, it doesn’t hurt that they’re witty, charming, earthy and beautiful — but as Wilson notes, “We just happen to be four chicks.”
It wasn’t as if they planned that, either.
“It just works when our voices blend together,” she explains. “Whenever there’s that chemistry onstage, and chemistry otherwise, that’s what makes it.”
Their comfort level with one another is obvious; they laugh frequently and easily together, and even on tiny stages, they smoothly switch among a variety of stringed and percussion instruments, including drums. They switch vocal parts — and genres — with equal ease. Wilson characterizes their soulful sound as “eclectic” and says of the new album, “It goes between pretty country- and jug-bandy-sounding to spooky and creepy to kinda rockin’, within 14 songs.”
That might be simplifying it some, but you get the idea. They like to stretch and don’t have much use for boundaries set by others. The album’s title, by the way, comes from a line in “Mother of Invention.”
“That song is about what we do,” offers Wilson, who co-wrote it with Hemby. “It’s about when something happens, you make do and get creative to find solutions. Like when our drummer quit; we just brought drums up front and we play them now.”
That’s also how they handle additions to their entourage; both Wilson and Welch have had babies since the band’s birth. But they don’t regard touring with kids as a big deal.
“It’s not much different than any other women who’s having a career or working a job,” says Welch. “The difference is actually that we get to bring them to work with us. We want to help each other be able to play music for a living and still have families. We’ll do what it takes.”
For now, that simply means loading the van (purchased, ironically, from a day-care center) with baby gear and helpful relatives. Says Mickwee, “Things are a little bit more of a challenge, but we figure it out, just like we always have.”