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Steve Martin once said “You just can’t sing a depressing song when you’re playing the banjo.” While Elliott Smith may beg to differ, last Friday The Show Ponies brought the joyful and intrinsically upbeat sounds of banjo and bluegrass to Sacramento. Bluegrass is quintessentially American, being the Appalachian cousin of country and folk music; And while its rural roots sound is not the most widely appreciated genre, in an urban environment it brings a fresh connection to the countryside, and places one’s feet firmly on musical dancing ground. The Show Ponies newly released EP ‘Run For Your Life’ captures all of these elements.

Before they played at Shine, I sat down with the band, introduced them to Kombucha, found out a bit about where their music comes from, and what makes bluegrass so much fun to play. The Show Ponies consist of Clay Chaney on bass and harmonica, sharing lead vocals with Andi Carder who also plays banjo. Jason Harris plays guitar and fills in backing vocals. Kevin Brown keeps the beat going on the drums, and Philip Glen adds fiddle, mandolin and the occasional additional banjo.


THE SHOW PONIES

“So one of the first questions I have to ask is, where does your name come from? Why ‘The Show Ponies’?”

Jason: “The story changes every time.”

Andi: “The real story doesn’t change though.”

Clay: “The story is, it started out with me and Andi. She texted me once, and asked what she should bring to rehearsal, and I jokingly said a miniature pony. We hadn’t decided on a band name yet, and I thought ‘The Show Ponies”, because when it was just the two of us, it was kind of a cutesy type thing. “The Show Ponies” had that kind of feel to it. And then it kind of has become a thing, the idea that a show pony is kind of a… well let’s just leave it at that.”

(laughs)

Phil: “You’ve said stuff in the past, (that a pony) is a wild animal but a show pony is something that’s been domesticated and “city-fied” a bit. And we play roots music but its not traditional roots music. Its also got rock and pop influences, just because of where we all come from.”


“You’re based out of LA right?”

Jason: “Do you want the long answer or the short answer?”

The band tells me Jason and Andi grew up in Houston, TX and met in high school. Later, Jason went to California for college where he met Clay, who hails from Arkansas. Andi followed to LA soon after, originally to pursue acting. It’s easy to see her as an actor on stage opposite Clay. Aside from the powerful vocal harmonies she delivers, she along with the rest of the band has an energy that electrifys the room from the stage, engaging the whole audience.

Jason: “We were all into different types of music.”

Phil: “I grew up playing classical music. I was playing in orchestra when I was in college, and I remember (watching) the rerun of Conan at three in the morning. I heard (bluegrass band) Nickle Creek play. And I (remember thinking) that, that is what I want to play!”

 

MUSICAL LINEAGE

This fusion of musical style, and shared passion for roots music shows through in the bands stage presence. It’s very clear the band is playing music that they want to play. This is music made with love. Watching The Show Ponies perform its clear that they are having fun, and want you to have fun too! Perhaps one of the most surprising songs that you can see this element in is “The Blackest Crow”, a naturally melancholy traditional folk tune. The band does it exquisite service. The vocal harmony blending between Clay and Andi is captured at its best on this track.

Jason: “That’s a favorite. A very, very old song.”

Phil: “It’s an old folk song, probably Irish or English.”

Yeah it sounds very Celtic.

Phil: “It’s an old English tune that’s taken on a lot of Appalachian flavor, and we do it sort of more dramatically. I really like the take that we ended up having. A lot of those tunes sort of made their way over to America and took on stylistic elements. I learned it from a fiddle player named Bruce Molsky. He’s an old time fiddle player and he learned it from a legendary North Carolina fiddle player named Tommy Jarrell. He learned it from God knows who. I love it because, especially that tune… with folk music you feel like there’s a real sense of oral tradition. Being a Filipino kid from Los Angeles I don’t have a ton of connection. But that’s one place where its like, I know who I learned it from. And I know who that guy learned it from. So you can kind of trace lineages of songs back by who you learned it from.”

This is part of bluegrass’s legacy today. It provides a tangible link to a past and to a rapidly disappearing, largely absent, oral tradition. Bluegrass connects us to that original root of culture and tradition, the story passed from generation to generation. Clay speaks of finding folk music through his brother who, after getting into Bob Dylan, worked his way backwards musically, tracing musicians through the folk revival of the 1960’s. Dylan being influenced by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and other early folk musicians reaching into the far flung past of American roots music.

 

BURGEONING FOLK REVIVAL

With bands like Mumford & Sons having paved the way for banjo-based music, in the 2010’s there has been a definite resurgence in the folk scene.

Jason: “We definitely owe a debt to Mumford.”

Phil: “It’s not exactly a full blown folk revival but there’s more of an audience for it (now). And we figure if you play fast enough people will like it.”

Judging by the show that follows he’s absolutely right. The Show Ponies had Shine dancing, arm in arm and otherwise from the crowded front stage area to the back of the coffee house.  Judging by the audience response and the musical impression I was left with, bluegrass has a home in Sacramento.

If you’d like to hear The Show Ponies you can listen here.

If you like what you hear, support the band by purchasing directly from them here.

 

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