James “Pony” Bradshaw navigates by lyric and mood, often forsaking convenient answers for more revealing questions about himself, his home, and the judgments attached to such notions. With North Georgia Rounder, a Godfather Part II-like follow-up to 2021’s excellent Calico Jim, Bradshaw takes an emotional census of the realm he’s populated with characters as detrimental as they are virtuous.
“When someone says, ‘Tell us what this song is about,’ I do not enjoy that. But I do like to talk about what my intentions are or what motivates me,” says Bradshaw, the Mississippi-born, Texas-raised artist who’s called Chatsworth, Georgia home for the better part of two decades. “A lot o’ the songs I write, I don’t sit down and say, ‘Alright, I’m writin’ a song about this right now.’ It’s kinda like a stream of consciousness until I got a mood goin’ on.”
Album opener “Foxfire Wine” evokes the misty green of Appalachia, rolling in emphatically before giving way to dreamy pedal steel and campfire philosophy amid the singer’s coyote howls. It’s anthropological poetry that reaches through time and loam.
“I can never understand what drives my interests, but I feel it has a lot to do with things a lot o’ people think about– where we come from, why we do what we do, and I never have any answers but I’m always examining and diggin’ and I always find new things and new interests that fascinate me. My origin story, personally, is ambiguous and I don’t know a lot about some family members,” says Bradshaw. “We don’t have any famous politicians or any well-known names. My family came from Ireland over to Quebec, Canada, and then down to South Louisiana. So yeah, those things interest me a lot. I try not to get too sentimental with it, though, ’cause that could skew a real emotion or the real truth about things. Sentimentalism is dangerous.”
A deliberate songwriter with the accent and ability to texture and color words, Bradshaw carves out the sweet as well as the harrowing from small, real moments through tunes like “Holler Rose” and “Safe In The Arms Of The Vernacular” where he sings, “I’m writing bad checks in blue ink, she wipes the counters off, leaves the dishes in the sink, it smells like bleach in here…”
“I’ve read everything you can get your hands on about songwriting– not like ‘songwriting 101’ but interviews and articles– and when you mention sights and smells and are very specific and detailed in your songs, it creates a more developed image. It’s true– it does it to my mind when I hear other folks’ songs! I try to be specific with the names of rivers or the bleach in the kitchen and the flies on the melon. Those things are very specific and they don’t really explain an emotion or a feeling, but they put you there and you can feel it ’cause you’re in it. Instead of tellin’ folks what they should feel, you should create it so they just feel it.
On “A Free Roving Mind”, “A Duffel, a Grip, and My D35″, and the record’s title track, Pony plumbs the duality of the working troubadour– the mythology as well as the actual, the thrill and the pain.
“I contradict myself all the time– I’m full o’ paradoxes! I don’t wanna romanticize it, but I do realize that one’s kind of a myth-building view of the travelin’ vagabond up in the hills tryin’ to make some dough. That was less realism and more myth, I felt, whenever I was writin’ [“North Georgia Rounder”]. It’s not necessarily about me, although, I’m from North Georgia and we do go out and play music and travel. It was more like a mythical character in my mind than me,” says Bradshaw.
“It’s like the travelin’ businessman, I suppose. You gotta go and make a livin’. Half the job is tourin’ and performing. The performance side of things doesn’t come naturally to me. Some people are just hams and love gettin’ up on a stage every night and they never lose energy. I’m sort of introverted– I can turn it on and I can talk to folks when I need to, but I need to be connected to a show. That tourin’ part is difficult. You have to rely on luck, goodwill, and just so many different things while you’re out there on the road. It’s not for the faint of heart! You miss your children– I do mention that in [“A Free Roving Mind”]. But there’s good things about travelin’ too– the perspectives and the people you meet. I think it’s good for folks to get out and do things like that.”
It’s that very blue-collar, knuckle-busted thread that runs throughout Bradshaw’s work, notably driving “Go Down, Appalachia”, as Pony– inhabiting his Calico Jim alter ego– sings, “It’s a privilege of mine to be a common man.”
“I don’t work with my hands in the dirt or anything like that,” says Bradshaw. “I sit in my chair and I read all the time. I write essays and songs and I don’t know what creates that drive to be art instead of craft, but those lines are blurred. Some people consider things that I would consider art to be a craft, and some people call themselves artists when I think they’re workin’ in craft. I think they’re two separate things, but the good thing about this job is there’s many facets to it. On the road, it’s more like a job, it’s more like work, so I try to put my brain in that mode. When I’m creating and actually writing a song or in the studio makin’ a record, I have a different mindset goin’ on there. Reconcilin’ those two, it’s like you have to be two people! It’s a dual living, it’s weird– and it doesn’t come natural to me.”
Though North Georgia Rounder mines the wilds, truths, and preconceptions of the area and its people, Bradshaw is wary of his place in the narrative, even as he considers another album that would complete the “unofficial” trilogy.
“I would like to do one more record related to these last two because there’s some conclusions that I can come to with a few of the characters. But also, I don’t wanna be tied to a specific subject. I’ve got other songs that have nothin’ to do with North Georgia, but I do feel a strange obligation to finish the story,” says Bradshaw.
“I don’t wanna be the spokesperson for North Georgia. There’s plenty o’ people that are much better spokespersons for this region than I am. I sit in my house most every day, readin’ and writin’ and playin’ songs. I’m not out there in the community. It’s a tough thing, I’ve found– you know, this industry, they like to attach a brand to you ’cause it’s a lot easier to sell and to push when you have that. I’m findin’ more– now, with this record– that people are loving to put the Appalachia stamp [on me] and they want me to talk about that, and I’m fine talkin’ about that. I just don’t want folks to get the wrong idea about me,” Pony says. “Am I bein’ overly sentimental and romantic? I don’t wanna be that.”