Pony Bradshaw (James Bradshaw) may not be a household name but he is quickly carving out a respected place amongst great Southern songwriters and troubadours. His thoughtful approach to songwriting seems is rooted in storytelling in the most literal sense, and he crafts lyrics filled with intriguing, often troubled characters that haunt their Southern landscape. In writing about this region, Bradshaw also presents a sort of social commentary that examines the dichotomy between country and city folk, whether that be through work, addiction, heartbreak or politics. This style of musicianship puts Bradshaw in line with acts like the Drive-By Truckers, Lucero, Ryan Bingham, and John Moreland.
All of Bradshaw’s strengths are on full display across the ten tracks that make up his new album Calico Jim, due out January 29th, a musical work of Southern gothic that sprawls across North Georgia. Each song feels like a vignette confronting the tug of war between progress and (sometimes ugly) tradition that many rural Southerners find themselves caught up in. Through his sparse, mostly acoustic compositions, Bradshaw sings with poignance and eloquence as he traverses a landscape filled with history. His alt-country and Americana sound showcases his heartfelt, twangy vocals, which, combined with intensely literal lyrics, make Calico Jim the kind of album that will turn heads in its epic beauty and timelessness.
Recently, Pony Bradshaw took time to chat about where his songs come from, his writing process, capturing pride of place, the writers he loves and more.
Are these songs based on real events or even your own experiences?
I tend to write songs that are mostly fictional with a little bit of reality thrown in. Either my personal and direct reality or something I’ve witnessed or read about. I enjoy creating, pulling something out of thin air, and telling stories. I’m not really into the memoir, diaristic approach.
You reference red states and political views. Were you consciously thinking about the divisive state of the country, and specifically between rural and urban?
I don’t feel like it was a deliberate rendering of the collective political stance here in the south. It just snuck in there. It’s hard to avoid these days. Georgia obviously turned out to be a blue state, too. Which makes sense. But it stunned me at the same time. I’m definitely proud to be a Georgian these days.
What was the writing process like for these songs – were they written over a long period of time or in a short burst?
The majority of the songs that make up Calico Jim were written between March and late July of 2020. Right in the thick of the pandemic and the lockdowns. We booked the studio in August and had us a record ready to go by September.
What sparked the idea to write about North Georgia? What is about the region that you felt could play out in your lyrical narrative?
I’ve been interested in place for quite a while. Pride of, or in, a place, no matter if that pride is warranted or not. The people that make up a place and the character, or the disposition they comprise as a whole fascinates me. I’ve lived here in North Georgia for 15 years, and I figured I’d start where I live and possibly spread out from there. I’d like to study more pockets of Georgia: south, coastal, etc. St. Simons Island is an area I’d like to know more intimately.
Were there any albums – country music or otherwise – that you were inspired by in regards to telling such a distinct regional story?
Not exactly. I was deeply mired in the fictional world (Port William) that Wendell Berry created, and the way he built up these characters, flawed and human, that rely on each other and make good and bad decisions. The outcomes are endless. I appreciate the deep focusing in on the more quotidian aspects of that way of life. Berry calls it a membership, each individual’s part in their community, and that resonated with me.
You have said that you believe work is a form of prayer. Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?
Maybe it’s just a way to remind myself to take the writing serious, to work respectfully and with dignity. I don’t want to write just for the sake of writing. I hope and strive to enliven my records with something that lies just beneath the surface that ties it all together and has a more overarching substance to it.
You are a big bluegrass fan. Would you ever make a bluegrass album sort of like Sturgill Simpson has been doing?
I do love bluegrass but I don’t think I’d ever make a traditional sounding bluegrass record. I like building sonically on top of what could maybe be bluegrass music if different personnel were involved or if different linear arrangement decisions were made. Someone recently said to me that I don’t need a banjo on my records because my voice takes care of what a banjo could bring to a song. I took it as a compliment.
Your lyrics feel very literal and distinctly Southern. Are there any Southern writers that you have read and drawn inspiration from?
I love so many different writers and I’m influenced by all of them. Not just southern. The southern way of speaking is just who I am and I don’t want to pretend like it’s not. I’m drawn to colloquialisms, no matter the region. It just so happens that I’m from the south so I write that way, in that idiom. I’m not in denial. I love Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Robert Penn Warren, Chekhov, Gogol, Denis Johnson, Stendhal, Chris Offutt, etc. I could go on and on.
Can we expect a tour once things go back to normal?
We will most certainly be touring when that arena is thriving and safe again. I truly look forward to those days. It’s been too long. I’ve enjoyed staying home working and writing, hanging with my family, but I need some balance.
Photo credit: Bekah Jordan