Calico Jim, the latest effort from Pony Bradshaw, shares the same visceral philosophy as its predecessor, 2019’s Sudden Opera, but with teeth refined to points that sink to the bone and often smart with sweet poison. It’s a gap in the mist, an invitation to a North Georgia realm that exists now and forever perhaps as it did 100 years ago or merely yesterday. For Bradshaw, born in Mississippi and raised in East Texas, Calico Jim is also a portrait of home, certainly the state and region he’s embraced for the better part of two decades as well as the greater canvas of The South in all its delicate shades.
AI- Calico Jim. I’m really invested in this concept, the idea of a Southerner feeling displaced within the South. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it that way, but it’s certainly something I feel like I’ve wrestled with at times. Whether you’re talking about our history, good and bad, or our future in the same vein.
PB- I think it’s very common, the feelin’ that I have and you have. It’s just not a loud voice being talked about. But it’s very common. It’s not some kind of new feeling people are havin’ out there. Are you from Macon?
No, I’ve been here since about 2005. I married a girl from here. My family is originally from West Virginia, so I relate to your mountain stories as well.
Yeah, I’m not originally from here either. I grew up in East Texas, but I’ve been here about 16 years– because of a woman, like you. I ended up divorced, but I have children. I’m not goin’ back to Texas. But yeah, man, durin’ the lull of touring during this pandemic, in the beginning, I was just sittin’ at home a lot. I always wanna write about things I know and my place– and nobody really writes about North Georgia or Chatsworth, Georgia! I hunkered down and started writin’! It was a lot of new songs, really. I think like eight songs on the record were written durin’ the pandemic.
That’s interesting because with this album, to me, it’s got a different sound and a different feel than your previous work, Sudden Opera. It’s a lot leaner. It feels more deliberate. I know you took a different direction with the recording, went out to Fellowship Hall Sound. Why that room? Had you been there before? Was there something that came out of there that drew you in?
Yeah, a guy that played drums, Paddy Ryan, on my first record, Sudden Opera, he’s from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Jason Weinheimer, the owner and engineer of Fellowship Hall, has a close relationship with a lot of Tulsa players and musicians. Paddy played with John Fullbright, John Moreland, Parker Millsap… John Moreland made a record there at Fellowship Hall Sound [Big Bad Luv] and I liked the way it sounded. And it was just my kind of people, you know? Nothing too fancy, but good quality sound. That was the whole point of leavin’ Rounder Records, where I put out Sudden Opera, to have a little bit more control and to tone it down. It was too much goin’ on for me on that first record. But that’s the way it goes sometimes.
Calico Jim is not coming out on Rounder?
No, man. I met some good folks durin’ this pandemic. A lot of weird things happenin’ during this time! I left Rounder like a month before this pandemic started and had some good shows lined up, good festivals that were payin’ decent and were gonna help me make this new record on my own. And then all that fell through, obviously. All that money was gone and I was like, “Well, shit. I don’t know how we’re gonna make the next record,” and somebody just reached out to me on Instagram about doin’ a little outdoor private party kinda show. We did it and we struck up a friendship and we started a little label. We call it Black Mountain Music. It’s gonna be my label, mine and my partners. It’s not a label per see… Not yet at least.
But a way for you to own and distribute your own music. That’s cool. I didn’t know that was the case. Swingin’ back around to Sudden Opera, I know that several of those songs, you’d been hanging on to ’em for quite a while. Now with [Calico Jim], you said you wrote eight songs during the pandemic and you just recorded them this [past] summer. So the timeline for this record, the pace has been a lot faster.
(Laughs) Yeah, a lot faster!
And it’s a weird thing to be introducing new music that you can’t get out and support on the road. How have you felt about this process? Because just telling me now that you’re doing this through your own imprint, has that been easier because of the pandemic? That you haven’t had to worry about setting up tours and whatnot?
It’s easier in the way of schedules and timing and when we want to and how we release things in that way, but financially it’s terrible (laughs)! I guess it’s not a great idea, but I also don’t like the alternative– just sittin’ on music. That’s not my style either. I don’t ever like to do things like that. So just gotta take it how it comes. You don’t expect a pandemic, obviously…
It’s true nobody does (laughs)!
But I’m not gonna not release records just because of that. It’s not in me to do that. I can’t do it. That was a big reason for leaving Rounder. I wanted to control how I release, what I release, and when I release. I might’ve doubled down and released real quick because I was tired of being controlled. Might take it a little slower the next one. Although it’s ready to go! It’s not recorded but it’s written.
Oh! Well, then I’ll bring that up here in a minute. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the character and the concept of Calico Jim. Were you working with the idea of a concept album from the start or did it evolve that way while you were writin’ the songs? And did you realize, “Oh, these are all connected?”
It wasn’t from the start. It kinda just happened. And like I said, eight of ’em were new. Two of ’em were old, so obviously I didn’t have that in mind then, but they seemed to fit. It’s a loose concept. It’s not like a straight linear story of characters poppin’ in and out. Calico Jim, some people that know me say it’s my alter ego, but it’s not. I have a habit of pickin’ up nicknames though. So that might be another one. My name is James and Jim, you know, it was my dad. So I use that name a lot in songs– Jim or Jimmy or James, things like that. But it wasn’t like I set out to write a concept record. That’s hard! I think it’s limiting and it makes it difficult in that it limits where you could go if you’re doin’ a concept record. But some people pull it off. I accidentally made it like that (laughs)!
Speakin’ of nicknames, in all of my research, I never came across where ‘Pony’ comes from. How did you adopt that moniker?
It’s not an interesting story, (laughs) but me and my old guitarist, we were just doin’ an open mic down there at Eddie’s Attic whenever he was having an open mic there in Atlanta, instead of the one at the Red Clay Theatre. We didn’t wanna just go by our names. He’d called me Pony, like two times as a joke. His brother called me Tucson! I’m tellin’ you, people just call me things! I don’t know why! But we just said Pony and then used my last name. It kinda sounded like a band and then it just became me instead of a band. Anybody that knows me, family members, since I was a baby, I go by Buzz, actually. That’s my name. That’s what people call me. So yeah, it can get confusing!
I heard in another interview where you talked about your affinity for bluegrass music and how this album could have just as easily been a bluegrass record. As it is, I would say stylistically, compared to Sudden Opera, your accent is much more pronounced this time around. Was that calculated?
Well, no, I don’t think so. I think I just felt out of place, man, in the big Nashville city. I was out of my element. Sometimes, drinkin’ can make it more pronounced– and we had a few whiskeys durin’ the recording of Calico. Maybe that’s it. I don’t know? I hate listenin’ back to interviews. I just won’t do it because I do sound like a big hillbilly!
I meant more along the lines of stylistically, how it does feel more like more of a… I don’t want to use the word roots record, but there’s definitely a more local feel to it than with the previous album.
Yeah, that was definitely frowned upon when I was makin’ Sudden Opera. Like even mentionin’ towns or regions is like, “Oh, you don’t want to do that! You don’t want to do that!” I’m like, “I know what I want to do.” But yeah, bluegrass, man. I feel like if we threw a four-piece– upright, fiddle, mandolin, guitar– we could make that record a bluegrass record if we wanted to. I love bluegrass.
I’ve had an opportunity to listen to [Calico Jim] the last couple of days. “Hillbilly Possessed” is one that really stands out to me. I don’t remember a whole lot about it, but when I was a kid, my sister and I went to a snake handlin’ church. Is that an experience that you’ve had?
I’ve never been to one that was still practicin’ that way. But I was married to a woman whose great-grandfather started their church. They were super Pentecostal and they were very close to the snake handlin’ stuff. So I was thinking about that– the snake handlin’ preacher, a man that, he might not have been educated well, but he felt the spirit and that’s all the matters. Not education, just the spirit. And that just spun out of that. I remember when I wrote it, my youngest son, Hudson, he was watching Dr. Doolittle— and I’m over here writin’ this dark-ass song! He’s right next to me! So funny how things like that happen!
How many kids have you got?
I have two sons and one stepson. Three boys!
How old are they?
11, 10, and 10.
So they’re aware of what it is that you do as a job as a songwriter and as an artist.
Yeah. They love it! They know exactly what I do, but they don’t understand how it makes money.
I don’t think I do yet either (laughs)!
The youngest, Hud, he filled out something, some book, I can’t remember what book it was, but it’s like one of those finish-the-sentence… Like, “What do you want to be when you grow up? Where do you want to live? How much money do you wanna make?” And his was, he wants to be an artist, he wants to live up on the mountain, and he wants to make a thousand bucks a year. I was like, “That sounds about right! I can tell you exactly how to do that!”
My wife makes fun of me about this, but my family has a real thing about food and tradition and “Foxfire” conjures up a lot of that family mythology. In addition to the glowing fungus, I’m guessin’ that song owes at least a little bit to the old Foxfire magazine turned book series as well.
Yeah! And speakin’ of Foxfire, I almost took the boys this week to the old museum. The Foxfire Museum is a couple hours from here. I think it’s in Rabun County. Foxfire[the fungus] is referenced in a different song, “Pork Belly Blossom”. The “Foxfire” song… I was readin’ a book by a guy named Charles Joyner, readin’ two books by him– Shared Traditions and Down by the Riverside. It’s about the coastal Carolina slave communities. It’s historical non-fiction and it just inspired me to write that song. That’s the one outlier on this record. It’s not based here in North Georgia but it fit, so I put it on there. It fit stylistically.
You brought up “Pork Belly Blossom”. You talk about having a belly full of barbecue in that song, and as I understand it, you are a barbecue aficionado and practitioner, right?
Yeah, I am, man! I’m not sure how good I am at it, but I do it! I’m not very high tech with it for sure!
That’s one of my great passions as well. I think the lower tech is the better, really. What have you learned to do since everything has been shut down? I know that’s been something that I’ve taken a lot of comfort in and really done a lot of with not being able to get out and go and do things.
I remember when I first started smokin’ meats– it wasn’t too long ago, five, six years ago– I was down in Savannah and I went to a B’s Cracklin’ BBQ. You ever heard of that?
I have not.
He opened up, recently, a new spot in Atlanta, but he’s all over the map in all those Garden & Gun, Oxford American magazines. He makes the best barbecue I’ve ever had, and he was real unknown when I met him. I just sparked up a conversation about it and how I wanted to get into it and he gave me a lot of pointers and tips. He likes to keep it kinda low maintenance. I use a temperature gauge on the grill, but I don’t poke it and monitor that. I go with feel and time, and I’m not always consistent with what I put on the plate, but it seems to be more fun that way and more natural to me. But I never make anything as good as he makes! So I don’t know if I should change my practice!
Literature is another passion that you’ve been very vocal about. And that you’ve mentioned several times in this conversation. Outside of music, any desire to try your hand at prose?
Maybe when I’m not making records and touring. I feel like I need to put time into each one and I obsess a little bit about things. So I know if I do one, the other one’s gonna suffer and I don’t want to half-ass it. I’d like to, but I can’t seem to stop wanting to make music and tour right now.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve gotten the songs for a follow-up album already written and ready to go, even though you haven’t done any recording yet. Do you anticipate tryin’ to get into the studio within the next six months or so? Or are you still gonna wait and see how things go as far as being able to book?
We’ll probably record it this summer and then put it out the next year. That’s the way I like to work. At least right now while I still feel productive enough to make records. If I didn’t have enough songs, I wouldn’t want to be on that type of schedule. But right now, if you can, what’s the problem with releasing a record every year? I know strategically a lot of labels and publicists probably wouldn’t think that was smart ’cause you need to get as much money as you can out of that one record– you know, bleed it dry. But I’ve always liked folks that put out records, as long as the quality doesn’t start sufferin’, and I want to put out records! That’s just me. Until I just don’t want to or I’m in a rut or something. But we got another record– or two! So we’re gonna do it! I’m not gettin’ any younger, man! I’ll be 41!
That’s another thing. You’ve come at the music business– and this gets talked about a lot or at least I’ve read where you have talked about this a lot with other interviewers– comin’ at the music business a little bit later than others. I spoke to another fella whose music I’ve really been enjoyin’ this last year, Zach Aaron. His story is very similar to yours in that he left the Air Force and just kinda did his thing for a little while with no expectation. But then he picked up a guitar and learned to play and just started writin’ songs. He’s an East Texas guy too. But I asked him this question and I’ll ask you. Do you think that coming at it later, not having spent your teenage years or your twenties with any expectation of getting into the music business, do you think that has helped you in your pursuit?
I do. I do at least in the pursuit of how I want to create and write a song and then make a record. It might be to my disadvantage that I started late, fiscally speaking. Financially and gettin’ in the biz– whatever that is– and meetin’ folks and tourin’, you know, I’m still learning all that. I think I quit my last job like four years ago, and that’s when we really started tourin’, and I’m still a newbie. There’s good things about it and there’s bad things about it, but the content of what I make now is what I want to make and I don’t regret it. I feel like maybe if I’d been puttin’ out records at 20, I’m sure my mind would’ve evolved and I’da looked back on that, and been, “Damn, I wish I coulda waited on that a little bit, let it ripen before I put that out!” There’s pros and cons to it, startin’ a small business. Basically, that’s what it is. When you’re old and tired and your back hurts, it’s kinda rough. As a young man, you could just sleep on a couch and a floor and I can’t do that right now. I don’t want to do that. And I have a family, so I can’t tour as much as I could have as a young man. There’s pros and cons to it, but I prefer this path.