The Waymores offer a breed of acoustic honky tonk best enjoyed with no plans before sunrise. Home-based in Marietta, GA the husband and wife outfit of Willie Heath Neal and Kira Annalise spent years cycling through their own respective groups before falling in love with each other, embracing their own particular sound, and firing off an EP, (Weeds) in the Spring of 2019. That, of course, was before the COVID-19 pandemic rattled the entire music industry right down to The Waymores. The couple watched with clenched jaws as tours, shows, and opportunities were canceled or disappeared, but not content to remain idle, Kira and Willie channeled their frustration into a project that would become The Stone Sessions, a new full-length that checks every box for country or Americana enthusiasts who appreciate vintage attitude, lived-in songs, and what Susanna Clark might deem kitchen table intimacy. The Stone Sessions features guest shots from Ameripolitan progenitor Dale Watson and Asleep At The Wheel fiddler Katie Shore and is available now from Chicken Ranch Records.
The Waymores return to Downtown Macon for a FREE show at JBA on Friday, May 13th!
AI- You two met through music coming at it from two different directions, but the actual collaboration part– well, and I guess the romance part– took a little time to gestate! Tell me about the origins of The Waymores.
KA- I loved Willie the first time that I saw him (laughs)!
WHN- She hated me the first time she saw me (laughs)!
KA- It took him a little bit to like me, but I was after him from the start. I saw him on stage one night in a honky tonk in Marietta, Georgia. I had never touched a guitar and I was singin’ a little bit in this ensemble that we were a part of, but I saw him with his full band and just fell in love, man! I wanted the songs, I wanted him, I wanted everything! So I learned how to play guitar to try to rope him in and…
WHN- Like overnight, she learned how to play guitar (laughs)!
KA- I wanted you, man! I was quick with it! As years went by, I started my own full band and Willie had his own full band and we kept comin’ home, sayin’, “Well, we’re the only ones that aren’t makin’ any money at this ’cause we’re payin’ all the guys!” So we started The Waymores just to try and pay some bills!
WHN- And never thought it’d get any traction! We wanted to do somethin’– just playin’ patio, happy hour things– somethin’ to make money, to pay the bills. We didn’t wanna oversaturate our names ’cause we had careers, so we started calling it The Waymores, and we never, never expected to get any traction– but it did! We just thought we’d be playin’ local when we weren’t doin’ our full band things, but it got traction!
That surprises me that it took that much time for you two to come together, musically. It seems like that would’ve been something that you would’ve gelled together with from the beginning. What was with the resistance, Willie?
WHN- Well, at first, when Kira and I first met, I had just finished up another solo album for Willie Heath Neal and The Damned Ol’ Opry, and I was touring all of the time. I’d been recently divorced and I knew that touring and relationships just didn’t mix! The label had just put out an album and I was heavy touring and the thought of us getting together just wasn’t on my radar. It wasn’t like I didn’t want to do it, it was just somethin’ we’d never even contemplated. I just thought I didn’t have time.
KA- It was definitely on my radar, but I had to work slow and methodically and make sure that I got him for the long haul. I wasn’t in it for just a quick passing love or a quick passing song. I knew that I wanted him for the long haul. So being slow and steady wins the race!
The Waymores put out– I call it an EP, I think I’ve seen other people list it as an album– Weeds several years back, pre-pandemic. Were you invested in being recording artists at that point, or did you just need somethin’ that people could have in their hand or go to online to have a reference point for The Waymores?
WHN- What’s funny is that we were tourin’ hard and heavy as The Waymores before we ever decided we needed to make an album or an EP! So to fill up the vinyl, the label just took some old tracks of ours to put on the backside. We only recorded five songs, but we had already done a cover and made a little video– just for booking purposes– of John Prine and Iris Dement’s “In Spite of Ourselves”. We did a little video for that, and man, that thing just took off! We were gettin’ requests from Arizona, New Mexico, so just off of that video, we booked an entire tour (laughs)! We didn’t even have an album yet! We would go on tour and just sell our individual albums. We had nothing together at that time. But once we started touring off that video, we knew that this was going somewhere and that we had to have Waymores material.
Now, The Stones Sessions… I just learned that Steve Stone, who you made the album with, legitimately just passed away. I was not aware of that until I started gettin’ ready for this interview. So a piece of legacy for him and a head-first dive for you as a group.
KA- Yeah, it was really unfortunate. While we were recording this, I had vocal nodules, and Steve and I were talking about some pain that he was feeling that sounded very similar to what I was going through. So I sent him to my ENT and they did a scope on him. It came back and he was just riddled with cancer and it was everywhere! He went through a lot, he really had a positive attitude, and was determined to beat it. He beat the brain cancer– but then it got into his spinal fluid and they just kinda told him it was over. We were really hopin’ that he would see the album street date, but he passed away [February 23, 2022]. It’s a devastating loss. He was such a huge part of this album, but one thing that his family has given us is they told us that he died thinking this album was gonna take us all to the top. So regardless of how things turn out, in his mind, we were all already famous and just hittin’ the big time with this one!
WHN- He was a larger-than-life guy. Once it was in his spinal fluid, they gave him three months– and he didn’t last six days. We were actually on our way to see him. He was reachin’ out to friends tellin’ everyone to come get their goodbyes in, and we were on our way to see him when his sister rang us that morning and said he passed 10 o’clock that morning. And we were devastated.
How did y’all come to meet Steve and go in to record with him?
KA- He was a big staple in the Atlanta scene. There’s not a lot of steel players that got around like Steve did. He was really big, I would say in this genre, but where else do you hear steel guitar? He was an incredible musician, and not only a steel player– he also played guitar and bass– and so he was just really a utility player for a lot of bands and groups in this area, and we were one of ’em. I think we originally met him at the Star Bar. The Star Bar was doin’ a thing years back…
WHN- Honky Tonk Extravaganza.
KA- Honky Tonk Extravaganza! It was like a live band country karaoke, and Steve was a part of that. We just hit it off with him! He had done a few shows with Willie’s full band when I was on vocal rest. Our original thought was not to record a full album, but once we got in there, we worked really well together, so it just turned out for the best.
WHN- At first we thought we were just gonna make a single, somethin’ to release durin’ the pandemic, somethin’ just to keep us relevant. We’d lay down the scratch track and the bass and stuff in the studio, but then we’d send it over the wire to our drummer who would lay down his parts. Then we got that back, we’d send it to our guitar player for him to take time, figure out what he wanted to do. We just thought, “Well, we’ll just do one song.” The first song went much easier (laughs) than the rest of the album, but after the first song, we thought, “We’ll just do an entire album this way,” so that’s what we did!
A lot of folks have had the opportunity to make albums remotely and it’s given them a chance to work with people that they might not have had we been working in a traditional point in time without COVID 19 affecting our decisions. You had a chance to get the great King of Country Music, Dale Watson, to play guitar on your version of his song, “Caught”! And you also got another special guest in [Asleep At The Wheel’s] Katie Shore!
KA- Willie had done some dates with Dale back in the early 2000s, so they already had a rapport, and we opened for Dale a couple of years ago at Smith’s Olde Bar and we just all kinda hit it off as well. We started playin’ his club in Memphis, Hernando’s Hideaway, and just got to talkin’ with he and his wife, Celine. When we decided to cover “Caught”, we originally emailed only asking for his blessing– and then I had some tequila, and I emailed him again and asked him to play on the track! Dale is a really incredible and humble musician. He is always rooting for the underdog and the up-and-comers.
WHN- And if he sees that you’re working, he will extend a hand.
KA- He always gets us up on stage if we see him at like the Continental Club or somethin’! He’s always just a really kind and humble person, and so one night, we were at the Continental and he got me up to sing “Caught” with him– and Katie from Asleep At The Wheel was playing fiddle for him on that one! She and I hit it off, so we started talking in the weeks following and I just did the same thing again! I said, “Well, if Dale’s gonna play on it, I want Katie too as well!” I just sent her a text and she said, “Yeah, of course, I’m down!” They’re both just so kind! Like you’re saying, normally, we wouldn’t have had this opportunity with these people– but that might not be the case! They’re just such great, humble musicians, it’s just like talkin’ to somebody that’s on your exact same level and they’re just larger than life in reality.
WHN- That whole remote thing was convenient for him to do it ’cause he’s got a little studio and he could just track it whenever. It was kind of funny that when we asked him to play guitar on it, he never got back to us. But that night at the Continental Club, before Kira got on stage, he saw us in the crowd. He was like, “Waymores! Hey, ain’t I supposed to play guitar on a track? Send me that damn thing!” So he told us himself live at a show that he was gonna play guitar on it! It was so funny, when he sent us the track, we were so excited that we listened to the track just by itself– there was no backing band or anything behind it. We’re listenin’ to the guitar track and we’re like, “Well, this isn’t really much of anything. He really just kinda phoned that in…” But then we laid it down in the song and we were like, “That is brilliant!”
KA- He wrote the song– I figure he knows how to play on it (laughs)!
Let’s talk about writin’ songs. The majority, as I understand it, of these songs were written during the off period, the forced lockdown– no shows, no live performances. The time that you had to be at home was the longest stretch you’ve done in quite some time. The song “Die Right Here”— what a heartbreaker! And I think that there’s not a small town in the state of Georgia or really anywhere, where those words aren’t being thought, sung, or said. One of the things about the pandemic, I think it all drove us into our own small towns and created that angst of wanting to get out that I don’t know that I’ve felt in a very long time. Willie, that’s something that drove your artistic muse the majority of your adult life, right?
WHN- Yeah, man, I wanted outta my town! When I was in high school, I was eatin’ lunch one day and the Navy recruiter came up, set up in the back of the lunchroom, and I was like, “Screw this, I’m outta here!” (Laughs) I just went back and enlisted in the Navy! I wanted outta my town so bad, you know? But yeah, it has definitely fueled that.
KA- Like you said, most of these songs were written during quarantine, and that was one that was really fun to write. I was in such a bad mood and on the phone handling some kind of business for The Waymores that was not going as I had planned (laughs), probably more stuff being canceled or something! Willie was sittin’ in the livin’ room and he came into the dining room and said, “Hey, I got this little bit of this song worked out and I put down everything and was just like, “Stop it all! We’re gonna finish this song. We have to write right now!”
WHN- She was in such a foul mood! I had the first verse and a rough of the chorus laid out, and man, her demeanor just changed! She lit up and she was like, “Cancel everything else we’ve got goin’. We’re gonna finish this song right now!” So it was great! Most of our writing happens that way. Every now and then, she’ll bring one piece in and I’ll write a part or vice versa, but most of our songs, when they start forming, they’re comin’ out right then.
I read your piece in the AJC and there was a particular line that struck me. You were talkin’ about being home during the pandemic, and Willie, you said that it “forced” you to be artists. I wondered, when you are working on the road and you’re touring and you’re performing every night, sometimes that creative part takes a backseat to the live performance. Do you feel that before, you maybe had stepped away from it and you needed that opportunity to sit down and focus on the actual writing part?
WHN- We do everything. Kira manages The Waymores and does all of the business and stuff. I handle all the mechanical end– I do all the driving, I load in all the gear, I make sure the records are made. Our relationship is very great, but both of us are working all the time, you know? So it is a full-time job and playing music is only like 40% of it when you break it down! There’s a lot of business to get done! You’re not allowed the opportunity to just be an artist– not to mention personal lives! We’ve got kids, we got other things to handle in life. So Kira and I talk about it a lot, like, “Man, I just don’t have time to just sit down and put a guitar in my hand and try to write some songs.
In hindsight, we didn’t realize it when we were going through it. We were just aggravated about all the work that was being canceled and this is what we do, and so it wasn’t until hindsight, we realized it was kind of a blessing because once we let go of all the aggravations of, “Well, you’re not going anywhere,” once we let go of all of that, songs just started pourin’ out of us! And tequila and whiskey helped (laughs)!
Stylistically, the sound of The Waymores… I always manage to find myself in the thick of the discussion of Americana versus country versus roots. I grew up with it bein’ called alt-country. It’s what I still lean towards as far as terminology goes, but everybody’s got their own thing. I love that you call The Waymores “acoustic honky tonk”, and I think the reason that I like it is because every great song, if you just reduce it to the acoustic guitar and the vocal, if it still works, then you can always go and do it.
WHN- Yeah, that’s great that you said that.
KA- Yeah! Willie and I always joke because we noticed it more on this album than the last one, but we would write these songs with just us and an acoustic and then we would take ’em into the studio and work it up with a full band. And then we’d have to come from the studio, go home and work it up acoustic for our show ’cause the tour is just the duo! Yeah. And now, we’ve got our album release date and we’re havin’ to work ’em back up with full band! So the song really go through quite a bit of processing, and it’s really two different songs that we’re playin’. We have so much freedom when it’s just the two of us and our guitars on stage. We get to joke around, we get to really just make friends with everybody in that audience. It’s a very intimate performance as far as like, we talk to people in between songs, we make sure there’s a connection there.
WHN- We always act like you’re in our living room.
KA- Yeah, exactly! And we don’t get as much freedom with the full band, but it’s a better representation of what’s on the album, so we like to throw that in there every now and then too.
WHN- We know that the day is coming when we’ll have to travel with the full band, but right now, as it is financially, the reason we started doing this was that we were the only ones we had to pay and we could actually pay our bills. But we know our star is on the rise and that eventually, there will be tours with the full band and then there’ll be little runs where we’ll have to go out. But honestly, man, all of my years of playing music, my twenty-something year solo career with the full band, my favorite way to play music is just Kira and I. I like it when the band’s behind us– sometimes it’s like drivin’ a real fast car, you know? But my favorite way to do it, the most soul gratifying way to do it is when it’s just Kira and I.