The Wilders - Still wild about Hank

There can’t be too many people who qualify, as Ike Sheldon does, to sing in grand opera and on the Grand Ole Opry. Broadcast from Nashville, the country music radio institution reportedly got its name when its original host, George Hay, opened the new programme, which followed the rather more high brow Music Appreciation Hour, by announcing: "You have been listening to Grand Opera.  Now we will present Grand Ole Opry!"

Later, the downhome Opry came live from the Ryman Auditorium, which had played host to appearances by the New York Met and Mario Lanza, and would go on to both welcome and ban country legend Hank Williams, which ties in even more neatly with Sheldon’s story.

As lead singer and guitarist with Missouri-based country music whirlwind The Wilders, Sheldon has broken not a few Scottish hearts these past two years by capping the band’s Herald Angel-winning appearances at the Edinburgh Fringe with drop dead gorgeous readings of Williams favourites including the much mangled Your Cheatin’ Heart.

In Sheldon’s hands, Your Cheatin’ Heart is reclaimed as a simple but affecting song of love and loss, with emphasis on its purity and directness. If he sounds like the real deal, that’s because he is. Born and bred in small town Missouri – Phillipsburg or P’burg to its friends - Sheldon grew up hearing his parents’ records of the Statler Brothers and Tom T Hall and his sister’s Cream albums. He played piano from the age of eight – another facet of the Wilders’ performances is Sheldon’s ability to add solo instrumental blues, jazz and ragtime cameos if there’s a piano to hand – and he later took up organ and guitar. Then he underwent a curious form of teenage rebellion.

“I got culture,” he says down the line from his Kansas City home. “Don’t get me wrong, rural Missouri was a great place to grow up but when I was in my teens, a friend moved into town from Alaska and he pointed me towards all sorts of different stuff as well as showing me what was cool about the music around us. I started reading more, hearing a lot of music that was new to me, and the upshot was, I went and did a degree in vocal performance. I sang opera, although I really loved recitals and art songs the best.”

Throughout his university years in Liberty, Missouri, which included a trip to the Edinburgh Festival with the university’s choir in the late 1980s, Sheldon still kept in touch with his roots. On holidays back home he’d make compilation tapes from his parents’ records and then, when he felt homesick back in Liberty, he’d drive around the dirt roads on the outskirts of town, listening to these aural comfort blankets.

In a striking parallel with singer-songwriter Diana Jones, who grew up with a foster family in New York and whose mysterious connection with country music was subsequently explained by discovering that her Tennessean grandfather was a musician who had played guitar with Nashville guru Chet Atkins, Sheldon later inherited a guitar belonging to his own maternal grandfather, Leo Myers.

Sheldon’s mother had never said much about her parents, other than the fact that they and all their belongings had perished in a house fire before Sheldon was born. But it turned out that this house had been quite the musical meeting point, and that Sheldon’s grandfather had played with Chet Atkins, too, as well as Dolly Parton’s mentor, Porter Wagoner, who was among those who dropped by between gigs.

So when, in 1996, after having graduated from Liberty and spent a few years playing in rock groups with names such as Wig Newton and Foolish Sad Robot, Sheldon began reconnecting with old country songs and bumped into Wilders-to-be Phil Wade and Betse Ellis, who were trading in the new age dream for bluegrass heaven, there was a feeling that this was a meeting that was pre-ordained.

The guitar heirloom, which had escaped the fatal fire because Sheldon’s grandfather had swapped instruments with one of his nine brothers just days beforehand, became part of Sheldon’s re-immersion into country music, although it has since been retired to prevent potential damage on planes or perhaps more likely, onstage.

It’s one of the features of the Wilders’ live performances that, even allowing for recent moves into more conventional amplification, the quartet of fiddle, guitars and double bass does tend to be packed closely together with the guys’ Stetsons bobbing like cogs in some Heath-Robinson rhythm machine.

“When we started out, we were only about the second band in our area to be doing that old-time thing of all crowding around the one microphone,” says Sheldon.

“We got quite a bit of flak from sound engineers but because we were playing this undiluted country music, we figured that was the way to do it and it felt right. I remember reading somewhere that someone who had joined Bill Monroe’s band way back said the first week was like playing in a washing machine – you had to get used to the dance, and there’s still a bit of choreography involved when we play. You sing a song, then it’s time for the fiddle solo so you have to get out of the way quick. Nobody’s been seriously hurt but I’ve whacked Phil a time or two with the headstock of my guitar while he’s pulling out of a dobro solo, and Betse’s fiddle bow could cause some damage if one of us drifted into its path at the wrong time.”

With their latest album, Someone’s Got to Pay, picking up rave reviews in the US, the Wilders’ star is emphatically on the rise back home. The album is based round a murder story, first explored on a limited edition 10” red vinyl record released last year and expanded into a concept album that is, says Sheldon with a tone of reassurance, some way short of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. This increased songwriting productivity hasn’t lessened their commitment to Hank Williams, however.

“For me, if anyone who sings country music hasn’t learned a whole lot from Hank, they really need to go back and do it,” says Sheldon, for whom great singing is all about communication whether it’s Elvis, Sinatra or one of his other favourites, Axl Rose of Guns and Roses. “I get flak for that, too, but hey, Axl gets across what he wants to put across. The thing with Hank is, it can be daunting to sing his stuff. You might think, how can I add to what he did to it? And the answer is, don’t. His songs are so perfectly written that you really don’t need to add interest or your own thing to them, you just let them speak for themselves.”

From The Herald, July 31, 2008.


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