Pony Bradshaw entered my radar in 2021 with his impressively layered and excellently written Calico Jim album, a project framed specifically around Georgia in its references, but where the overall examination of living in the American South felt distinctly modern in its framing and approach. A choice to embrace a history’s darkest points and learn from them while forging something new and erasing old stereotypes along the way, all while featuring the sort of detailed imagery and poetry that I just love dissecting further. It was my among my favorite albums of that year, perfectly released in the earlier, colder months of the year to let the poetry simmer.
If anything, then, the follow-up to that easily made for my most anticipated release of the year, so here we are again with another well-timed late January release … but it’s funny, because while North Georgia Rounder feels like the natural extension to Calico Jim in writing, sound, and presentation, there’s something about the execution that’s made me cooler on it than I’d otherwise prefer. It’s still wonderfully textured and great – the first one of its kind I’ve heard this year, at that – but it feeling like just a sole extension might be its overall issue.
Now, before I approach that point, I do want to address the positives. Like always, Bradshaw’s wonderfully emotive weight as a performer is his secret weapon for what makes his work so magnetic and captivating, the sort of ragged, hangdog interpreter who’s still able to imbue so much cathartic expressiveness into not only his stories, but the characters within them, too. And when you couple that with an equally underrated sense of melody that can keep tempered work like this feeling alive and energized, along with a surprisingly strong sense of groove and great hooks to match, there’s a base foundation here that’s hard to deny in how easy it pulls one in to the scenes being sketched.
But I’d also say that despite arguably being more consistent in sound overall, North Georgia Rounder is a bit of a headier listen to take in – lyrically and sonically – thanks to the even slower paces and reliance on minor chords to set very lived-in and heartbreaking scenes. Like with before, there’s always some sort of subtle flourish to carry along the melody – some great fiddle and dobro interplay on the hook of “Holler Rose” or a smoldering, buzzy surge of electric guitar on “Notes On a River Town” to heighten the dramatic stakes – but I also wouldn’t say it’s aiming to be quite as direct or dynamic as before. It’s a more quaint listen; damn-near outright hazy and atmospheric on tracks like “Foxfire Wine” with its outro, the fittingly titled “A Free, Roving Mind,” or the equally meditative “A Duffel, A Grip, and My D35.” And even if there are little moments to appreciate here and there – the playful pedal steel patter riding off “Kindly Turn the Bed Down, Drusilla” that never fails to make me smile, and the live feel in general echoed by the deeper, thicker strumming of the acoustics and clear-cut fiddle work is never short of excellent – it is a much more challenging listen, and I’m not sure heading even further in that direction is always the right call in maintaining interest.
If anything, I could draw similar comparisons to artists like Ian Noe, Charles Wesley Godwin, and Cole Chaney who employ similar tactics to embrace direct shots of weary Appalachia and the simultaneous beauty that can come even through the darkness. But Bradshaw’s work is inspired and driven more by poetic literature. More often than not, his soulful, passionate delivery is enough to grant potency to his characters and scenes as it is, and even if the imagery itself is free-roaming and rich without being necessarily direct, there’s still power within those sentiments as they stand.
But compared to the rich, strikingly individual character portraits we got on tracks like, say, “Calico Jim,” “Hillbilly Possessed,” and “Jimmy the Cop” from Bradshaw’s previous project, North Georgia Rounder is more wide-angled in its overall approach, still focused around Georgia at its heart, but more all-encompassing in speaking for the heart of Appalachia as a whole through more distanced characters in various places, where they often speak less from personal struggle and more from an empathetic viewpoint that could describe similar plights of multiple people like them. And I think therein lies the first reason why this isn’t clicking with me as strongly, as while Bradshaw’s poetry is a marvel to behold and dissect, it’s sometimes a bit too overwritten and broad for its own good here, lacking the stronger focus from before to take its actual meanings further. Perhaps that’s part of the point; these are, after all, meant to be still shots of characters forgotten by America at large. Or maybe it’s just years of hearing similar albums embrace similar thematic points that have set the bar higher and higher for me, but when the entire thematic cohesion is tied to that same paradoxical reverence and unease with one’s heritage and history, I’m often left wishing Bradshaw had leaned harder on a stronger narrative point-of-view again; some of these songs feel like they’re missing a third verse or stronger bridge to tie everything together or let the resonance linger beyond just pure vocal power and sentiment.
But we do get those stronger moments, of course. Along with featuring a strong burst of melody on the hook, I love that “Holler Rose” grapples with questions of legacy and what one’s work is really worth, bolstered all the more by questions of abandonment of others on “Mosquitoes,” or the haunted echoes that come with returning from war on “Safe in the Arms of Vernacular,” which also focuses on the story of a small-town waitress to possibly show parallel portraits of characters trapped by ghosts that won’t let them move forward due to dark pasts. And the sinister portrait of addiction captured in all of the lingering darkness through the muted progression of “Notes on A River Town” makes for a chilling closer, indeed, where the crutch of loneliness that permeates all of the aforementioned tracks comes full circle to describe this album’s focus. Really, while I appreciate the tonal levity that “Go Down, Appalachia” provides in terms of pacing and mood, it’s a playful vibe that feels out of place for a project like this and for Bradshaw as an interpreter. And if anything, it does go to show how hard it is to strike a lighter balance on a projects like this.
That’s not to say the deeper tensions aren’t still there or just as compelling and valid, however. Ironically enough, for as much as Bradshaw takes a somewhat James McMurtry-esque approach to distancing his personal perspective from the music and letting the stories and characters speak for themselves, the most compelling tracks are told from the traveling musician’s point-of-view, self-described by the title track as a drifter. And in harsh times and an even harsher landscape where hope is only found in earnest, it’s telling that music is an item of salvation on tracks like “A Free, Roving Mind,” the title track, and “Turn the Bed Down, Drusilla,” self-deprecating and tongue-in-cheek in tone as it may be when it comes to the artists that craft that sort of magic on those latter two tracks. But it’s also a value that can’t always be directly measured, which is why I find it interesting that it’s tracks like those that grapple with having that particular gift, where it’s hard to tell if those stories or melodies are really worth a damn once they’re out in the world. It all circles back to the deeper sense of empathy that always shines in Bradshaw’s work, lonely in spirit but forward-thinking in actual heart.
And at least here, songs like that are worth a damn, where if this review sounds a bit harsher than intended, it’s because this album aims to hit a different, more meditative note compared to previous projects that doesn’t always pull me in as often as I’d prefer. And yes, while I would say this is an album where the sum is greater than any one individual part, as I said before, there’s a magnetic resonance to Bradshaw’s style I can’t deny, even if this is a bit less of a striking listen overall. Even still, there’s an understated flair here, as shaggy and rough as it is cathartic for those willing to sit with the deeper complexities that once again make Bradshaw’s work a sharp winner.
- Favorite tracks: “Holler Rose,” “A Duffel, A Grip, and My D35,” “Safe in the Arms of Vernacular,” “Mosquitoes,” “Notes on a River Town”
- Least favorite track: “Go Down, Appalachia”
2 thoughts on “Album Discussion: Pony Bradshaw – ‘North Georgia Rounder’”
This is the first time that I’ve listened to Pony Bradshaw and, while the quality is there and I quite like a few of the songs, I found it difficult to get into some of the other songs. I preferred the traveling musician-type songs – particularly North Georgia Rounder and Kindly Turn The Bed Down, Drusilla.
Yeah, I definitely prefer his 2021 album, Calico Jim, which leaned more heavily on its storytelling aspect. Though I get why his particular writing style wouldn’t be for everyone!