If there's one band in Kansas City you don't want to summon for jury duty, it's the Wilders.
For one thing, the workaholic roots-music quartet is out on the road half the year. Then there's the matter of that crazy look Ike Sheldon gets in his eyes every time he hollers a tune. And have you seen Phil Wade's clearly not-fucking-around mutton chops?
In November 2005, however, Wade took a two-week sabbatical to answer duty's call.
"I had a feeling it was something big, something juicy," recalls the group's ace multi-instrumentalist. "I was just hoping it wasn't insurance fraud."
Midway through what turned out to be a first-degree-murder trial, Wade came to a realization: The story was unfolding like an old-fashioned murder ballad.
"He wasn't a classic villain," Wade says. "He was a good guy who worshipped the woman he killed. She fell out of love with him and wanted to move out, but he wouldn't let her go. He couldn't get over his anger."
As more details emerged — botched suicides and notes to family members explaining the crime — Wade began to comprehend the complex emotions that inspired ballads such as "Pretty Polly" and "Knoxville Girls." He'd sung those songs before but never given much thought to the lyrics.
"I could never understand why the person got killed in those old songs," Wade says. "I understand murder ballads now ... I empathized with the murderer."
The sobering experience inspired Wade to compose a five-part ballad titled "Sittin' on a Jury," which flanks 15 other murderous tunes on the Wilders' new album, Someone's Got to Pay. The record is the first from the band to contain this much original material (there's just one traditional fiddle number) and also the first to liberally incorporate drums and electric guitar.
Fiddler Betse Ellis says the group's members have outgrown the days when they cared whether a song "fit." As bassist Nate Gawron puts it: "We were trying to join this society that maybe we fit into or maybe not. Over the course of 10 years, we discovered that we don't need that society."
If the guy who yelled "Judas" at Bob Dylan was keeping tabs, he'd be right pissed. But anyone who has followed the Wilders for the past decade knows that evolution ain't a dirty word. Founded in 1996 by Wade, Ellis and Sheldon (Gawron came onboard in 1999), the group has outgrown its old-timey shorts in favor of a spicy four-course meal of country, rockabilly, bluegrass and Cajun music.
Someone's Got to Pay gathers these multiple muses into an absorbing album that highlights all four songwriters. The band began recording the record in November 2006 in Lafayette, Louisiana, and finished it in the West Bottoms with help from Brendan Moreland of Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys (who mixed it and also contributed electric guitar, bass and harmony vocals).
"Brendan had to work with this big octopus of a record, and he really made sense of it," Wade says. "He put his foot down and also took his foot off a little bit and let us be creative."
The song "Goodbye (I've Seen It All)" finds Sheldon channeling Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly, and the rollicking honky-tonk "Sorry I Let You Down" is peppered with savory sentiments such as One more minute in this goddamn town/I'm gonna blow my top or be in the ground. (Sheldon followed his wife to Kutztown, Pennsylvania, about 18 months ago.)
Though the Wilders are still a hot commodity on the folk-festival circuit (including the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas), the group's principal ambition is to pack theaters across the country and perform at forward-thinking acoustic festivals such as Telluride, Grey Fox and the Chicago Folk and Roots Festival.
"They're really good about representing new bands that can't be pigeonholed," Ellis says. "I think more and more festivals are moving that way because the audience demands it."
At this month's MerleFest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, the Wilders will flank roosty breakthrough acts Old Crow Medicine Show and the Avett Brothers. The fiery foursome now fits comfortably in the company of such bands, which use timeworn rural-music styles to tell their own stories.
"Our attitude before was, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams kick ass — how can you compete?" Wade says.
Now, it's payback time.