In 1996, Sheldon, Ellis and Wade started messing around with old-time music. It's no surprise that they remember it as a few friends tinkering with music they knew nothing about.
"We're lucky it moved us all at the same time," Sheldon says.
Several albums and a bass player later, the Wilders are burning up festivals from Telluride to Rockygrass with rampaging rhythms and old-time melodies. In a few days, they'll return from a tour of Ireland and Scotland.
No matter how far they travel, though, band members reserve a cozy place in their hearts for Kansas City, which is one of two communities they credit with lifting them up despite their modest, un-country beginnings.
Rural Grit, for instance, is a hodgepodge of musicians who put on acoustic music jams over happy hour at local bars. These rowdy sessions helped teach the Wilders how to play. Rural Grit is also the name of the Wilders' label, based in Kansas City, and the band considers this local outfit integral to its success as a Midwestern country gig. To the Wilders, "Rural Grit means community, communion and communication," Ellis says.
The Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, is the other scene that made the Wilders. After a couple of years mixing it up at the festival's notorious Stage 5, a makeshift platform nestled among tents and RVs outside the festival grounds, the band got a slot in front of a packed grandstand crowd. They were a hit. The Wilders became known not only for their legendary, late-night performances to crowds of drunken, dancing festivalgoers at Stage 5 but also for their multiple main-stage gigs including a traditional Sunday-morning gospel performance.
And that's just it: This quartet moves from one end of the country spectrum to the other with graceful, enthusiastic flexibility.
They're best known, of course, for their rowdy honky-tonk. But the Wilders also put out a full-length collection of impassioned gospel tunes in 2002, each imbued with the same fiery intensity that power traditional Hank Williams zingers such "Setting the Woods on Fire." At last year's Walnut Valley Festival, for instance, the group performed a heart-wrenching rendition of "Angel Band," a gospel-folk tune, after receiving word at the beginning of the set that a good friend of a fan had committed suicide. The latest sun is shining fast/My race is nearly run, Sheldon sang, showing a sad gentleness in a voice better known for its rambunctious hillside howl.
Onstage, the band's energy is ferocious and completely unplugged. The quartet huddles around a single microphone, stamping and shaking, twitching and quivering like a dinosaur egg about to hatch, tearing through one harmony-infused tune after another. Every couple of songs, they'll explode into full-on foot stomping and headbanging.
"There's still danger of injury at every show," Wade says. He would know his face inhabits the dangerous region near Ellis' fiddle elbow.
Still, the group's latest collection, Throw Down, initially tested the musicianship of these veterans. That's because it features the band's first effort at recording original material.
Seven of the 14 songs were written by the band, sharing space with Johnny Cash's "Belshazzar," Williams' "Won't You Sometimes Think of Me" and Jerry Irby's "Drivin' Nails In My Coffin." Sheldon wrote "When I Get to Heaven" as a moving lullaby in the vein of the Louvin Brothers. He also penned "When the Levee's Gone," about Kansas City's 1993 flood, but the song has taken on a new meaning at live concerts in light of Hurricane Katrina. Ellis' "January Waltz," a beautiful fiddle number, closes the album on a note more bluegrass than country. Wade adds "Together Apart," a lover's lament about tears, waiting and wondering. And Gawron's "Honky-Tonk Habit," is a fitting, tumbling Wilders theme song.
This weekend, the Wilders bring their new tunes to Kansas City. Fresh from a tour of the United Kingdom and with the Walnut Valley Festival filling up their schedule the third weekend in September, this group of unlikely old-time ramblers has its hands full. Full of old-time music.