Live music at Lake Tahoe: The Show Ponies debut at the Crystal Bay Casino on March 4.
It’s easy to understand why the Show Ponies’ sound sometimes is called “folk sassgrass.” The quintet’s instrumentation includes the folk music standard, an acoustic guitar, and bluegrass’ fiddle and banjo. Moreover, one of the band’s founders once described it that way.
“It’s funny how that term has stuck because I just said it off the cuff in one interview,” said singer-banjo player Andi Carder. “We tend to call ourselves Americana more than anything, just because that’s a bit of a broader description of our sound and since we have so many different influences. It’s kind of hard to say it’s bluegrassy because diehard bluegrass folks will definitely chase us down with pitchforks and say that’s not true.”
The sound has evolved since Carder and Clayton Chaney made an album as duo in 2012. They added three classically trained musicians and with the release this month of an exquisite full-length album, “How It All Goes Down,” the Show Ponies are a breed apart from any other band, a haunting rock-and-folk hybrid with dual lead vocalists who sing introspective songs. If the country crowd catches on, it will be a sensation.
“Most of our songs on the first album had a folk-tinge to them, adding Phil (Glenn) as our fiddle player made us go in a more old-timey bluegrass direction, giving us more of that distinct sound,” Cheney said. “Now with the new record, we’ve come to a more rock and roll sound.”
How did it all start?
“Kind of by mistake,” Cheney said. “Not really on purpose.”
An Arkansas native, Cheney met guitarist Jason Harris at college in California. During a break from school, Cheney visited Harris at his suburban Houston town. Harris and Carder were friends. Harris introduced Cheney to Carder.
“I sang on a song he wrote,” Carder said. “It was a fun collaboration but that’s all it was. Fast forward a couple of years and I moved out to California on my own accord and Clay reapproached me and asked if I wanted to start a little duo. I don’t think either of us thought it was ever going to be our full-time job but it just pleasantly played out that way.”
Harris produced the duo’s first record, “Here We Are!” Then Harris joined the band and brought in two more players, drummer Kevin Brown, who has a master’s degree in percussion, and classically trained violinist Phil Glenn. The unlikely combination made sense when they started playing.
Harris had been more into Bach and Mozart than, say, Flatt & Scruggs.
“I went to school for music composition and had planned on going the academic route until I heard a bluegrass guitar solo a week after I graduated and decided I didn’t want to do anything else,” Harris said.
Violin player Glenn echoed the refrain: “It turns out I sound better and have a lot more fun playing folk music than I ever did playing classical.”
Drummer Brown may be a master of complex and syncopated beats, but he’s in a league of his own when it comes down to a down-home rails.
“Kevin might be the best at playing the train beats in the world,” Carder said. “He’s a really good jazz player and rock and roll. He can play anything and really excel at it. We’re just honored that he enjoys and is challenged enough with our stuff to play with us.”
The singular sassgrass intrigues the drummer.
“The most exciting part of playing with the Show Ponies is combining each member’s influences into one cohesive musical package,” Brown said. “It doesn’t sound like anything else.”
Carder told Tahoe Onstage, “Clay and I are the only ones who are not classically trained. … Clay’s gift as a songwriter has made me grow more than I could’ve ever imagined doing it on my own. … We’re the ones who write the melodies in the songs and the guys come in with their own arrangements and that’s when the songs really come to life. It’s been a cool collaborative effort to have them come alongside of us and really build up what we started.”
The Show Ponies When: 10 p.m. Saturday, March 4
Where: Crystal Bay Casino Red Room
New album: ‘How It All Goes Down’ — highlight tracks: ‘Should Showed Him,’ ‘Kalamazoo’
ABOUT Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.