Pony Bradshaw is one literate individual. Of course, many singer-songwriters identify themselves that way, but what sets Bradshaw (real name James) apart is his love of literature. A lifelong voracious reader, he writes songs expressed as stories, an approach that resonates through both meaning and melody.
Bradshaw sums himself up in a lyric on the title track of his new album, North Georgia Rounder. “I’m a North Georgia rounder playing these foothill stomps / Run these rivers singing these sins.” Given the melancholy musings that shade the album overall, Bradshaw is clearly selling himself short. Thankfully, he also acknowledges the literary influences that have steered his career.
“I've listened to music and dissected records my whole life,” he notes. “But in the past 10 years, I've slowed down on listening. I've always been a reader, and I don't know if the stories are the specific things that inspire me, or simply the approach and thoughtfulness of the novelists.”
Still, Bradshaw finds that he often has to explain himself. “I don't want to be derivative, but if I am, it's by accident,” he insists. “My wife shared a podcast with me where the hosts were reviewing my last album, Calico Jim. They had read somewhere that I don't listen to a lot of music, and they said they find that very ‘suss’ - as if they didn't believe what I was saying. I don't really know how to respond to that. I listen to music, but I find more joy in reading, and it's a privilege that I get to read so much. I don't have a straight job - I wake up, read, drink coffee, think and write in my notebooks. I start playing guitar and working on new songs or tightening up the sounds I have and get ready to tour. I like that life, but I understand that it's not available to everyone.”
Whatever his strategy, it seems to work. North Georgia Rounder is an affecting album, dominated by forlorn ballads with deeply expressive intents. Although certain tracks could be considered comforting — ‘A Free, Roving Mind,’ ‘Safe in the Arms of Vernacular’ and ‘Kindly Turn the Bed Down, Drusilla’ in particular — those melancholy musings are never far from the surface.
Still, Bradshaw’s approach has evolved, even in the relatively short time since his first album, Sudden Opera, was released on Rounder Records in 2019. In fact, he also indicates that particular record is not one he’s especially proud of.“ The major difference is that I now know what I want to do,” he explains. “I was new to recording when I signed with Rounder and then recorded that first album. I had barely played 10 shows in my entire life. I was new to the whole thing and I really didn't know what I wanted to say.”
The lessons he learned came quickly.
“After that whole timeframe of making that record, I learned that I don't need a label to help me create something. They're very valuable in getting you the exposure, but as far as the creative part — I know now what I want to do, and I have less people involved to make what I want to make. The more people involved, the less control you have. So I pretty much started over.”
It might have been a difficult decision, but he decided it was the only way to establish his own authority. “It was just kind of taking control of what I want to put out into the world,” he reflects. “Instead of doing what people think I should put out into the world.”
Bradshaw often takes what could be called an archivist approach, one that stays true to certain traditional trappings while also sharing a personal perspective. The things he reads enable him to encapsulate the imagery in his songs while creating specific soundscapes that are as vivid as they are varied.
“That's the goal now specifically, I guess.” he says. “It seems that lately I've been writing about North Georgia, but I hope to not stay tied to that forever. I know people love a good brand, but I don't want to be pigeonholed. Take Larry McMurtry. He jokingly called himself ‘a minor, regional novelist.’ I don't want to be a regionalist, where I can only represent North Georgia and this particular area. It's just that these last two records have zoomed in and focused on that. It's what inspired me lately - it's creating a world, like William Faulkner did when he wrote about a community that wasn't really specific, but still tied to his own environs.”
Given that literary fascination, Bradshaw’s work hardly seems surprising, since it’s fiction which fuels both his inspiration and imagination, investing his own emotions into the characters that populate his songs.
“I don't think of my music in terms of specific songs, that’s for sure. I think of it within the whole scope of one big story. It's hard to do, but I push my ego completely out of the picture. For the most part it's fiction, but it's also my thoughts and philosophy. But it's not actually me. It's a character in the song; something I invested in that character. I know it’s hard to identify the music that way, because for so long we've been folk singers with our hearts on our sleeves, sharing our story. But I take more of a fictional approach – and it’s storytelling, not a memoir. If people want my opinion on all of these issues, I could potentially write about that. But I don't like explaining my songs. A song itself is the explanation.”
Ultimately, Bradshaw pursues his art as a matter of course.
“I have no clue what drives me to continue reading and learning and studying and putting that at the forefront of my life,” he concedes. “I'm not sure what the drive is all about, but regardless, it’s really interesting to me.”
And, no doubt, to his listeners as well.
North Georgia Rounder is out on Friday 27th January