Minnie Pearl believed performance jitters were good. She used to say if you don’t get a few stomach butterflies now and again for special events, those big occasions don’t mean enough to you.
The members of Trick Pony know about butterflies. The new country trio recently got a case of them recording a song with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Last month, they got them debuting on the Grand Ole Opry, performing their hit single, “Pour Me.” The jitters will appear again when Trick Pony performs for hundreds of radio decision-makers at the Country Radio Seminar New Faces Show on March 3, days before Warner Bros. releases the band’s self-titled debut album on March 13.
“You’re supposed to be nervous in these situations,” Trick Pony guitarist Keith Burns reasons, echoing Minnie Pearl’s belief. “I’m kind of suspicious of people who aren’t nervous when they’re put in these spots.”
A native of Atlanta, Burns formed Trick Pony in 1996 with bassist Ira Dean, who hails from Raleigh, N.C., and lead singer Heidi Newfield, who was raised on a horse ranch in the small town of Healdsburg in Northern California.
Each arrived in Nashville a decade ago to pursue music; they met one another through mutual friends and various gigs. The trio formed shortly after Dean was let go from Tanya Tucker’s touring outfit and Burns left Joe Diffie’s road band. (Burns wrote Diffie’s 1996 hit “Whole Lotta Gone.”)
Working toward a shot at the big time, the trio relishes the opportunities it has been given.
“I was composed at the Opry while I was onstage, but as I was walking off I started to tear up,” Newfield says. “That’s when it really hit me that I’ve wanted to play that stage all my life.”
Dean — who plays a shiny, chrome upright bass with built-in flashing headlights — describes Trick Pony’s action-packed stage act as “musical hockey.” The threesome brings the same kind of energy and playfulness to a Tuesday morning interview at the Warner Bros. offices on Music Row.
The name Trick Pony suits them. The affable band members horse around, poke at one another, often talking over each other’s rebuttals. “Hey there talk boy, I didn’t interrupt you,” Newfield quips to Burns at one point in the discussion. Unpretentious, they are earnest about their music and careers, but they don’t take themselves too seriously.
The band’s amiable spirit is captured in “Pour Me,” the catchy, revved-up rockabilly number that is the album’s leadoff track and first single. As the track kicks off, Newfield sounds as if she’s belting out the self-pitying lyrics “Poor me,” “poor me,” “poor me.” Then suddenly comes the lyrical hook and it’s clear she’s singing a drinking song with a homonym for the word “poor.” “Pour me another shot of whiskey,” she sings, “bartender hit me one more time … fill it to the top because I hit rock bottom this time.”
“Pour Me” cracked the Top 30 after 11 weeks on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart. CMT regularly airs the song’s video.
“Just by people’s reactions, we knew the song was special right off the bat,” Newfield says. “It was one of the first songs the three of us wrote together, and we’ve played it in practically every honky tonk in the Southeast. We played 320 shows last year, at four or five sets a night. All over the place, people made up dances to ’Pour Me.’ There are a lot of words to the song, but by the second time they heard it they knew the words and sang along with us. We would perform it a couple times every set because people kept requesting it.”
While Trick Pony writes most of its own songs, the trio recorded Cash’s 1958 classic “Big River” for the album. Cash and his pal Jennings make vocal appearances on the track.
Dean waited 10 years for that to happen.
“Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter, heard me playing at a club when I first came to town,” he recalls. “He asked me if I wanted a job playing and the next thing I know, I’m at a rehearsal at Johnny Cash’s house.
“I was starving in this town. I was having a hard time. So, John Carter moved me into Johnny and June’s house. It’s a pretty big house; they didn’t know I was there. I had my own little bedroom and I would show up every once in a while for breakfast and say ’hey.’
“I asked Johnny way back then to cut ’Big River’ with me as soon as I got a record deal. He agreed, probably because he thought I’d never get a deal,” Dean says with a laugh.
The band members figured since Cash was on board, they would try their luck recruiting another of their musical heroes. The trio had its producer, Chuck Howard, call Jennings.
Trying to recreate the feel of Cash’s original Sun recording, “Big River” was recorded live in the studio with no overdubs.
“When Johnny first got to the studio he asked if the track was laid down,” Newfield remembers, “because the [instrument] tracks often are laid down before the vocals are recorded. We told him we were going to cut it all right there with him, and his eyes lit up. He was excited that it was like the old days. He told us it lit a fire under him.”
The feeling is reciprocal. Trick Pony is savoring their special moments in the studio with the two country legends, remembering the butterflies and all. With their recording careers now underway, the group members hope for a long run in the spotlight with more magical experiences to come.
“We have managed to stay together through some rough times,” Newfield says. “We faced rough financial times, we saw Keith through a divorce, we saw each other through a lot of different things. We’ve managed to hold it together. It’s made us strong. We’re a real strong unit.”