Now/It's: An Interview with The Wandering Hearts

Things have always been pretty flexible throughout the year and change the site has been active - from posting every Friday to posting when I damn well please, covering shows and panels - and will undoubtedly continue it’s own nebulousness in the future. That’s partially for my own sanity (transcribing interviews kind of sucks!), but also a means to allow unique opportunities space to operate, should they arise. Well, one such scenario has risen, as the UK-based foursome, The Wandering Hearts, made their way into town for what was nothing short of a whirlwind week and a half, which included some CMA Fest stops, a Late Night Jam slot with their pal Marty Stuart, New Faces Night, all bookended by an Opry debut and subsequent Opry return. If you frequent the site, you’ve likely become indifferent or jaded toward the bedlam that is CMA Fest, so to have an outsider's’ perspective(s) is a pleasant change of pace from the “get off our lawn” mentality which occasionally crops up this time of year. All in all, The Wandering Hearts’ time here was the Music City experience at breakneck speed. But that did little to deter AJ, Chess, Tara, and Tim’s spirits in the slightest, as they were exceptionally chipper and charming during our time together, seemingly reeling from the surrealness of it all. The surreal is always welcome (in my mind, at least), but the reality of this whole lede is there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll be seeing The Wandering Hearts in Nashville again real soon, and many more times to come.

Now/It's met with The Wandering Hearts at 12 South Taproom during their whirlwind week and a half in Nashville. This interview occurred post-CMA Fest 2018.

N/I - When did you guys get into town for CMA Fest? Was it the same night as the Late Night Jam?

All - Tuesday evening.

N/I - How was the [Marty Stuart’s]  Late Night Jam?

Tara - It was the highlight so far.

Tim - Still the highlight.

N/I - Are you guys all big Marty Stuart fans?

Chess - Absolutely.

Tara - The biggest. Both as a person and musically.

N/I - He is one of the sweetest, kindest people in the business.

Tara - The best.

AJ - None of this would be possible if it weren’t for him.

Tim - Yeah. We wouldn’t be here otherwise… I mean, we’d be alive. We just wouldn’t be in Nashville, just to clarify.

N/I - Of course. The existence would be there, but the circumstances of which you’re here for now, might be a different story.

Tara - I said to the guys, “He has my heart.” He absolutely is just amazing.

N/I - So how did you all come to get connected with Marty, then?

Chess - We played C2C Festival in London….

AJ - Last year….

Chess - …. Last year. We played it this year as well, but last year we played, and one of our management’s best friends started running C2C, and she put us on. [Marty] was playing, and obviously, we all watched him. I don’t think anyone expected it for a second, but we got the call and we got on his tour, as support. So we ended up going on tour with him in the UK, and he ended up watching one of our soundchecks…

Tim - It was really all of about three shows in, wasn’t it? We’d only done about three.

Tara - And it was so scary.

Tim - It was more scary than the actual show.

N/I - Having Marty there?

Tim - Him sitting there dead center.

Chess - And the first thing he said was “Well that didn’t suck!” We were like….

Tim - [laughs] “Oh you!”

Tara - And we didn’t get the humor, we were like “Was that a compliment?”

Tim - “Was he expecting it to be shit?” [laughs]

Chess - Then he followed us into our dressing room….

Tara - You’re making it sound creepier than it was.

N/I - That is potentially alarmist, depending on how you look at it.

Chess - Well he did follow us in, and he basically said…

Tara - He called us “kids.”

Chess - Yeah, he called us “kids.” We weren’t quite happy with that, but he said “There are so many bands. I see all these bands coming through, and I’ve not seen anything like you guys for the longest time. I want to be the guy to introduce America to you, and to introduce you to America.” And so this is our first international trip.

Tara - Well he said there and then, “Have you heard of a place called “The Ryman?”” And we were like, “Yep.” And so he was telling us about the Late Night Jam, and it had just come out that it was at The Ryman, and he said “Well come and play that.” And then he goes, “Well I suppose I could probably get you on the Opry.” And then AJ started freaking out. We were all losing it, but AJ has been to Nashville loads. [To AJ] I remember you talking about going two years ago with Holly.

AJ - Two years ago, I went in to see a show where a friend wasn’t actually playing, but snuck us in, and even then - there were a few people playing that night - Little Big Town were playing, High Valley, and Riders in the Sky, which was crazy, because we ended up playing with them. But Holly said to me that night “That’ll be you one day!” and I just… [fakes laughter]. “Yeah, nice one love. I appreciate the support and everything…”

Tara - It’s so nice that she got to see you here now after that!

AJ - And then two years later, which no one would have ever, ever seen - there it was.

 Tara Wilcox

Tara Wilcox

Tara - And when were there [with Marty Stuart], AJ told us “It’s amazing, and I’ve been out into Graceland,” [Marty] asked us if we’d like to play Graceland. And it’s just been one thing after another.

N/I - It sounds like it’s been incredibly serendipitous in that sense. So once you get the in with Marty, you see all these doors opening….

Tara - Do you see that? As a thing that happens often?

N/I - Not so much with Marty, just because he’s on the road quite a bit, but there are the Kelsey Waldons of the world, people of that ilk - and you guys as well - [Marty] takes some very, very talented new and rising acts on the road, so you see him as someone who has this discerning taste. So when he really endorses someone, anyone that works with The Opry, or whoever works at Graceland booking talent, it carries a lot more weight coming from Marty than so and so from whatever radio station.

Tara - Well because somebody on his team said they’d only ever seen him do this with one other person, and that was Ashley McBryde. And we are the biggest Ashley McBryde fans. That’s all we talked about at C2C - we saw all these amazing artists, but we were like “Fuck.”

Chess - She was such a standout.

Tara - So to be….

Chess - To be a part of that.

Tara - And [Marty] to like her and like us, it’s hard to feel like you’re the most amazing thing ever when you’re in it, so you’re going “Well maybe I’m starting to believe that we have something, because [Marty] loves Ashley McBryde, and he loves us, so that’s a good sign!”

AJ - We’re always really self-critical as artists anyway….

Tara - Super.

AJ - So we’re always questioning everyone’s anything…

Tara - All the time.

AJ - Like “Why do they think that? Are we bad?” So to have that kind of show of faith from somebody like Marty….

N/I - That’s a massive endorsement. Truly huge. So with the Late Night Jam, and the Opry - did you have different expectations between playing the two?

Tim - I didn’t have any.

Chess - I just didn’t know.

Tara - We were scared to.

N/I - Do you think it’s because this all came to fruition in the blink of an eye?

Chess - I also like to think that it was due to the fact that when we heard about it, when Marty told us, we all were like “Oh my god! That’s amazing. We’ll get excited when it happens.” Because anything can happen. Anything can change. So we didn’t really have any time to get here and realize that. It was like we landed, and then the next day, it’s like “Fuck! We’re here.”

Tim - Oh!

N/I - [Laughs] It’s fine. You can swear.
Chess - Good…. But it was all like that. It was all so quick, whirlwind, mad - we were trying to take it all in when it happened.

AJ - To be fair, the way the Late Night Jam is, the audience listens so well.

Tara - It was such a lovely environment.

AJ - As much as I kind of had an idea of what the Opry was going to be like, from being backstage a bit and seeing a couple of shows, nothing can prepare to how it’s going to feel when you’re actually up there. Nothing can prepare you for that.

Tara - It’s so overwhelming.

Chess - And that’s exhausting in itself.

Tim - In a typically British, self-deprecating way, as well - I was just thinking the Ryman is way above where we are in our career - not that we don’t deserve it, but so many people do what we do and don’t ever get to that stage. So I just struggled to imagine what it would be like, because I thought it was so far away.

AJ - And all of the people that we were playing on that same bill with - they released the other artists and you see John Prine, Margo Price, Chris Stapleton, and you start freaking out. So that was a bit scary, too.

N/I - I figure that’s all more than justified. I can’t really imagine anybody who would be able to take that and be unmoved by it. I think you should feel moved by it, to be totally honest, it is The Ryman, it is The Grand Ole Opry. When you’re playing roots music, those are basically the pinnacle of where you would want to go.

Tim - Oh yeah.

Chess - And it was this weird thing, at The Ryman, when we got there, we were terrified. When we did the soundcheck, it was like instantly, the tension and everything just diffused, and suddenly we were in this weird calm. And we were singing during soundcheck, and it was like “Actually, it doesn’t matter if things go wrong now, if monitors don’t work, whatever might happen, we can just use this room.” The sounds that come back at you in that room, they were like nothing I had ever experienced. That was an instant, “Oh this is going to be fine. We’ve got this.”

Tara - And everyone was so lovely.

AJ - And to have the audience, it was amazing. Everyone was watching….

 AJ Dean

AJ Dean

Tara - Even from the sides….

AJ - They were watching and waiting for you to be the really great thing they wanted you to be, and in some ways, that can free you a little bit, because you know you’re going to be supported there. It’s about as safe as they come.

N/I - Well those Late Night Jam crowds are some of the most genuinely attentive…. Sometimes with Ryman shows, you’ll get crowds that just want to see Chris Stapleton, and in the interim, they’ll - not necessarily throw a fit - but be very dismissive of anyone who isn't Chris Stapleton. Now, that’s a bit of a different story about the greater whole of country music fandom and what not, but it truly is a sight to behold a Late Night Jam crowd, because I would imagine as a performer, it’s the ideal crowd you could hope for.

Tara - It was our first ever international gig, and it was our first experience ever playing for an American audience, and we were just like….

Chess - We knew it could have gone any way it would have liked.

Tara - You could have heard a pin drop at the end of “Burning Bridges,” and then there was an audible beat, or a pause, then you hear somebody go “Wow.” And then everybody clapped and stood up. I came back and thought “Did I dream about all of that? That was weird, but amazing.”

AJ - You know what we haven’t spoken about yet? Did you hear that at Graceland? We played the Guest House, and….

Tim - There was a “Wow.” again!

Tara - I heard it.

Tim - “I was there!” [laughs]

N/I - At the end of the same song?

Tim - It was!

N/I - Well there you go. The precedent has been set.

Tara - It’s our only good one.

Tim - We do have someone at the front holding a card up….

AJ - “Say ‘Wow’ now!”

Chess - I guess what gives us some quiet confidence is the fact that with someone like Marty Stuart behind us, championing us here - when Marty Stuart says “These guys are great, take a listen.” They’re going to listen. People respect him so much, his opinion, his taste, so when he says it….

Tara - Though it is hard to perform after he says it. Before we went on at The Ryman, he said “I saw these guys across the pond, and they were the most amazing thing, and I’m so privileged to have them here, I love them so much,” and we were all really, really nervous.

N/I - Again, an endorsement like that, especially in the world that you guys are in, is indispensable. What about The Opry? Have you guys done a variety style show like that before?

AJ - Not so much. Apart from the odd showcase back home, where you’ve got a three song set, but this is nothing like that.

Tara - Not with that variety. I think there was a comedian there as well, at The Opry.

N/I - That’s something people don’t necessarily anticipate [in going to The Opry], when a Henry Cho or any comedian comes out. Some people are totally into it, and some people might be a little disarmed by it, and it can be tough for a comedian, I would imagine.

Tim - Oh yeah.

N/I - So when you guys are backstage, how are you holding up? Are you composed? Super nervous?

Chess - I don’t know about you all, but I felt quite calm. I wasn’t really nervous, but there was a weird eeriness at The Opry. I don’t know what it was….

N/I - Like a “hallowed halls” type thing?

Chess - Yeah. You saw all the photos….

Tara - It was the backstage. It was so emotional.

Chess - That was when everything really started to set in.

N/I - In the guest waiting area?

 Chess Whiffin

Chess Whiffin

Chess - And everything that we had done at The Ryman, when we were there, it was real. We were actually doing this thing. For me, that was the day and the show where things were really setting in, this is actually happening…. It wasn’t getting pumped at the show….

Tara - They have all those photos up around the room, and they put you in the debut room….

N/I - So you guys were in the debut room? With all the quotes up on the wall?

Tara - I think it was that, and there were pictures of Lady Antebellum when they made their very first Opry debut, and you’re like “They had no idea, when they did that, what was to come.” And we, or AJ had no idea two years ago when he’d sit in The Opry, that we’d be playing that two years later. It was this sort of revery for the building. We’re normally more active, but the four of us were more kind of “Are you okay? Yeah?” It was kind of just…. Weird, because it felt special. [To AJ] And that circle, you had to kneel down to check it.

AJ - Oh, I totally did. I was a bit of a wreck. I’ve been a bit of a wreck this whole time. I’m an emotional guy, as in I’m in touch with my emotions, but I don’t often get emotional. I usually kind of lock it up, and a bit cold….

Tara - No you’re not!

N/I - Purposefully aloof, maybe?

AJ - Yeah! And we were still on the stage there, when we were soundchecking - I think because the day was kind of drawn out - sometimes it’s easy to turn up and go, because at a festival, you get to line check and then go, so you don’t really have a chance for the nerves to creep up all that much, whereas, when you’re sitting around the stage, you get to see everyone else go on, and then sit in the dressing room until it’s time for you to go on. So that all kind of builds it. Builds and builds. So we were doing the soundcheck, and started to soundcheck “Burning Bridges” and I kinda felt like I still couldn’t touch the circle. So when we did come out, I took a cheeky little squat when I walked out just to see it. Kind of Russell Crowe in Gladiator.

N/I - So in the UK, is The Opry something that’s held with a lot of reverence for those who play the kind of music that you do?

Tim - I think so, absolutely.

Tara - But I think Nashville, the tv show changed it and made it more so.

Tim - That probably had a really big impact.

Tara - I think it really did.

AJ - It certainly brought it into more of the consciousness of people who don’t follow that music.

Tim - And the Bluebird [Cafe] as well. Those are the two places that you hear most about. Not so much the Ryman, really.

Tara - My friends that don’t do music - that are teachers and stuff like that - they were like “Oh you’re playing to Grand Ole Opry? You’re playing The Bluebird?” But they don’t know Chris Stapleton, but they’ll know those places because of the tv show.

N/I - They’ll know that Deacon….

Tim - [laughs] Exactly.

N/I - Gunnar played there on the tv show.

Tara - Taylor Noelle supported us for something - that’s Deacon Claybourne's daughter…. But the Ryman less so.

AJ - I guess it’s because of the history of it. Obviously, the fact it’s called The Ryman, people might not know that it was once where The Opry was.

N/I - So are you guys still a little jet lagged? How long has that lasted? Have you gotten rest?

Tara - Jet-lagged, hungover…

Chess - I feel like we just got really drunk, so it’s completely locked in.

Tara - Actual sleep deprivation.

Chess - I mean, I’m saying “we” [to Tim] I’m excluding you.

Tim - I’m a professional - I don’t get jet-lagged, or drunk, or tired…. Ever.

AJ - I do. I just try to keep myself at this lovely middle ground where I don’t know what’s what.

Chess - Floating along.

AJ - “I’m a bit of everything!”

Tim - “I’m one of three.” [laughs]

N/I - Did you guys get to go to any of the CMA Fest stuff?

Tim - We played, on the Friday morning, before the Opry. It was quite a day. We played the Spotlight Stage, which was amazing. We didn’t quite expect there to be so many people there.

Tara - That was so much fun.

Chess - The people who were working the stage said it was the biggest that’d been there.

N/I - What did you think of all the Fanfare and everything downtown?

Tim - Personally, I loved it. Because I haven’t seen anything like that in a city festival. In the UK, festivals tend to be in a field, in the middle of nowhere.

N/I - Sort of like Bonnaroo.

AJ - Or unless it’s like Edinburgh, with Fringe Festival, then there’s a lot more people with stupid light things, fucking about [laughs].

Chess - I guess it’s like Live at Leeds. There are festivals that are held in cities, but it’s all quite low-key….

Tim - It doesn’t seem to take over the festival…

N/I - It’s not shutting down all six blocks of the main downtown stretch.

Tara - People don’t move out of town.

 Tim Prottey-Jones

Tim Prottey-Jones

AJ - I know Nashville is a “big” little town, but for a city, it’s a big space….

Tim - Little Big Town….

AJ - It is though! It’s a big space to be overrun. Even that one building, it’s a ton of space.

Tim - Seeing the stages popping up every day, and being built. What’s the amphitheatre one? That looked incredible.

N/I - Ascend?

Chess - That was amazing.

Tim - Cropping up everywhere. And we drove through it very briefly yesterday heading somewhere, and there was nothing there.

Tara - That’s so interesting, because when we first got here - I had never been to Nashville before - Jenny from the label was like “Oh my god, this is so crazy.” But I have no concept of what crazy was.

Tim - “Oh, this just what Nashville is always like!”

Tara - It was like London, but now when we walk around, it’s like, “Oh, that really was crazy. It’s nice now.”

Chess - It’s been really nice, actually. I’m really glad we get to experience both. We experience the mentalness of CMA Fest, and also this week, where it’s like whatever the “normal” [for Nashville] is.