BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
These days, very few – if any – groups are garnering more superlatives and gaining more supporters at a faster pace than A Thousand Horses. The Newberry, SC-bred unit is on fire thanks to a double shot of sizzling singles off their debut album, Southernality. Both “Smoke” and “(This Ain’t No) Drunk Dial” have blazed trails to the top tier of the charts and with any horseshoe aided luck at all a third single could give the group a coveted chart triple crown.
“I don’t think we’ve slowed down a second to think about, now that I’m talking about it with you; it’s been awesome,” said frontman Michael Hobby during our recent conversation, referring to his band’s sprint to sudden success. Awesome is certainly one way to describe the reception A Thousand Horses has been given by its ever-growing legion of fans and country radio programmers across the country. At the pace the band is going, it’s probably a sure bet they will end up winning a fistful of Grammys, placing those trophies on their mantels and showing them off to family and friends for years to come.
Michael, I’m gonna begin our conversation with a confession: I am a huge Rod Stewart and the Faces fan and therefore a Black Crowes fan, etc., etc. That said, you had me hooked with the very first guitar lick followed by the tasty Hammond B3 and honky-tonk piano that we hear on “First Time.”
Ah, right on!
Of course “First Time” is the opening track of your debut album Southernality. Toss in some female backup singers and you top off a great track. Tell me a little bit about “First Time.”
Yeah, man, “First Time” is kinda like the song on the record that really kind of shows our influences a ton. Obviously you said it from the get-go: Black Crowes, Rod Stewart and the Faces, the [Hammond] B3, the girl singers and all that stuff and it’s our rocker on the record. It’s a classic rock and roll song with the country sentiment and the honky-tonk piano and all that stuff. That’s like one of our favorite songs to play live, too, cuz the energy’s great.
Dare I say that song hit me [“First Time” lyric] “like a bottle in a bar room brawl!”
(Laughs) There you go!
(Laughs) So since we’re speaking about first time’s here, Michael, talk to me about your first time – and I don’t mean that one (laughs).
Oh, we can talk about that one, too, if you want to, Jim (laughs).
Okay, okay. Well maybe we can get into that a little bit later, but right now I wanna talk about your musical first time. Looking back, did you have that musical big bang moment when maybe a song came on the radio or a show you went to where you knew at that point that music was gonna play as big a part in your life as it obviously does today?
It’s crazy but I remember my first concert I ever went to and it was Alan Jackson at the Carolina Coliseum in South Carolina. My dad took me with my mom and my brothers and I remember watching that show and thinking, man that’s what I want to do. I don’t know how old I was – probably five or six years old, I was young but I just remember the lights and the sound and like the energy of the whole thing. You know, as I kid I was just mesmerized by it. And then my dad always listened to music in the car all the time when I was growing. I remember seeing Elvis on TV, I mean obviously he was dead, but, like those infomercials for his records and stuff. And like I remember once specific that Creedence Clearwater Revival was putting out this, like, super-pack of greatest hits and we were watching the commercial and I told my dad, ‘Dad, I want that, I wanna hear that.’ So there are several musical impacting moments but I kinda always just loved music and loved performing and I just love music, man. That’s what this band is all about; we’re all just big music lovers.
Hey, an Alan Jackson show is not a bad place to start.
No, not at all. Alan Jackson got me into this game!
We can blame or thank him, then. We’ll thank him, for sure.
Well thank you. I’ll take it.
Now they say where there’s smoke there’s fire, brother. You guys are certainly living proof of that. You’ve been on fire since your single “Smoke” soared to the top of the charts. How are you enjoying, and handling, the ride so far?
Man, it’s been an incredible ride, these last six months since the song came out and then for our first single to go to number one and for country radio to be so supportive of us. The coolest part of it is the fans. We’re getting new fans and meeting new people and seeing how that song affected people’s lives, you know, like everybody has a “Smoke.” And it’s been a whirlwind, man, we’ve just been constantly runnin’ and gunnin’ and we’re getting to do a lot of things for the first time, that we’ve never dreamed of doing [like] The Today Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live and we played “Wagon Wheel” with Darius [Rucker] on Fox & Friends. And then to go to The CMT Awards and be nominated for Group Video of the Year and perform. It’s been amazing, man. We’re truly grateful and very humbled by it all.
It has been a whirlwind recently but certainly not that overnight success thing which we’ll get into in a little bit. But first, give me a quick story about writing “Smoke.”
I wrote “Smoke” with two friends of mine, Ross Copperman and Jon Nite who are two songwriters in Nashville I’ve been writing with for a long time. You know we just went in to write just like any other day and the “Smoke” title idea came out and we all wanted to make this like a romantic love story, but based around the examples of addiction and bad things but yet good things, you know what I mean? And just use the metaphors of that, like “blowin’ rings around my heart” and “can’t stop her once you start.” That romantic side of the danger of love.
It’s a great track. Now I teased a little while ago that we would talk more about your story not being an overnight success. So for the thousand or so people who haven’t heard the story yet, tell us how you, [guitarist] Zach [Brown], [guitarist] Bill [Satcher] and [bassist] Graham [Deloach] first got together.
Bill and I actually grew up together in Newberry, SC. We met in middle school – he was in seventh grade and I was in eighth grade. We met in the one local music store that we had, a little tiny music store called Michael’s Music, oddly enough (laughs). We would go there every day after school cuz our moms would be working or whatever and we would just play guitar and talk about bands and Zeppelin records and Jimi Hendrix. When you get a guitar you immediately dive into stuff like that. Graham is his cousin, so Graham would come up every summer and stay for a month or two, like his summer vacation. So all three of us have known each other for over 15 years and then we moved to Nashville together and that’s where we met Zach probably five years ago, almost five and a half years ago. We met Zach through a mutual friend because we were looking for a guitar player to form a new band and that’s how we all came together, man. So we’ve been together a long time and Zach’s been in the family for a while now and it’s been quite a journey together.
Can you look back and recall and count the heads of the number of folks that were at that very first show that you four played?
The first show Bill and I played together was a “Battle of the Bands” when we were 15. Actually I was 16 and he was 15. There was tons of people there because it was for a radio station and we actually ended up winning the “Battle of the Bands,” so we were kind of pumped. We got $1000 and we thought we’d f***in’ hit the big time, you know. Yeah, I’ll never forget because all our friends and family came out and obviously supported us, so that was a pretty cool moment. Now, with the success of “Smoke” and the album coming out and being A Thousand Horses, playing a show where people are singing your song back to you and singing songs off your album, that’s where it’s like, holy s**t, people are coming to see us play? And they’re not our friends and family? (laughs) What?!
Life is good. Let’s get a little deeper into this record, Southernality and let me quote a lyric: “She said our lives are just too crazy with us both out on the road.” Is “Tennessee Whiskey” based on a true story?
“Tennessee Whiskey” is based on a true story. I wrote that song about a relationship I was in. We both were musicians and traveling and we were on tour – this was with A Thousand Horses – and yeah, man, we broke up on the way from Scottsdale to El Paso. In El Paso the real phone call happened. We played El Paso, we didn’t speak for three days. We played Austin, TX the next night and obviously drank a little bit of Jack Daniels to kind of deal with that situation. So yeah man, it’s 100 percent a breakup song and it happened while we were out on the road and it’s word for word the truth.
Well while we’re on the subject of Tennessee whiskey we should talk about “(This Ain’t No) Drunk Dial.” Being a longtime radio guy, naturally my favorite line is “Our song came on the radio/I could hear you singin’ along.” In what bar did you find the inspiration to write this one?
That’s another one I wrote with a couple of buddies of mine. We’d always get together every Monday night and have a “beer write,” you know. “Monday night beer write” is what we’d call it. That line [is also] my favorite line and I remember when I came up with that I was thinking, you know, when you’re driving home and that song comes on and it reminds you of someone, that’s a memory that everybody has and you either feel really good or you feel really sad or you miss that person, so that’s kinda where that came from. Usually I would just turn the radio off (laughs), but I’m glad you said that because that’s one of my favorites, too.
Again, speaking from being a radio guy it highlights the power of music, and more specifically, the power of radio and how it influences so many of our lives.
I haven’t been able to stop listening to this record. The first day I got it in my hands I listened to it back-to-back and my wife was like, are you gonna go for it a third time here, or do you just wanna put the headphones on at this point (laughs).
(Laughs) Oh man, that’s awesome. Thank you.
There are no fillers on Southernality; every tune is top shelf. I’d like to ask you about all of them but we don’t have that amount of time, but I do want to pull a line from “Landslide:” “Left wing, right wing, tell me where you stand/Doesn’t really matter just be your own man.” With so much swirling around today, and we’re on the verge of another presidential campaign heating up, that line stuck out at me, Michael. Can you tell me the point you’re trying to make with that great lyric?
Yeah, man, you know looking back on that song now we were just coming out of an Interscope deal where we got dropped and we were kinda mad at the man, apparently (laughs). So that songs just about the politics of life and how things can be and my opinion is, you know, shut the hell up and just be you and do your own thing. That’s kinda what that line means, you know like politics, left wing or right wing, what are you? And it’s all influenced by everything else and so just be your own man, be your own person and don’t just go with somebody else’s opinion. So that was just more about the situation with our label. Coming out of that, that song when we came home was one of the first ones that kind of like set the tone for what we wanted to do and what we wanted to be.
I’m glad I gave you the opportunity to expand on that, Michael, because I quoted the lyric and I referenced the presidential campaign and the politics, but yes, the song is aimed right at the record folks that you were dealing with at the time.
I mean they were great and everything but nobody likes getting broken up with, especially when it’s not your idea (laughs).
Yeah. “Heaven is Close,” “Travelin’ Man,” “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Where I’m Going” are all songs with the common thread about being on the road. Did you have wanderlust growing up in Newberry, SC?
Uh, I guess so, man. I mean, we’ve always been on the road since we formed and I love being on the road. It’s always been my favorite place. So, yeah, I guess it is. I like getting out of town (laughs).
Yeah, very similar, actually. It was just a small, one streetlight town. I grew up way out in the country, probably about 25 minutes out of town so I didn’t really have a whole lot to do besides walk around the woods. And I didn’t have any neighbors.
So what was the big city for you?
The big city for me would have been Columbia, SC or Greenville, SC.
We’ve talked about road songs. You guys are on the road a lot. Can you, do you write when you’re on the road?
Yeah, actually we’re writing today.
And are you, generally speaking, the kind of guy that has pen and paper by your side or do you throw stuff into your iPad or iPhone?
Yeah you get little ideas here and there and I just throw ‘em in my phone. Sometimes I like writing them down on paper, sometimes that’s kinda cool, and I know that’s the old school way that a lot of people do but, you know, you get an idea sometimes in the middle of the night or during soundcheck or whatever and you just throw it in the phone and come back to it later.
Finally, Michael, we’re six months into 2015 and I can comfortably say that Southernality will be one of my top five albums of the year…
Oh, man, s**t. Thank you.
…which leads me to my last question: who are you taking to the Grammys?
(Laughs) Oh, man, I will probably take my wife to the Grammys. If we get invited.
Well clearly I’m anticipating that you will. And in what category will you win the most trophies because…
Oh, s**t, I love this! I like your optimism, it’s awesome. I have no idea, any of them would be great. If it was Polka I’d be fine (laughs).
I say that because this record, well its country but it’s got a bit of Marshall Tucker Band, it’s got the Black Crowes as I mentioned earlier and, well, I always say this: there’s only two types of music – good and bad and it’s up to the person who is listening to it to decide which is which.
Well, Michael, thank you.
Thank you, bro. I appreciate it. Thank you for the interview and your time.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Michael Hobby of A Thousand Horses, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.