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When the coronavirus pandemic hit U.S. shores in early March, The Wild Feathers — Ricky Young, Joel King, Taylor Burns, Ben Dumas, and Brett Moore — were on the verge of a new chapter in their career. Untangled from an eight-year association with Warner Music, they were looking forward to navigating a path as true independents with a new tour and a new album, but a tiny virus bought those plans to a dead stop as quarantines and safer-at-home orders ruled the day.
“At first we weren’t getting together, but that led us to the idea of going through our hard drives and finding music that we’d already recorded that was suitable to release,” guitarist and vocalist Ricky Young says. “We started listening to older songs and it was, ‘Wow! I don’t even remember writing or recording that!’ or ‘I always loved that song. I can’t believe it didn’t find a home.’ We can be pretty prolific at times. We usually write between 30 to 40 songs, maybe more, and then whittle them down to the 12 or 14 on an album. That’s what led us to Medium Rarities.”
The 11 songs on the recently released Medium Rarities — demos, tracks removed from albums, and B-sides — serve as a signpost for The Wild Feathers, looking back on the first 10 years of their career, while also pointing the way forward with three newly recorded songs.
“When we started trying to fit the puzzle pieces together, [bass player and vocalist Joel King] started putting together different sequences, and it didn’t take long to find one that sounded like an actual album, even though it was recorded over a span of 10 years,” Young says. “Near the end of last year, we recorded three songs we produced ourselves, something we’ve always wanted to do, and they sounded great. So we decided to create an album of old songs, really old songs, and some brand new songs.”
The new songs on Medium Rarities — “Fire,” “Goodnight,” and “My Truth” — point a new direction forward for the band with lyrics built around the themes of contemplation of the past and the desire for new horizons. It’s a theme The Wild Feathers understand well as they make the transition from the structured major label world to an anything-is-possible indie act.
“Overall, the Warner experience wasn’t bad. it just ran its course.” Young says. “After a while, when the newness and excitement wear off, you realize that you still have to grind it out for the label. We had success early on that definitely helped, but after a while a lot of the glitter and excitement wears off, and you’re getting suggestions and input from people who clearly have no idea of what they’re talking about.”
While the creative cubbyholes major labels often squeeze artists into can chafe over time, Young also acknowledges the advantages that major-label support can give a young band. “What we did gain was the financial support to tour very heavily for all those years,” he says. “The major-label wingspan helped us to gain a lot of fans, and it allowed us to grow musically, make records, and get those records out to radio and record stores. It’s like winning a scholarship to learn the music business, but it’s up to you what you do with that education. We’re taking it and moving forward. That’s not to say we’re against the idea of signing with another label, but it would be on different terms.”
“Blue” is the first track released by The Wild Feathers
from their latest album, Medium Rarities.
That major-label education prepared the band members for their next steps, but nothing could have prepared them for the loss of their main source of income — touring. Adjusting to the “new normal” and navigating a new way forward has been a challenge, as it has for all musicians in the time of a worldwide pandemic.
“The biggest hit was financial,” Young says. “None of us have ‘real’ jobs per se. We play music for a living and are very fortunate to do so, but no one makes money off records. Touring is how you make money. During a pandemic you can’t just go get a job, so you’re just kind of, ‘hope this works out.’ All of us have families and kids, and during the summer you miss a lot of the home life, so it has been a blessing to spend more time at home, but you feel like your hands are tied as a provider and a father.”
Although touring and conventional live shows are off the table, The Wild Feathers have adapted like many other artists have with live-streamed shows, a handful of socially distanced performances, and by expanding their personal quarantine circle to include all five band members plus their families.
“We’re all homebodies at this point anyway, so we were kind of self-quarantined without the pandemic,” Young says. “If we’re hanging out with anybody, it’s the band family. We get along great. We’ve been writing individually and together, and we have about twice as much as we need for an album, but we’ll probably write at least a few more.”
The Wild Feathers plan to spend a portion of the winter holed up in an East Tennessee cabin. It’s a process they’ve followed before for writing and cutting demos, but they’re expanding it to include the actual tracking for an entire album. It’s just one result of their newfound independence.
“Sometimes when you go in the studio you end up taking everything good out of the original song,” Young says. “You want it to sound like it was recorded in a cabin in woods, but you put all this money behind it, and it loses its soul.
“We’ve always wanted to release the kinds of records we love as music fans — live albums, B-sides, collections of rarities, box sets,” Young says. “We have hundreds more unreleased songs, and that opens up the possibility of more volumes. What else are we going to do? We’re only pretty decent at one thing. Now we have the opportunity to fully be ourselves and work as hard as we want to work. You eventually get held back by the big machine, and now we’ll be able to feel whatever success we have is coming from our own work ethic instead of waiting for someone else.”