There’s power in good recordkeeping. Amy Garland, Mandy McBryde and Bonnie Montgomery have been keeping a logbook for years — a cache of memories, shared and solitary. Those vignettes make up the eponymous debut album from the self-described “peace-lovin’ outlaw trio” The Wildflower Revue. The collection of 10 original songs and three cover tunes was conceived on back porches and on the banks of the Little Red River and recorded at Poynter Recording over the spring and summer of 2016. I talked with Garland, McBryde and Montgomery individually ahead of the album release, to be celebrated with a concert at the Dreamland Ballroom on Saturday, Jan. 21, benefiting Friends of Dreamland. Those conversations are merged and condensed here.
There’s a lot of music history informing the album, and you all have specifically mentioned influences like Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and the Dixie Chicks. Are there others that inspire you more collectively, as an ensemble?
Montgomery: Well, the trio — Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt — was the inspiration for this whole group, and their song “Wildflowers.” So we love the vibe of their record, especially the one with the paper cutout dolls — have you seen this? They have paper dolls for Emmylou, Linda and Dolly, and you can dress ’em. It’s the cutest vinyl insert I’ve ever seen in my life, and the music is just heavenly. And the choice of the songs that they put on their album really inspired us. So that was the whole sort of, gestalt of the album.
McBryde: We just sort of formed organically because we all were friends and we loved singing together, but that trio was immediately who we thought of. And then it went to, “I wonder who’s who,” and Bonnie was like, “I’m the Linda Ronstadt, that’s all I know.”
Garland: Bonnie’s Linda, obviously. Dolly and Emmylou are musical heroes for me, both of them. For a long time I thought, “Well, maybe I’m the Emmylou.” Then I saw this Dan Rather interview where he interviewed both of them separately, and Emmylou was so … introspective. And tempered in her responses. And I was like, “Nope. I’m the Dolly.”
So, by way of this friendship, your three-part harmonies came together on the porch, and then you sang together for the soundtrack to “Valley Inn.”
Montgomery: Yeah. So, we started just goofing off, and I wanted it to be a peace advocacy anti-war group in particular, with protest songs. We sort of veered away from that specific message, although I’d like to get back to that with my own solo stuff, or anybody I ever work with again. We started out doing “This Land is Your Land,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Maybe someday we’ll do our protest album. Then, we got asked to sing a gospel song for the soundtrack, and then to open for Billy Joe Shaver. Very exhilarating.
Some of the songs that resonated most with me were the darker ones, and I especially loved “West Franklin.” Would you talk a little bit about it?
McBryde: Sure. And thank you. I wrote that song having watched a documentary on coal mining and there was a story that really stood out to me, and hit close to home, because I lost my father around Christmastime when I was 19. They were interviewing these children of this coal miner — and at this point, the children were probably in their 80s — they were telling this story about Christmas Eve. They were in a pageant that night, and their dad just said, “I don’t wanna go [to work], but we need the money so bad.” So during that pageant there was a horrible mining accident and they lost their father. I just really … I just wanted to tell their story.
It’s lovely, and the bit about the neighbors coming to take down the Christmas tree sort of wrecked me.
McBryde: Mm-hmm. And you know, when I’ve performed that song, that’s the part that I’ve wondered about — whether it’s too esoteric to be relatable for the listener, because that’s another thing the children said after the disaster: “And the neighbors came over and they just took all our Christmas decorations down for us, ’cause we just couldn’t even do it.”
I didn’t find it esoteric. When you’ve lost someone, everyone wants to help, and accepting that help can be emotional in itself. It’s, like, a weird and unexpected part of grieving.
McBryde: Right. It’s just a really difficult thing to accept help, and just … to take down your damn Christmas decorations.
So you all have three covers on the album: Johnny Cash’s “Bad News,” Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” How’d you decide?
Garland: Well, there’s a whole story with that. We had a weeklong songwriter retreat where we went to the cabin, and [producers] Kim [Swink] and Chris [Spencer] flew in from New York to be with the three of us, and we spent a week just workin’ on the songs and talkin’ about the album. I started goin’ through my lyric books, and I’d pulled this one book out and opened it up and there was a note to myself from March 1997, and it says: “AMY” — AMY, in all caps with exclamation points — ” ‘Songs to Do: “Psycho Killer” ‘ … and then “Concrete Jungle” by Bob Marley — maybe we’ll save that for the next record. Then the next one was “Heart of Glass” by Blondie. I mean, we were debating and we’d made these Spotify playlists so we could listen and decide, and they saw those and just said, “Oh, my God. Yeah.”
Bonnie, would you talk some about “Seventeen,” which you sing lead on? There’s something in there about the crystallized immortality of people who die young, like a lot of heroes, and symbolized by the references to the springtime.
Montgomery: Well, it’s really personal, because it’s a story that I lived. I just wrote it this last year. I was 16 and growing up in White County. It’s so personal that I had trouble letting it go —letting it fly as a song on the album. But I feel like we took good care of it, especially with the swells of the fiddle and the banjo and the water and the weather and the time of year and everything. It was a story that I’d lived, but I told the story from the view of the person who’s passed away. He drowned in the river, and so I decided to commemorate his life by telling this story from his perspective that day, instead of mine. That was sort of an interesting way to remove myself from my own feelings of the event, looking down on the situation from above.
I wanna ask you about “Don’t Call It Country,” and the sort of subgenres to classic country it’s presumably directed toward. Do you think country music is in a state of crisis, or are those offshoots part of its growth?
McBryde: Well, that’s kind of the beautiful irony of that song. Amy and I wrote it a few years back sitting in her backyard, and we absolutely wrote it with the intention of making a statement about the country songs that were on the “pop” side of country, and then it ended up being a total pop country song. So there you go.
You three have made your faces and personalities very much a part of your aesthetic, so I was a little surprised to see a young superhero on the cover.
Garland: Well, that’s my son, Eli. And he is a costume wearer, and he and Chris, our producer, just formed this bond, while we were working out there. I mean, they have nicknames for each other. They LOVE each other. And there was this meth lab that blew up out there on Panther Mountain. We’d see it every time we’d drive out. There’s a burned-up houseboat and another burned-up car that’s turned upside down. It’s got clothes hangin’ out the back end of it, out of the trunk; it’s insane. Chris just thought it’d be an awesome idea to get Eli in one of his costumes and stand out there in the middle of it, and Eli said yes, so Kim and Bart [Angel, Amy’s husband and drummer for The Wildflower Revue] went and asked the neighbors if we could take pictures over there. The wildflowers are kind of wrapping around his leg with their little tendrils, like he’s come to save the day. He’s here in this burnt-up heap o’ mess, and the wildflowers are still growin.’
The Wildflower Revue’s album release concert takes place at the Dreamland Ballroom, 800 W. Ninth St., at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21. For tickets, visit the group’s Facebook page or search eventbrite.com for “Wildflower Revue.”