Trio hopes it is not a one trick pony

Rick Teverbaugh, March 2001

In order for Trick Pony not to become a One Trick Pony by riding a single big hit and never rising to that level again, this trio understood early that writing material was going to be a key part of the game plan.

That's why Heidi Newfield, Ira Dean and Keith Burns are confident that "Pour Me," the hit single from their self-titled debut, won't be their only charting song. In one combination or another 1 or more members of the group penned 8 of the 12 songs.

"All three of us are writers and wanted to have our own sounds and our own material," says Newfield, who provides much of the vocals and the group's eye-candy as a gorgeous California-girl blonde. "Our favorite artists were those who wrote their own material, and we fully intended to do that."

The fact that "Pour Me" has hit so big is an indication that perhaps the band's biggest strength might be writing the same way they play, as a trio. "More Like Me" is the only other song penned by all three, and it is also one of the more memorable offerings in a collection with few lows.

"We wrote 'Pour Me' one night at Keith's house when we were having a few drinks," says Newfield. "It's the first song the three of us wrote together. It fit us because we're very lively on stage, and we have this unbridled attitude."

Burns, who plays guitar and sings, explains the genesis of knowing the song might have a special future. "When you're just starting out, you play a lot of covers," he says. "Every time we played 'Pour Me' against that copy stuff, we'd get a bigger reaction for it than the other material the audience already knew. That's when we thought we had something."

Then, the trick was to get a label to recognize that and get the chance to make a record.

Prior to forming the band, Burns and Dean had good paying gigs. Burns played guitar in Joe Diffie's band while Dean was in Tanya Tucker's outfit. The two talked about forming a trio. When Burns heard a demo tape Newfield had made in Nashville, the idea came to him that a trio with two male voices and one female would be fresh for this genre. Perhaps it would be country's version of Peter, Paul & Mary.

"Keith and I hit it off immediately," said Newfield. "We had a lot of the same influences. When he told me about wanting to have a trio rotating lead vocals with one female and two male voices, I loved the idea. It sounded fresh and no one had done anything like it yet."

So the band merged their distinctively different geographical backgrounds (Newfield from California, Dean from North Carolina and Burns from Atlanta) into one cohesive sound and started playing live as much as 200 dates a year for nearly five years.

Dean, the bass player and a third vocalist, didn't really understand when he moved to Nashville from North Carolina how the music business worked. "I thought you just went to clubs, played real hard, built a fan base and signed a contract," he says. "I was taught if you worked real hard good things would happen."

He saw that path work for bands like BR5-49 and The Dixie Chicks, but he also found out some harsh realities. "I discovered that labels will put together bands," says Dean. "Sometimes they'll turn karaoke singers into stars."

But that wouldn't be the case here. Trick Pony stuck to their chosen path.

Producer Chuck Howard was onto the band and enticed Paige Levy, a senior vice president at Warner Brothers, to see the band at Nashville's Wildhorse Saloon and the rest of the label-signing pieces fell together from there.

"We always worked hard," says Newfield. "This has been like watching your dreams come true. We knew the look was perfect, and thank goodness our voices worked together."

But hard work and writing their own material weren't the only elements to make this group click. The band's live show had always been an enormous hit in part because it captured the slightly wacky side of the collective personality. Evidence of that can be found on track 13, "Not Hidden Track," which shows many attempts to kickoff recording of their hit single.

"We're all about fun," says Dean. "This band is like a 12-year-old on a sleepover. We're about letting the fans forget their troubles for a night; forget about that upcoming house payment."

One thing that doesn't drive this band is music genre labels. They aren't concerned at all with whether country music is heading too much toward pop or whether the music's traditional roots are being lost in today's mainstream market.

"We just play Trick Pony music," says Newfield. "Good music is good music. I see a lot of traditional roots in what we play, but all of us were fans of the outlaw country of the past."

"We just play what we play," says Burns. "If something touches us or moves us, we'll play it. Maybe our next album might be more traditional or less. We don't really know."

Yet the group doesn't mind revealing a real tender spot and a necessary one for the pioneers of country music. "I think it is vital to know about the music's history," says Newfield. "It would be like going to Hollywood to become an actor and not knowing who Bette Davis or Clark Gable was. It would be the same if you wanted to play country music and you didn't know who Faron Young, Eddy Arnold and Marty Robbins were."

"We spent five years going up and down interstates playing mostly in honky tonks," says Burns. "We have a feel for that music." The group plays mostly more traditional country while on the road together.

Perhaps some of that feeling rubbed off from an experience in recording "Big River," written by country legend Johnny Cash.

Dean had the biggest connection to putting the plan together. "We wanted to cut a song from the Sun Records days," he says. "When I first moved to town and I was starving, Johnny Cash's son snuck me in through the back of their house and gave me a place to sleep. Johnny and I became friends, and I told him if I ever got a record deal I'd like to record 'Big River' and asked him if he'd sing it with me. When he said yes, I'm sure he never believed I'd actually get a deal."

"When we got the deal, I called him up and told him about it and asked him about recording the song. Then I just waited. He says to name the time and place. Our producer put in a call to Waylon Jennings, and he agreed to join in."

When Cash arrived for the recording session, he asked what key they had recorded the take. They had a surprise waiting for him. "I told him we hadn't recorded it yet," says Dean. "'We're going to track it with you. We're going to record it live. After we were finished, he says it made him feel like he was 18 again."

"Of all the songs, and they're all special to us, 'Big River' is the most special," says Newfield. "We just ran through it a couple of times. That's my scratch vocals on there. There were no overdubs."

The entire experience left a very warm spot with all three members of the band. "They were just incredible," says Dean of Cash and Jennings. "I'm still in shock about how easy the whole thing went down. Even when we hear the recording, I don't think it has sunk in yet what we accomplished."

There even a tip of the hat at the start of the cut to Cash's signature opening of "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."

So now Trick Pony is out on the road giving people a taste of the group's live show and drumming up business for the debut disc. The second single will be "On A Night Like This," somewhat of a challenging choice considering it is one of the few songs not written by any member of the band and because Newfield speaks her way through some of the tune's most important lines.

"We've played so many tour dates that we're real comfortable out there," says Newfield. "Our shows are a roller coaster kind of like our album. We might play a Fleetwood Mac or Waylon Jennings cover, but mostly we just play our album."

"We've got other material we do that just didn't make the first album for one reason or another," says Burns. "Maybe a song was bit too much like another we already had on the album. So people will hear some material new to them even if they've got the album."

With strong writing, tight vocals and a infectious enthusiasm for the music, Trick Pony seems determined to avoid anyone ever having to put the number "1" in front of the group's name.

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •