No stereotyping is ever a fair or accurate portrayal of the complexity that takes form in human character. But the people of the American South seem to suffer from a disproportionate and exceptional amount of ridicule and judgement based upon presuppositions that are detached from reality and the nuance of things, while including just enough shades of truth to make these stereotypes especially damaging and partisan. Passing judgement upon just about any class or segment of people is seen universally as bigoted and base. Yet espousing your disdain with Southerners is often a way to signal your virtuosity and eruditeness.
Pony Bradshaw from north Georgia isn’t here to pass judgement on anyone, either his fellow Southerners, or those who may castigate them from afar. His new album Calico Jim is more a deep and involved character study into Southern archetypes, reinstalling the complexities of persona, articulating the intricacies of belief and culture, and not to criticize, or even necessarily to canonize. Most important to Pony is to chronicle, and create vibrant mental pictures of his subjects for the audience in a manner that conveys understanding that words and images devoid of melody and rhyme fail to.
Calico Jim is not a record to tap your toe and hum along to, though you very well may find yourself doing so at certain times. Instead, this is a record with messages to unravel, secrets to decode, and stories to tell. Pony Bradshaw’s voice and approach remind you much of the enigmatic Texas songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey, who only took one album to mint his legacy, and left you shivering, almost haunted after songs like “Ballad of Spider John.” Calico Jim does that too, delivering you into an altered mood after being in its audience.
Initially, Pony Bradshaw might make one a little uneasy, misunderstanding what he’s aiming at with this album. In the title track which opens the album, when he mentions what many take as a dog whistle in “Red State,” and you see tracks named “Dope Mountain,” “Jimmy The Cop,” and “Hillbilly Possessed” about a snake preacher, you might assume that this is a work of social commentary admonishing Southern mythology and descent.
But Pony Bradshaw gets what many others miss about the American “hillbilly,” which is the vividness of character that expresses itself in the people of the hills and hollers, and depressed landscapes of America’s rural regions that have been forlorn and forgotten, and how these characters possess their own value and wisdom, and speak to something deeper about human nature and meaning, with lessons that can’t be discovered elsewhere but in the richness of this human resource.
Understanding Calico Jim is understanding the art of perspective—how two or more individuals can look at the same thing, and see something completely different. Where one may see an unlearned hillbilly and surmise ignorance while turning their nose up, another might see the injustice of their circumstances, and still another might see the beauty of simplicity, and the quiet wisdom among rural people that is more enlightened and practical than book learning, even if stained by lingering pride and prejudice.
Calico Jim is more poetic than musical. But patient, extended listening reveals smart melodies and sonic landscapes more involved than simple 1-4-5 music, facilitating the listener to get lost in moments and jettison reality where the true beauty in music can be found. “Americana” is probably the correct categorization—sparse, but sufficient, while Pony Bradshaw at times surprises you with the power of his voice, like in the song “Guru,” and his ability to evoke hillbilly characters, while still sounding ambiguous to the material himself, like a great impartial narrator.
It’s puzzling how part of the American experience remains a keen curiosity for the tapestry of cultures from around the world, and wanting to study and understand all the peoples of the Earth. But we remain suspicious of our neighbors whose differences with ourselves are both more subtle, yet stark enough to spark great interest, if we weren’t so predisposed to be judgemental, and untrusting.
Undoubtedly the American South still has sins to atone for, and some of which it still struggles to extricate itself from, while the judgement from others who have their own sordid histories sometimes compels the Southern mindset to hold fast to these deprecated customs as opposed to letting them go. But by presenting Southern character in stark relief, Pony Bradshaw helps restore some of the dignity in Southern people, and some of the important perspective upon their belief and lore that is critical to understanding their character, and value.