Vocalist/bassist Joel King discusses country music and hangin’ with Willie
Joel King can be forgiven for thinking his life has taken on an almost dreamlike quality. That’s what happens when you hang out with Willie Nelson on a West Coast tour.
In the last year, the 29-year-old lead singer and bassist for the Nashville-based rock band The Wild Feathers has experienced a dizzying number of moments that most musicians can only dream of – for starters, appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Conan and opening slots for Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. In February, The Wild Feathers appeared on the hit ABC musical drama Nashville, where the band performed its song “Got it Wrong” as lead character Deacon Claybourne (played by actor Chip Esten) referred to the group as “The Tail Feathers.”
And then there were the opening dates for Willie Nelson last year when the country legend brought the band on stage to sing songs like “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
It’s quite an astounding list of accomplishments for a band that got its start in 2010, when King met fellow musician Ricky Young in Nashville. They decided to form a project with a solid core of vocalists, linking up with Taylor Burns and Preston Wimberly (and later adding Ben Dumas on drums).
The Wild Feathers have broken the country and Americana mold most closely associated with their adopted home of Nashville, creating instead a four-part-harmony-driven rock sound that’s more akin to Laurel Canyon. The band’s self-titled debut, which came out last August, was hailed for its mix of country twang, distinct melodies and straight-up rock guitar with hits like “The Ceiling” and “Hard Times.”
The guys in The Wild Feathers have become road warriors, performing more than 200 live shows a year, including Bonnaroo and the Firefly Festival this year. They come to Hershey on Sunday as part of Zac Brown Band’s Southern Ground Music & Food Festival.
We caught up with King at his home in Nashville following a 14-hour drive from a show in Minnesota to talk about real country music and smoking grass with Willie Nelson.
Fly Magazine: Has there been a moment in the last year where you’ve had to pinch yourself to make sure things were real?
Joel King: There are so many moments like that – the opening shows we’ve had, like Dylan and Willie Nelson. When Willie brought us on stage to sing with him, that was like an “Oh, my God” moment. He’d look over and wink at you, and it was just a heart-melter. The other day was my birthday, and we got invited to Sheryl Crow’s place. We had been playing a few shows with her. She had a little party, and everyone was there – The Black Keys, Vince Gill, Martina McBride, Keith Urban and Jewel. Hell, Hootie was there [laughs]. Everyone got up with their instruments and had a jam. Me, Sheryl Crow, Keith Urban and Taylor from my band did “The Weight” together, and that was pretty badass. Then for my birthday, Kix Brooks from Brooks & Dunn was buying me shots. It was an awesomely weird moment. Come midnight, Kix Brooks and I are taking some tequila shots.
FM: I’d imagine that was your most memorable birthday.
JK: Yeah, we went to the CMT Awards later in the day – equally as weird, but definitely not as cool as Sheryl Crow’s place. Her place was 10 times cooler than the awards show. Those things are kind of a drag to go to. It was the first time to walk the red carpet, which was kind of weird. Plus, I didn’t know half the people who were playing. I think they like to throw around the term “artist” too much [laughs]. I think there was more rap there than country. It was a whole bunch of weird collaborations.
FM: What kind of country do you listen to?
JK: Real country, man [laughs]. Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam – just kind of more classic country.
FM: You’re playing at Hershey with Zac Brown Band and Sturgill Simpson. Would you put them in the real country category?
JK: Yeah. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Zac Brown. His songs are pretty good. In Nashville, I know he hangs and jams a lot, but I’ve never had a chance to meet him. And the other guys in the band told me about Sturgill Simpson. Totally badass and totally dig it – kind of like a Waylon sound.
FM: Would you take Toby Keith’s advice from his song and “never smoke weed with Willie again?”
JK: Hell, no [laughs]. I’d smoke anything Willie Nelson’s got. Anybody who says they’re not going to smoke with Willie Nelson – even though he offers it to you – is not a red-blooded American. I’d probably not smoke opium with Edgar Allan Poe, but you’d have to. Willie’s an icon, and that’s what he does. If you’re fortunate enough to get the opportunity, take it.
FM: What was your first instrument?
JK: Guitar. I never really learned instruments all that good; I just learned them enough to play [laughs]. I always felt the people who knew how to play their instruments too good had some skewed outlook on music.
FM: What’s the Woody Guthrie quote – “If you play more than three chords, you’re just showing off.”
JK: [laughs] Man, it’s harder than you think – that’s another art. A lot of our best songs are the ones that are three chords – the ones that are simpler. It’s easier to write another part, but it’s harder to just write it simple, because then the melody and the words have to be really good. It’s probably harder to write a three-chord song.
FM: Where do your lyrics come from?
JK: Definitely from personal experiences. All of our stuff is pretty much our own selves singing about our own selves. When you write all the time, you’ll hear somebody say something and think, “Oh, that would be a great song title.” Sometimes you’ll start one thing and work your way backwards, and then there are times where it’s just heartfelt and you’ve got to get something off your chest – almost like diary mode. And some of them just come out, and I still don’t know what they mean. I don’t know what Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” means, but it sure does sound good.
FM: You’ve called The Wild Feathers a “four-headed monster” because of the four lead singers. Have you ever thought of changing the band’s name to “Hydra?”
JK: [laughs] No, but if we have to change our name for some reason, that’ll be the first one.
FM: What are the difficulties of having four people who could theoretically be the lead singer in their own band?
JK: The number one thing that’s most difficult is how to pick all the songs out. There are so many songs, and it’s hard to distinguish what’s a Wild Feathers song or a song to give to somebody else around town – there’s just so damn many of them. But there’s a whole bunch that’s a lot easier. Instead of singing every single night and blowing your voice out, you can hone in and take it easy a few nights. You’re singing a lot less, so you can play more shows. People also don’t get bored as easily. That’s what’s so good about listening to The Band. Somehow it all works together, even though someone different is singing on each song, and yet it still sounds like The Band.
FM: What’s your most prized possession?
JK: I’d have to go with one of my guitars – my rosewood Gibson J-45. It was my first real guitar my parents got me, and I’ve had it forever. The riff from the record on “The Ceiling” was played with that guitar, and I’ve written almost every song I’ve ever done on that thing. It’s got cracks in it and pretty torn up – but in the right way. I’ve had some success with it, and it’s seen the ups and downs.
Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Music & Food Festival takes over Hersheypark Stadium (100 Hersheypark Dr., Hershey) on Saturday and Sunday, August 30 and 31. Featured performers include Jimmy Buffett & The Coral Reef Band, Alan Jackson and JJ Grey & Mofro on Saturday and Zac Brown Band, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Blues Traveler, The Wild Feathers and Sturgill Simpson on Sunday. $34.40-$129.90. Click here for tickets.