Reviewed by Mae Hunt
Albums rarely leave me speechless, but this one truly did. Pony Bradshaw’s newest release, Calico Jim, integrates elements of blues, country, and rock music to produce a beautiful Americana album. Every song tells a unique story that, though wildly different, is strung together to create themes of nature, spirituality, and humanity. Bradshaw’s voice – at times soothing and at others booming – is perfectly country.
Sometimes I dream that one day I’ll wake up and suddenly realize my ability to sing. Sadly for me, my voice is limited to the walls of my car and my shower. For Pony Bradshaw, however, this dream became a reality. Growing up, although he listened to music, he never created it. It wasn’t until he was sitting at an open mic night in his thirties when he discovered his musical abilities. Since then, Bradshaw has produced music that suggests he’s been playing all his life!
Anyways, the album kicks off with Calico Jim, who is actually a character that Bradshaw created. In an interview with American Songwriter, Bradshaw shared: “Calico Jim is just about being a displaced Southerner, but not regretting it and not wanting to leave.” In this bluegrass song, Bradshaw sings: “Calico Jim in a red state, he don’t pick sides, he don’t ever take the bait.” The happy-go-lucky Calico Jim is content despite not fitting in with other small-town Southerners. It’s a perfect kickstart to the album, packed with the banjo, fiddle, guitar, and drums.
On top of the creative storytelling, Bradshaw’s powerful voice strikes me as uniquely strong and steady, often carrying each song while banjos and fiddles pulse in the background. In the almost-eerie Dope Mountain, Bradshaw’s voice paints the picture of widespread mountainous landscape sprinkled with a starlit night sky. This gentle song, like many others, reflects on moments in history while appreciating fleeting moments. Bradshaw sings about “eating microwaved vanilla moon pies” while sprinkling in some humor by declaring he’s “proud to be a hillbilly, 6th generation. But we ain’t no white trash.”
In addition to the occasional light-heartedness, Bradshaw’s lyrics continuously strike me as profound (that’s why it doesn’t surprise me that he’s a devoted reader). In Jimmy the Cop, a song about Bradshaw’s lady running off with a cop, he belts, “I was born already dead. Just like you I hang my head to study these dreams for signs of life. Our souls slip loose from body by night.” In this ethereal song, his strong voice carries soft instrumentals in the background.
In Guru, soft drums spark a musical haze that never quite settles as Bradshaw sings about a mysterious “mennonite woman”. He sings, “we got high as the heavens, washing each others’ feet” and in another stanza, “tweaked out on god and crystal meth.” The lyrics sound a bit chaotic, but create a beautiful song about a spiritual experience. A frequent occurrence throughout the album, Bradshaw mixes religious tropes with images of raw humanity.
I’ll wrap this up with this simple statement: every time I listen to this album, I discover something new about it. I look forward to not only listening to Calico Jim again, but for whatever else Pony Bradshaw has in store!