At Martinsville (Va.) High School in the 1990s, the band’s drum major and a majorette took a shine to each other.
Doug Williams laughed as he recalled the story of his courtship with Telisha, the girl who would eventually become his wife.
“It sounds like a Hallmark special,” he said.
They bonded over music, joining a cover band that played songs by the Eagles, Led Zeppelin and other classic rock dinosaurs.
But the air up in Southwest Virginia is thick with fiddles, banjos and songs of hope and yearning, and it wasn’t long before those lonesome, ancient tones and tales seeped into their music, nudging them away from Sister Hazel and toward Hazel Dickens.
Doug and Telisha Williams now make music as Wild Ponies, pulling from country, folk and blues traditions to create deeply affecting music that can be haunting and rollicking, with lyrics that explore life’s trials and triumphs.
They will play The Arts Place of Stokes in Danbury on Nov. 23 at 7:30 p.m. Earlier in the day, they will lead a creativity workshop.
Though they are now based in East Nashville, the epicenter of Americana, the Williamses carry with them the music and mythology of Southwest Virginia, particularly the Galax area where Doug learned to play music at his grandpa’s knee.
The Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention played a central role in their musicianship and relationship.
“There’s pictures of me playing banjo on stage when I was 5,” Doug said. “That was always part of my life.”
He took his then-girlfriend Telisha with him one year.
“It was sort of a litmus test. It was my first fiddler’s fest, so it was, ‘How is she going to fit in?’” Telisha recalled. “I went every year after that.”
They began setting up in a horse trailer on the campground, playing country and bluegrass music and drawing a crowd.
“Those were our first busking days,” Telisha said.
Though the two went away to different colleges, they never lost their love for each other and the music of the Southern Appalachians.
After an album performing as “Doug and Telisha,” they morphed into Wild Ponies, digging deeper into the old-time music of their birthplace, most notably on their latest album, “Galax.”
It was recorded in a shed behind the old home place of Doug’s family and features musicians from Nashville and Galax.
Released in 2017, “Galax” includes the old-time standard “Sally Ann” and a cover of Hazel Dickens’ “Pretty Bird” as well as original songs that blend country and folk. The slow-burning “Hearts and Bones” recalls the sparse lyrics and instrumentation of Lucinda Williams.
“Bones will turn to dust,” Telisha intones over the swell of a pedal steel. “Stars all fade and fall.”
“Those mountains and those people are our DNA,” Telisha said of Southwest Virginia. “It’s who we are. It has everything to do with how we observe the world. We’ve been to all 50 states, six Canadian provinces, and we carry that with us every where we visit. I want to be an ambassador for that region. There’s a lot of misconceptions about the Appalachians, and we want to make sure we are not contributing to it.”
Telisha plays stand-up bass and sings in a lilting voice that can sound like a twangier version of Nanci Griffith. Doug plays both electric and acoustic guitar and sings harmony. Their music addresses weighty topics including domestic violence and sexual abuse (Telisha was sexually abused by a family member) with nuance and depth.
“It’s impossible to get away from your own experience. Any experience you have, if you can embrace it and incorporate that feeling into your life rather than push it away ... if you can give it a language, give it a voice, that feels more honest to me,” Telisha said.
Nearly 15 years after quitting their day jobs to devote themselves to music, the Williamses stay busy with a few different side hustles that include a weekly radio show, Whiskey Wednesday; teaching workshops and doing events at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Beginning next year, they will launch Long Ride, a podcast that looks at the roads people travel in their career. Jim Lauderdale, Kim Richey and Stacey Earle are among the first-season guests. They also plan to head back into the recording studio for a followup to “Galax.”
In the meantime, they’ll enjoy living among the artists in East Nashville, which Doug likened to summer camp.
“We push each other to be the artist we can be,” Telisha said. “I’m not sure there’s another place like it.”