A Thousand Horses charged out of the gate when they released their debut country single “Smoke” in 2015. The mid-tempo ballad about an addictive relationship climbed to Number One and teed up the band to be Nashville stars: they did TV, toured with Darius Rucker, played Bonnaroo. But just like the hit song’s title, that quick success dissolved in a wisp. The follow-up “(This Ain’t No) Drunk Dial,” another mid-tempo track, failed to ignite, and when the group finally did release something that showed them to be the rock band they are — the title track to their debut country LP, Southernality — their moment was all but gone.
A mishmash EP of new songs and live recordings with Music Row producer Dann Huff followed, but the band and their label home Big Machine soon realized it was time to part ways.
“They did a lot for us, but they knew we had to go be a band,” says Horses singer Michael Hobby, squeezed into a booth with his bandmates at Nashville hipster haven the Dive Motel on a rainy Monday afternoon.
“We got to a place and they got to a place at the same time where it was ‘I don’t think we’re helping each other right now,'” says guitarist Zach Brown.
By the Horses’ account, it was a quick and amiable split (afterward, they went out for drinks with their former bosses), but most importantly the exit afforded them the opportunity to reunite with producer Dave Cobb, who oversaw the raw and gritty material that first got them signed to Big Machine. Hustling into RCA Studio A with Cobb, they cut 10 new songs live on the studio floor.
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“We were totally independent by that point and we had no agenda other than let’s just make an album that represents us in the best way,” says Brown. “We didn’t want to put a bunch of stuff on it that would be hard to do live or try to make a song better by putting some random instrument on it. Just let it stand on its own.”
This spring, A Thousand Horses — Hobby, Brown, guitarist Bill Satcher, and bassist Graham DeLoach — will release the fruits of those sessions, the full-length album Let the Band Play On, on Cobb’s Elektra Records imprint Low Country Sound.
At 36 minutes, the LP is a tight, satisfying listen, underscoring the band’s commitment to trimming the fat. Nothing feels forced, there’s an emphasis on melody, and Hobby allows his voice to come across more naturally (gone is the sometimes constricted whine of the past). It’s the sound of a group that isn’t chasing trends. Tracks like “Never Liked the Rain,” inspired by a family member’s divorce, and the toxic-relationship ballad “Startin’ Fires” are far from backwoods-party anthems. But A Thousand Horses insist a return to radio, via songs like the optimistic “Livin’ My Best Life” and the jangly “Broken Heartland,” is very much a part of their plan.
“We’re not your traditional country artists, and we never have been,” says Hobby. “It’s what separates us and makes us different from everyone else. We want to stand on our own feet and create our own lane and path, and make records that we enjoy listening to. With Dave, his side is a different world, but the common thread was to make a kickass record. And radio will be a part of that.”
The group’s kinship with Cobb, who has become the go-to Americana producer for his work with Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, goes back 10 years to Los Angeles, when the band — still without a name — gathered in a Silver Lake studio to work on songs, all the while pinching themselves that kids from South Carolina and Georgia somehow made it to the promised land of California. They left the studio as A Thousand Horses and were briefly signed to Interscope before getting dropped. Big Machine’s Republic Nashville eventually scooped them up.
For Let the Band Play On, the Horses hoped to tap into the old us-against-the-world magic that they conjured with Cobb.
“We’ve really come full circle at this point. We went back to the basics. We had songs we really believed in, called up Dave, and went to Hooters,” says Brown.
“In Hooters,” Hobby laughs, “we decided to make a record.”
The album title comes from something Hobby ad libbed at the end of recording the barroom twanger “Drinkin’ Song.” As the group lost themselves in an extended jam, he shouted, “Let the band play on!”
“That one statement encapsulated the feeling of the record,” says Satcher.
Adds DeLoach, “It’s our mission statement.”
While the entire band wrote “Drinkin’ Song,” Hobby and Satcher collaborated on the bulk of the album’s tracks with writers like Kendell Marvel, Lee Thomas Miller, and Jonathan Singleton. “Broken Heartland,” written with Singleton and the late Andrew Dorff, was an older song that Hobby and Satcher had been sending back and forth to each other, confident that it was worth one day finishing.
“‘Broken Heartland’ is a place we’ve all been,” says Hobby, “where there’s a bar there for you to come.”
“And have the saddest, most lonely time,” adds Brown, finishing the thought.
After spending most of their career on Republic Nashville alongside country-radio hitmakers like Florida Georgia Line and the Band Perry, A Thousand Horses now find themselves on an imprint that releases albums by more rootsy performers: Brandi Carlile, Brent Cobb, and Anderson East, among them. Country radio goals aside, the association could put the band in front of a different audience. They’ve already been booked to play the eclectic Shaky Boots Festival in Atlanta this summer, on a bill that includes Carlile, John Prine, Tanya Tucker, Colter Wall, and fellow country-rockers Whiskey Myers.
“It feels really good to be in the company we’re in on our label,” says Brown. “It’s a cool place to be.”
The band members all agree, but Hobby, like he did with the album’s title, can’t help but boil down the on-the-nose appeal of Let the Band Play On.
“We’re a country rock & roll band,” he says matter-of-factly. “If you’re a fan of that type of music, you’ll probably dig it.”