Pony Bradshaw Is Country Music’s Newest Rambler
“Last job I had was sportswriter at a local newspaper,” says Pony Bradshaw. He’s sitting backstage at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina, nursing a bottle of Miller Lite and prepping for his gig later that night. “I’ve been doing this about five years full-time.”
“This” is his job as a rambling singer and songwriter in the Hank Williams or Merle Haggard vein, the kind of always-on-the-run lifestyle that informs the title of his latest album, North Georgia Rounder. While he resides in the same mountains as the record’s namesake, the 42-year-old born James Bradshaw is forever in motion, be it touring the road or writing during a brief stop in between. Listening to “A Duffel, a Grip and My D35” off the new LP, you can hear the weariness from travel in his voice.
While Bradshaw is a lifelong rambler, he’s also somewhat of a late bloomer. “I didn’t pick up guitar until I was 25. But I’ve always had the desire to write,” he says. “I started writing songs ’cause I wasn’t good at doing cover songs. I could never sing ‘em how they needed to be sung, so I wrote my own.”
Born on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and raised in East Texas, Bradshaw hails from the Piney Woods region where “it looks like North Georgia without the mountains and culturally it’s more Southern.” At a young age, he sang in church, learned harmony from his mother, and watched his father — an Operation Desert Storm veteran and rambler himself — sporadically moonlight as an Elvis impersonator.
“I never learned to stay put, and my dad was the same way. And I don’t think I was taught much character as a young man either,” Bradshaw says. “But he was smart as hell. He read a lot, never finished college. But he was always one of the smartest dudes in the room.”
Following high school, Bradshaw attended a slew of academic institutions, where he began “collecting colleges.” Schools all over Texas, then Arkansas. Eventually, he enlisted in the United States Air Force and found himself in Colorado. But his military tenure ended abruptly because he “got kicked out for underage drinking and fighting — but don’t tell nobody that.”
“I was living a rock star life in my 20s and I didn’t even play music,” Bradshaw continues. “[With musicians], the problem is they start realizing their appeal and they lean into it too hard if they’re not self-aware. I think me pushing 43 helps me a little bit in that area — if I was 25 with all this going on, I might be an idiot, I might have an ego.
By his mid-30s, Bradshaw now had two sons of his own. He also had a divorce under his belt. Around 2015, he began jumping onstage at local open mics in North Georgia at the urging of his longtime partner, an assistant editor at The Chatsworth Times who gave Bradshaw that sports-writing job — even if she also told him to leave it.
“I call her my wife [now]. She filled me up with confidence,” Bradshaw says. “It’s nobody’s fault that I didn’t believe in myself, but she did somehow, for some reason. It pushed me to get better, which is a strange thing, to have one human have confidence in you — she pushed me and told me to quit my job.”
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Finishing his beer at the Grey Eagle, Bradshaw is approached by an employee of the venue. They inform him the doors will be opened soon and that a long line of people are out front, waiting to get in. It’s a moment of success and stability, but Bradshaw can’t help think about the never-ending journey.
“I work on a wavelength that most people don’t understand or can’t hear,” he says. “I’ve been rambling for so long — then I found a career that made it OK to keep doing it.”