If you’ve been remotely cognizant of country music lately, with the radio on or the Academy of Country Music awards or the Country Music Association awards blowing up your timeline, then you know country bands are hot. There’s a still a place for pop and vocal powerhouses, but bands that can shred, write, and tour are in vogue, and A Thousand Horses are helping to lead the pack. Formed in Nashville out of a collection of South Carolina and Georgia natives, A Thousand Horses took off last year with “Smoke,” an seemingly omnipresent vocally-driven cut off their debut, Southernality, that’s a slice of big, classic country music. It’s a song that feels like something the genre’s been missing.
By the time “Smoke” took off and naysayers chalked the band’s overnight sensation up to luck, A Thousand Horses had been in major label hands, dropped, and started over. Most groups would call it quits or move on to other endeavors, but A Thousand Horses soldiered on and their work paid off. We talked to lead vocalist Michael Hobby ahead of the band’s debut at Country Thunder in Florence this weekend.
New Times: Talking about the whole idea of bands in country: I know you guys tour with a really large band, including a female vocal trio, so does that factor into the writing process? Are you writing these songs and hearing them on a large scale?
Michael Hobby: It’s something we keep in mind when we write; it usually comes into play when we’re making the demo or recording the song. It depends on the song, and it’s like another instrument or talent to add to it. Sometimes it calls for it and sometimes it doesn't, and you kind of know when you want it. It’s always like a thought, like, "We could get the girls on this and do a big chorus, a gospel thing; that’d be kind of rad," or it might not call for it.
That kind of plays into that idea as southern rock as a medium for you — the inclusion of a gospel chorus and whatnot. Artists of late like Brothers Osborne and Blackberry Smoke straddle that line between country and Southern rock. Influentially speaking, how much was that genre a part of your upbringing?
We did. … Each of my brothers listened to different things. I have one brother who loved Alabama. He loved Garth Brooks. He loved Clint Black. He loved Alan [Jackson], and my first concert was Alan Jackson. Then I had the other brother who was like, Nirvana, Soundgarden, The Cranberries, that whole thing, the Columbia House subscription scene where you sign up and get 12 CDs [laughs]. My other brother was into rock music, and I dove into The Black Crowes and Tom Petty and that side of things, and then I got a guitar. The first thing you do when you get a guitar is you go and get a Jimi Hendrix album and try to learn Hendrix songs all day. You’re a rock kid at that point. The Black Crowes are huge to me, actually. My second cousin’s in it, so they’re family, I was introduced to that music when I was really young. They were my musical heroes growing up.
It’s crazy to grow up in that kind of melting pot, but it’s interesting to see that distilled into the record, and I’m sure you’ve been talking about this a lot since the Grammys, but what was it like working with Dave Cobb? Everything that guy touches lately turns to gold. Talk me through working with him.
Well, we signed our first record deal in 2010, and that’s where we met Dave. We did that first EP with Dave out in Silver Lake [Los Angeles], and we just continued to work with Dave throughout all the bullshit, the ups and downs, and make EPs here and there, make a record, little by little, just to stay on tour and have products. We actually made the entire Southernality album independently, before we signed to Republic, and that’s what led us to get our deal with Big Machine [Records]. We went back in with Dave and tweaked some things, dropped some songs, and added some beer songs — things you do when you have a budget to do that.
You just mentioned something there, working through the bullshit, so tell me about some of those ups and downs. I know you guys have been together for six years, and you started out with Interscope and Columbia, a lot of getting juggled by labels, getting dropped, and then had “Smoke” blow up and everyone comes out of the fuckin’ woodwork.
You know, I think that was one of the best things that ever happened to us: getting dropped by Interscope. We went through a time where as soon as we got the phone call that we weren’t moving forward together because of their record-business shit, our booking agent dropped us, and then our management, we parted ways with them, so we were left basically with zero. We were back to zero, just us four guys in a van, touring the country. It gave us a lot of perspective and a lot of reflection to kind of find who we were and what we wanted to be, which led to us writing “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Landslide.” It forced us to step back and just be us, do our thing. There was no one to influence us, and Dave would record us, so let’s just do that and write and tour. We finally started to rebuild after that, signed to CAA, got a new agent, got management, which led to us signing to Republic Nashville. It was a crazy six-year ride to here.