The back cover image of Throw Down the fourth album from the Wilders, perfectly captures the essence of the Kansas City hillbilly string band. It’s a photo shot from a crowd at one of their stage shows, and the photographer has left the shutter open, so the band—Ike Sheldon (lead vocals, guitar), Phil Wade (banjo, dobro, mandolin), Nate Gawron (string bass) and Betse Ellis (fiddle)—appears to be fluid, exciting and dynamic. Their live shows, needless to say, are legendary for their high-throttle take on songs by classic country artists like Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams, Sr. That said, Throw Down is a studio album, so it lacks some of that live fire, but I’m pleased to report—at the risk of damning with faint praise—that Throw Down is a fine placeholder until the Wilders come to your town.
Throw Down marks the first time the Wilders have mixed original material with covers, though you’d be hard-pressed to differentiate between the two. Wade’s weeper “It’ll Never Be Through With Us (Until It’s Through With You)” nestles up comfortably with Hank’s “Won’t You Sometimes Think of Me”. Other “quiet” songs like “When I Get to Heaven” and the closer, “January Waltz” have a comfortable, lived-in feel, thanks to Betse Ellis’ warm fiddle. Still, as good as these songs are, they’re not what the Wilders do best.
What the Wilders “do best”, of course, are barnburners. Opener “Hawk’s Got a Chicken and Flew in the Woods” is a slice of reckless fun, a helluva way to kick off a CD and probably the closest thing to a peek into the band’s live shows. The swinging “Honky Tonk Habit” doubles as the band’s Mission Statement, of sorts: “It’s in my blood / I should quit / But I like it a lot”—call it the honky-tonk take on the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock and Roll”. And their cover of Johnny Cash’s “Belshazzar”, with its fiery fiddle breakdown and lesson (an idol worshipper gets his due) is the funnest (yes, I know that’s not a word) Bible lesson you’ll hear all year. Even a cover of Hank’s “The Blues Come Around” is deceptively upbeat and fun.
The Wilders also toss in a handful of fiddle numbers that Betse Ellis delivers with obvious joy and technical precision. The liner notes specifically outline her approach to each of the fiddle tunes (“I wrote ‘Goat Creek’ in the fall of 2004 and I play it in cross A (AEAE).”) I don’t subscribe to Fiddler Magazine, so I don’t know what that means, but I do know that “Goat Creek”, as well as “Squirrel Hunters” and “Jenny on the Railroad” are a ton of fun. They’re the kind of tunes to play when you’re trying to convince someone that country music isn’t all about broken-down pick-up trucks and dead dogs; it’s also instrumental fiddle numbers about hunting squirrels. Ha.
If anything—and this is a by-product of this being the first “true” Wilders album, one with original tunes—the lone knock on Throw Down is that it suffers from a lack of cohesion from track one to track 14. Really, it plays like three discrete EPs in a disc changer set to “random”. They’re good EPs to be sure, but the weepers, raucous numbers and fiddle tunes don’t mesh quite they way they should, and this hurts Throw Down as an album qua album. It’s a fine introduction to the band, but be sure to follow it up one with one of their live concerts.