In the throws of CMA Fest, a contingent of visitors from across the pond gather against the back wall of a trendy Nashville taco restaurant. Among them, buzzy four-piece act The Wandering Hearts from London snacks on lunch between appointments, talking about their brief experience coming over to play in the states.
"We thought we'd start easy at the Ryman and then work our way down from there," jokes guitarist and vocalist Tim Prottey-Jones. Laughs aside, that's precisely what happened about a day after they touched down in Nashville.
The group joined Marty Stuart for his famed "Late Night Jam," which has for 17 years served as the unofficial kickoff to CMA Fest. This year featured acts like Chris Stapleton, Margo Price, John Prine and Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. And, of course, The Wandering Hearts.
"It was our first international gig," adds Tara Wilcox.
Comprised of four phenomenal vocalists, The Wandering Hearts could easily be likened to a folksy twist on pop country darlings Little Big Town. But that would belie the unique perspective the band fashions during their songwriting sessions -- which always ultimately includes the input of all four.
Prior to making the trip overseas, the band signed to Decca Records in the UK and won the coveted Bob Harris Emerging Artist award. The released their debut album Wild Silence in February 2018.
Completed by Francesca "Chess" Whiffin and AJ Dean, the jovial quartet doesn't take for granted just how surreal the whole experience has been. Especially considering they barely knew each other three years prior.
Inspiration From Frustration
Tim, Tara, AJ and Chess all met after some periods of frustration in their lives. Prottey-Jones found himself spinning his musical wheels, unfulfilled in his 9 to 5 and feeling a little up against the wall. "The time came where I figured that if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it now," Prottey-Jones says.
That's when he met Wilcox, who grew up in a musical family listening to a lot of Tom Petty, The Byrds and John Cougar Mellencamp thanks to her yankee dad. "I've been singing and writing songs and harmonizing for as long as I can remember," she says. "It's the only thing I've ever been any good at."
She and Tim met at a mutual gig at a town in Suffolk (though they're both from Birmingham). "We were having to do cover songs and we both just wanted to be doing our own music," Wilcox says.
Not long after, the pair were introduced to Whiffin, who had the most formal education and experience in the industry but a few years out of school found herself also unsatisfied. "Meeting these guys changed my life," Whiffin says. "I needed it."
They also met Dean at the same time. An oldies aficionado, Dean actually visited Nashville years before meeting the rest of the band. His old roommate Sam Palladio landed a role on the show Nashville, and Dean visited Nashville to soak up the musical history. That trip was a catalyst for Dean, who at the time was mostly playing classic rock covers. "I came back and thought, 'What am I doing singing these other peoples' songs from 60 years ago?'" Dean says. "Where is my own stuff? It felt like a huge part was missing."
The Stuff Of Movies
When the four finally got together, it was instant chemistry. "It was like when you meet the love of your life and you're like, 'How have you not always been in my life?'" Wilcox says. "These three are collectively the loves of my life."
After a few rehearsals, the group uploaded a demo to SoundCloud. "Twenty-six minutes after we uploaded the song, a guy named Steve reached out saying he was really into it," Dean says. "We thought it was going to be some prince from Ghana or something asking us to wire him some monies," Prottey-Jones laughs.
Steve, it turns out, was legit. He started managing the four. Not long after, they found themselves in the Decca Records office in London, taking a meeting. "At the end, [President of Decca Records UK] Rebecca said, 'Right, well I've got to go take a meeting, but can you just sign them?'" Wilcox says.
The band then went on a writing spree, tapping into their various backgrounds and influences to write nearly 50 songs, which they eventually pared down to complete Wild Silence. "We write a lot as a four, which can seem to be a bit much for some people, but when we write with all of us you see why," Chiffin says. "It's so nice to write songs that relate to us all individually, even if we're coming at it from different places."
The Wandering Hearts found themselves opening a string of UK shows for country great Marty Stuart. A few shows in, he came out during the band's soundcheck and sat in the audience. When they finished a tune, Stuart piped up, "Well that didn't suck."
"We sat there going, 'That might be American humor but we think that's good,'" Wilcox laughed. Stuart asked them to play more. He then later visited them in their dressing room, nonchalantly asking if they'd like to join him to play the Ryman and possibly Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
"I'm not a super emotional guy, but I just lost it," Dean says. "The color totally drained from AJ's face," adds Wilcox. A few days later, the details were in the band's inbox and they were outbound for the states.
The first half of the band's trip involved a handful of performances, while the second week mostly involved writing. From the outset, the four were enamored with the friendliness of the town. "When we played last night, you felt like everyone was on your side, even though no one knew who we were," Whiffin says.
"Everybody here treats music for what it is," Dean says. "It's a precious thing, but they don't treat it too precious. They don't try to be possessive."
"And the support from the community in each genre," Whiffin adds. "Walking around today people were stopping us and telling us how much they enjoyed our performance. I think being Brits, we're used to people keeping their head down and ignoring you."
The Wandering Hearts also just announced their official selection for Americanafest in September, which means they'll be back to town before the end of the year. "We love it here," Whiffin says.
But despite its still nascent beginning, the four see a lot of growth in the UK's love and appreciation for country and Americana music. "It's happening," Prottey-Jones says. "Country and Americana is coming there and there's no excuse not to get into it."