Lucas Pasley – Pones Back Home
Earlier this year, Lucas Pasley released an album called Ponies Back Home. As a traditional mountain musician in the heart of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge, Lucas Pasley invites us into a deeper retrospective side of his musicality, which expands on his previous collection Souls Living On. The album covers three generations of songwriters in Pasley’s family, featuring his own original compositions next to those written by his grandmother, father, and stepfather. In Pasley’s own words, “the album is about the cycle of love, loss, and healing.” Along with an eclectic mix of talented artists, Pasley brings each song to life in a compelling way that challenges listeners to think, love, and live. Check out our exchange with Lucas Pasley about his album and more.
Americana Highways: Your new album, Ponies Back Home, along with your 2020 album, Souls Living On, tell a familial narrative across generations of songwriters in a way that is so unique. What is the experience like for you to revisit and interpret the songwriting of your family members? Do you feel like you connect with them in a new way through interpreting their songwriting?
Lucas Pasley: Do you happen to remember playing Twister with friends and family when you were younger (or maybe now?) – when the spinner would intertwine those loved ones all around you? That’s a little what it feels like recording and performing the songs of my family and loved ones. When you sing the song of another person, if it’s a heartfelt one, you step inside them for a moment, see the world as they saw it, feel the world as they felt it. Sometimes when I sing my grandmother’s songs it feels like I am back in her living room with her feet kicked up in the recliner, eating apples and sharing life. Sometimes when I’m singing her songs, I feel her with me so strongly I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I looked around and saw her there.
AH: You are an old-time fiddler that plays in the band Gap Civil and have recorded several projects of traditional tunes, but on your solo albums you step into a different role as a singer-songwriter. In what ways do these solo projects challenge you creatively in a way that is different than what you do in Gap Civil?
LP: I don’t think challenge is quite the right word. Let’s say you’re a gruff, burly fellow, but suddenly you fall in love and you find the person in the world where you can let your softer, gentler side be seen. It’s not a challenge to let that side show; it’s just a part of you that didn’t have a place in the world before. That’s what it’s been like bringing that part of my musical life into the public eye. I had always been a reclusive songwriter, but it wasn’t until the pandemic slowed me down and through the encouragement of my dear friend Martha Spencer, that I felt drawn to recording my songs. My grandmother was heading toward the final lap of her race down here, and I suddenly realized one thing I could do for her would be to record her songs and let her hear them published. I recorded Souls Living On as quickly as I could and we put up Facebook posts about the songs and I would read the kind comments from folks to her. If my solo music had accomplished only that, that would have been enough.
AH: The title of the album is taken from the first track of the collection, “Icelandic Ponies,” which is a song that you wrote that tells a personal, family story about the sacrifices that one makes traversing life’s hardships with an emphasis on longing for another place. What was the process like to unpack this narrative that hits so close to home for you and then to beautifully put it to music? In your own opinion as the artist, how do you feel that the title Ponies Back Home encapsulates the entire collection?
LP: The decision of my Icelandic grandmother from my mother’s side to keep secret the terminal cancer of my grandfather is one that has affected my family for generations. When a family loses a member too young, it leaves a strange hole in the fabric of that family, an empty place where you always know there’s something that belongs there, like a torn off part of a photograph. I never met my grandfather, but I have felt his place, the empty space where he should have been, for my whole life. Writing and recording Icelandic Ponies let me name that empty space. The album is about the cycle of love, loss, and healing – no one song tells the whole story, and that song is one of heavy loss. But the line “ponies back home” plants the seed for healing. When you feel like life has given you too much to bear, sometimes the only place to turn to heal is home, even if it’s just home in the memories inside you.
AH: Ponies Back Home is a collaborative project that features an eclectic mix of musicians, artists, and singers from the area that you live. Could you elaborate on some of the collaborations and what it means for you to have captured their voices and musicianship on this album?
LP: Collaboration isn’t quite the right word, but I can’t capture exactly what happens when you pull other people into your music. Some of my closest friends and bandmates are on the album – Chris Johnson, Kyle Dean Smith, Todd Hiatt, Martha Spencer, Jamie Collins, Jeremy Ball, Jennifer Martin – and some musicians I admire tremendously as people and instrumentalists like Dashawn Hickman plus amazing talents like Amanda Funk and Minnie Lou Johnson. There are songs from people I love like my grandmother and stepfather. It doesn’t feel like we are collaborating together – it feels like we’ve chosen to be a part of each other. Music is about human connections. Even a recluse listening to the loneliest song in the world would know that they are actually not alone, that someone else at some point in time knew what they were feeling. On my new album, there’s a song called “Forever Entwined.” Like those love songs that become more universal over time, that song has grown inside me far beyond why I originally wrote it to deepen my understanding of how connected we all are, how much a part of each other we all are. That is the beauty and power of music, and I am thankful for each day of creating and sharing that beauty as best I can.
AH: The song “Moonshine Mack” was written by your stepfather, David Walls, about his grandpa Mack Brooks, who was a well-known fiddler in Alleghany County. There’s an accompanying video for that song that was shot by Jake Dwyer, which featured your stepfather. When looking at the video filmed at the Alleghany Jubilee dance hall, it truly captures an array of personalities. What does that day of filming mean to you looking back on it now?
LP: My stepfather was quickly dying of cancer when we filmed that day – it was one of the last times he was truly out and active. Jake and everyone made sacrifices to help me get that song recorded and that video filmed in time for David to see it. One of the musicians on the track, Trevor McKenzie, couldn’t make it to the filming and that left the perfect space for David to sing along on his song. David had dreamt his whole life of doing something more with his music – he was a remarkably gifted singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist. I’m so thankful he got to see one of his songs out on YouTube before moving on to the next world. Jake’s beautiful videography somehow perfectly captured that the video was a part of David’s dreams in life.
AH: Four songs on the album were written by your grandmother Ellen Brooks. In what ways has her writing and philosophies inspired you as an artist and person?
LP: My grandmother had another child in her late thirties at the same time my parents had me at age 20. Because my parents were so young and Ellen was raising another child, I ended up spending a lot of time with her in the mountains – experiences which ended up shaping my whole life. Joe and I are something like cousins, something like brothers. I was lucky enough to not only have two wonderful parents, but to also get to experience my grandmother as a parent because when I was with her she was being a mother to both me and Joe. She is my hero in countless ways and left me notebooks of songs, poetry, and years’ worth of articles that she wrote for the local paper. Very few people, if any, have met and forgotten her. She was brave and bold, passionate and compassionate – so many people at her funeral said with respect and admiration, “She lived life on her own terms.” If I had to pick one way among countless that she impacted me, it might be being aware of people that the world seemed turned against. Anything from race, sexual orientation, physical appearance, socioeconomics, family situations – Ellen seemed aware of the hardships of so many and reached out to them lovingly in the ways that she could. In my life and music, I have tried to do the same.
AH: As a songwriter yourself, what do you find motivates you to write?
LP: My motivations for music have changed so much from my younger days. In my teenage rock days, I dreamed of fame and fortune. In my 20’s and 30’s, songwriting was just a bit of private therapy to process emotions while my public music life was happily centered on the traditional music community. Here in my 40’s, I am constantly driven by and amazed by the good that music can do in the world. Bringing someone’s song to the world that would have been buried in a notebook in an attic somewhere, bringing someone’s talents in the studio that the world might never have had a chance to hear. I still write to sort through my own emotions, but I don’t believe I am alone in anything I feel, so maybe it’s a good thing to share those songs with people, even the sad ones. Maybe it’s a bit of a comfort to know there’s someone else in the world that has felt like you do. I remember singing “Half a Home” at a show, which is a song about facing the loneliness of life post-divorce when suddenly you only get to see your children half the time. Half of their lives is now lost to you. After the show a woman came up to me and told me her story of facing that; she said all she could do was ride her bicycle…she rode hundreds and hundreds of miles every week ‘til she was exhausted enough to face her empty house. We hugged. Those human connections are what music is all about, and I’m trying to keep my heart centered on that as reasons to try and grow my music. If I can keep most of my music on telling stories and expressing emotions that might bring good and comfort to some folks, letting some hidden talents in the world find a place in the sun, then maybe I can feel okay about occasionally doing something just for myself – like getting to record with Danny Paisley, one of my favorite living singers.
AH: I know some of these songs were written a while back. We’ve talked about how after so long you don’t feel as connected to the songs as you did in the moment that you wrote them. Looking over the songs that you wrote on Ponies Back Home, in what ways have they taken on new meaning for you in the time that has passed?
LP: It is one of the strangest feelings to have cemented in your repertoire the songs you wrote at former points in your life. To sing songs of love when you’re heartbroken or vice versa. It can be strange. But over time, I think great songs have something universal in them. Over time the songs aren’t about loving or losing a particular person, they are just about love and loss and that is something that speaks to everyone, even your future self as you sing them. Maybe that timelessness is what makes a song good in the end.
AH: You mention in your liner notes on the album that there is a reason that you decided to close out the collection with the song, “Come On In,” instead of kicking it off with it as an invitation. Could you describe why it was important for you to close out the album with, “Come On In?”
LP: In my songs, I often deal with life’s sorrows; music has so often been a way for me to find a place for emotions that might otherwise overwhelm me; nonetheless, I am so thankful to be alive and so thankful for the many, many good things in my life. As we get older, sometimes life’s disappointments start to build up and people start to shut down. Whether through screens or other drugs or a million different ways, people build walls that will keep them from getting hurt again; sadly, there seems to be a direct correlation between vulnerability and vivacity – if you’re are not at risk for hurting, you are also not open to really living. The album covers some of life’s deepest sorrows – the loss of love and the loss of life. I wanted to make sure that it ended with the choice to still keep on living. I believe strongly that risking pain in order to live deeply is worth it. There are a few lines from a new song I have: “Don’t be the one who says there’s some places I still want to go; don’t be the one who whispers honey, how I wish I’d let you know.” I hope people will choose to keep their hearts open and move forward instead of sedating themselves in numbness.
AH: As a listener, the album takes you through the vastness of human emotion. Just as the album artwork are photographs of snapshots in time, these songs are also snapshots that have an extra dimension of depth and feeling from their individual writers. Do you ever think about what it will be like for the upcoming generations of your family to listen to these collections of music that tell their own familial history? You are connecting the past to the present and the future to the past – linking the upcoming generations to their own story which is a very special thing that not many people get.
LP: Well, not being a man of great means, I am always choosing between spending money on music or spending money on my children. The time, energy, and money it takes to record in the studio, make videos, and maintain a place in a music world driven by an incessant quick flow of social media clips is substantial. So yes, I often hope that I am giving my children and their children something for a lifetime. That my grandchildren will be able to listen to the songs of my grandmother – surely that means more than anything I could buy them.
You can check out Lucas Pasley at https://www.lucaspasleymusic.com
Listen to Ponies Back Home below:
Featured photo by Anita Poplin.