Drive across the rural South with the window down and the radio on. Hit scan and listen as muscular country, drawling rock, high gospel harmony, low-country blues and old school soul meld together into something special and distinct.
That’s the sound of A Thousand Horses and the exciting new band’s debut, Southernality. The 13-track Dave Cobb-produced Republic Nashville album yielded the No. 1 RIAA Gold-certified hit “Smoke” before it was released in June. And fans have responded to the unique, hypnotic song in a way that shows the band’s all-genre mix of classic influences remains in the DNA of young music fans in the digital age.
“Subconsciously, our audience grew up listening to those albums that we all love too and the reaction so far has just been exciting,” lead singer Michael Hobby said. “To me country music’s always been cool. I grew up on it. There’s a wider audience now. The lane seems to be a little bit wider for artists like Eric Church and Jason Aldean to push boundaries. People call it Southern rock or people call it country or people call it rock ‘n’ roll. To me it just feels like it’s all just music now.”
Hobby is joined in the creative core of A Thousand Horses by guitarists Bill Satcher and Zach Brown and bassist Graham DeLoach. Their friendship and similar interests have helped them create a distinct swamp boogie that fits right in with country music’s current party paradigm. The sound clicked immediately with fans and ATH has since made its television debut on NBC’s TODAY, Fox’s Fox & Friends and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! The group also earned a CMT Music Awards nomination for Group Video of the Year and performed on the show the same week it made first appearances at CMA Music Festival and Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival.
Southernality – a blend of the words Southern and personality – rolls by in an easy gallop. It’s a night drive with the top down, a bucket of beers at a waterside roadhouse, a walk arm in arm next to moonlit breakers. “Smoke,” which set a record for the highest debut by a new act when it opened at No. 28 on the Country Aircheck country songs chart, offers a perfect entry point to the vibe as Hobby sings about a woman’s intoxicating presence in his life.
“I think a lot of people are relating it to their lives,” Brown said. “We’re seeing a lot of people post the lyrics on social media. I think ‘Smoke,’ lyrically in my opinion, it’s a really good story. I think it’s one of my favorite lyrical songs on the album. It’s easy for people to take those lyrics and apply it to something in their lives.”
The song reached unanimous No. 1 status the first week of June. Its power comes from the band’s chemistry, which was evident even in the earliest days when Hobby and Satcher met while checking out guitars at the only music store in Newberry, South Carolina. DeLoach, first cousins with Satcher, entered the picture summers and holidays while visiting from Georgia.
The trio moved to Nashville because it seemed like the natural place for their sound and soon invited friend of a friend Brown to join. They all lived together at first, writing songs, mapping out an ambitious approach. It was a special time when they formed the bond that would lead to their first record deal with a Los Angeles-based rock label trolling for talent in Nashville.
Cobb, whose work with Jamey Johnson, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton has garnered high praise, immediately bought into the band’s vibe and stuck with the group when they lost that first record deal, along with their manager and booking agent. The group persevered, found a new manager in Scott McGhee of McGhee Entertainment Management and landed a rare second chance. Cobb recorded the album at the Zac Brown Band’s Southern Ground Recording Studio in Nashville.
“They are a true band of brothers,” Cobb said. “They’ve been together through thick and thin. Also, make sure you never give them a key to the minibar.”
Alcohol did indeed play a role in shaping the album, but their parents’ record collections and older brothers’ listening habits had more to do with their wide-ranging influences. Southernality feels a little like another band of brothers, The Black Crowes. And The Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd in Muscle Shoals. Tom Petty a few weeks after he met The Heartbreakers. And Led Zeppelin in the thrall of Howlin’ Wolf.
“I have two older brothers and they were always jamming all that stuff,” DeLoach said. “And I remember my oldest brother said ‘Gimme Back My Bullets’ was his favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd song. So he’d drive me to school and stuff and crank Lynyrd Skynyrd. And I grew up in Savannah, Georgia. Gregg Allman actually lives like right outside the city, so it was always a big deal: ‘There’s a Gregg Allman sighting!’ He’s like hanging out. So, a lot of Southern rock.”
Dig deeper, though, and new layers appear.
“My first live concert was Alan Jackson on the Midnight in Montgomery Tour, so there was a lot of Garth Brooks, a lot of Alan Jackson, a lot of Confederate Railroad and a lot of Alabama that my brothers loved and I always grew up listening to.”
These more mainstream country influences can be heard in album standouts like “Sunday Morning” and “(This Ain’t No) Drunk Dial,” the band’s second single.
The best way to hear the album, though, is to catch the band on the road with Darius Rucker’s Southern Style Tour this summer. ATH’s core members augment the band on the road, adding a drummer, keyboard player and three backup singers to really bring home the nostalgic feel of rock’s three-guitar era.
“The whole concept behind this thing is we’re a big band,” Satcher said. “We wanted to showcase the whole thing. I think we’re able to paint the picture of certainly what it’s like on the album, the full vision we had when we wrote these songs.”
“It’s been five years, all just traveling in a van around the country, sharing food and sleeping in that thing,” Hobby said. “Now we’ve got a record coming out and a single on the radio. It’s pretty cool.” Added Brown: “We had a period where we were back to Square 1. What do we do? Do we call it quits or do we keep going? This is what we do.”
Track by track
The guys in A Thousand Horses have a simple approach when it comes to songwriting: Whatever works.
The 13 songs on Southernality were written by members, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. What emerges is a distinct picture of a band in the moment.
“These are our stories,” Hobby said. “We all lived these songs. They’re not made up or fabricated. Each one of the songs, we lived it. This is our story for the last few years and what we’ve gone through personally and professionally. This is what A Thousand Horses is.”
“First Time,” by Michael Hobby, Bill Satcher and Patrick Davis. “That song’s about somebody just knocking you out for the first time that you didn’t expect,” Hobby said. “There’s that old saying: There’s a first time for everything. That’s really what the song’s all about. It’s relationship-based but you can apply that to anything. It was a sunny day and we were sitting on the porch at my buddy Patrick’s house. We just started drifting on a thing and kind of started to develop a story.”
“Sunday Morning,” by Michael Hobby, Bill Satcher, Graham DeLoach, Zach Brown and Rich Robinson. “I think ‘Sunday Morning’ is an awesome track on the record. We wrote it with Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes. We all got together in this old church down the street from our house and set up amps and just got together and jammed for a couple of days. And then we were, like, ‘All right, let’s put down the axes for a minute.’ Then we sifted through the music and ended up writing that song. It was an amazing experience.”
“Smoke,” by Michael Hobby, Ross Copperman and John Knight. The No. 1 debut single from Southernality, Hobby says, “is a lustful song. It’s about being obsessed with someone or something that’s not necessarily good for you or that you shouldn’t have. The addiction to a cigarette is a metaphor. You can smell her on your clothes, you see her floating around the room when she’s dancing.”
“(This Ain’t No) Drunk Dial,” by Michael Hobby, Corey Crowder, Neil Mason and Cale Dodds. “We wanted to put a positive spin on drunk dialing, instead of really drunk dialing,” Hobby said of the group’s second single. “Here’s a guy wanting to pour his heart out to this girl _ obviously they’re in a breakup _ and he’s bringing up the fact, ‘No, I’m not drunk!’ Which I’m sure everybody says. This song he hears reminded him of her – it’s their song. He just wants to get off his chest how he really feels and she doesn’t care. It’s his plea: ‘I’ll remember everything in the morning, call me and I’ll tell it to you again. This is my truth.’”
“Heaven is Close,” by Michael Hobby, Bill Satcher and Graham DeLoach. “This is just a good-feeling song, a getting-away song,” Hobby said. “You’re gonna pack up that old suitcase with everything you own and you’re going to leave this place. ‘Let’s just go, the sun’s on your face, the wind’s in your hair and, man, doesn’t it feel good to be free. And free with you.’”
“Travelin’ Man,” by Michael Hobby, Bill Satcher and Jaren Johnston. “It’s just a cool fantasy song,” Hobby said. “It’s about being on the road. We were on the road pretty heavy at that time. Kind of like that whole thing when you’re on tour you’re kind of just drifting through space on this bus. We tried to make it sound cooler. You’re just a travelin’ man. You’re a drifting soul.”
“Back to Me,” by Michael Hobby, Bill Satcher, Graham DeLoach and Westin Davis. “A rebel boy in love with a small-town girl. It’s a simple story that I think a lot of people can relate to. He just lost this girl and he’s just telling her, ‘I’m sorry. I had my wild times, now please come back to me.’”
“Southernality,” by Michael Hobby, Corey Crowder and Neil Mason. “’Southernality’ is just kind of a word I made up being from the South,” Hobby said. “You know, sweet tea, the whole yes, ma’am, no ma’am thing? That lifestyle, that culture, that personality. We were born and raised in it. So we kind of just put two words together – Southern and personality. It’s become a worldwide thing. Everybody knows when you’re below the Mason Dixon Line.”
“Tennessee Whiskey,” by Michael Hobby and Bill Satcher. “That song’s a true story about me and my wife Caroline,” Hobby said. “The band was in Scottsdale for a show. Shit went down, as you might say, all the way to El Paso when we were on tour and I couldn’t come home, so I had to try to plead my case. Sometimes you drink a lot when you’re going through a breakup, trying to get it off your mind. ‘Eventually I’ll be home and we’ll work it out,’ and we did.”
“Hell on My Heart,” by Michael Hobby, Bill Satcher, Graham DeLoach and Zach Brown. “These are all relationship songs, it turns out,” Hobby said. “’Hell on My Heart’ is about being a better man and trying to get better for your relationship. In the first verse he’s very, like, ‘I can’t figure out why she left,’ and the second verse is, ‘Oh, I get it now. I understand why I have to be a better man.’ There’s a plea chorus to that song. It’s his plea, he’ll do whatever it takes to get her back.”
“Trailer Trashed,” by Graham DeLoach. “That’s a party song. It’s a good times song,” Hobby said. “It’s a kick your shoes off and stomp song. It refers to 1969 because a lot of our influences come from 1969 and it was a fun time. That’s an epic year. It’s just about having a good time. It’s a pretty simple, down the middle song. It’s not hard to hit that one.”
“Landslide,” by Michael Hobby, Bill Satcher and Zach Brown. “We wrote that around the time we broke up with our first label,” DeLoach said. “That was one of the first songs we wrote as a band and was kind of a staple for the band for the last little bit. That was kind of a finger to the man situation because of what we were going through at the time. We just wanted to be us, so that’s how it came out. Listening back, we weren’t trying to intentionally do it. It just kind of came out. It was kind of like grieving. It’s raw emotion in that song at that point in time.”
“Where I’m Going,” by Michael Hobby, Brad Warren, Brett Warren. “That’s about getting back to your small-town roots and how good that feeling is, how comforting that is,” Hobby said. “Being away in the big city, traveling a lot, you lose that feeling of home. As Dorothy says, ‘There’s no place like home.’ You want a small town where everybody’s the same. You’ve got good people, you’ve got your lady there, the love of your life, and that’s where you’re going. You’re kind of fed up with this whole other scene.”
Website: A Thousand Horses