Trick Pony Is The Real Deal

At recent country music industry gatherings, there have been more than a few discussions about the new breed of country artist needed to break the format out of its current slump. Among the suggestion

At recent country music industry gatherings, there have been more than a few discussions about the new breed of country artist needed to break the format out of its current slump. Among the suggestions most often heard is for labels to start signing -- as opposed to manufacturing -- groups that have already built a fan base through extensive touring.

If Warner Bros. act Trick Pony is the test case for such a group, it's proving the industry pundits correct. The band's eponymous debut album, released in March, debuted at No. 12 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart, with the highest first-week U.S. album sales (17,000 pieces) of any country group or duo since the inception of SoundScan 10 years ago. The album has gone on to sell 83,000 units in two months, while debut single "Pour Me" has sold 78,000 copies.

After nearly four years of touring, with an average of 300 shows a year, Trick Pony was road-tested and fan-approved long before signing with Warner Bros. Ironically, despite coming together organically, the band has the look of a pre-fab label concoction. Heidi Newfield is a petite sparkplug with big hair and an even bigger voice. Keith Burns is the group's Marlboro Man, and Ira Dean, by his own admission, looks like Kid Rock.

"We've read some of the reviews where a lot of people had thought the label put us together," Dean says. "My answer is, there isn't a label in town stupid enough to dress me this way."

Burns insists that it is the band's unique sound and musicianship -- and not its look -- that have contributed to its success. Unlike many acts in Nashville, the band members actually played on their album, and their honky-tonk-honed sound is "tested, tried, and true," as Burns puts it: "If our albums don't sound like most of the albums that come out of Nashville, that's why." Newfield adds that the band had creative control over the project, with the end result being "110% our heart and soul."

Seeing the trio's high-energy live show has turned more than one skeptic into a believer. "Trick Pony is a band I did not get until I saw them perform," says Bruce Logan, operations manager of WESC and WSSL Greenville, S.C. "They played our conference room and blew me away. Anyone who sees Trick Pony live will be a fan. They are unique. They have a different sound, a different look."

"Pour Me" peaked at No. 12 on the Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart in March, because, Warner Bros. senior VP of marketing Chris Palmer points out, the single did not receive the support of all the country stations that are monitored by Broadcast Data Systems (including the stations in Burns' hometown of Atlanta). That's something Palmer says the label aims to rectify "in really fast order" with follow-up single "On a Night Like This," which moves 40-38 on the latest chart.

Dean says Trick Pony's touring agenda -- although not its pace -- has changed somewhat since the band's introduction to radio. In addition to about 150 paid gigs per year, the band is now playing -- mostly for free -- about 60 radio station events.

Whatever the venue -- or the fee -- Dean says the goal of the live show is always "to make a party out of it. We want the audience to forget about their bills and all the problems at home." Burns adds, "We get paid to travel -- we play for free."