At first glance it’s an unexpected alliance. The lead singer of a Bradford rock band best known for 90s hits such as Tequila and Perseverance and a Texas-based singer-songwriter who specialises in rootsy Americana joining forces on an album of old-school country tunes.
Yet the collaboration between Tony Wright and Ryan Hamilton has proven surprisingly successful, with a crowdfunding campaign raising more than twice its target to complete and release the record which they’ve punningly called – in honour of the town in which it was made – Grand Ole Otley.
Wright explains the pair were first introduced by a mutual friend, the producer and guitarist Dave Draper, who worked with Hamilton and his band The Traitors on their 2017 album The Devil’s in the Detail. Hamilton was due to play a gig at Brudenell Social Club in Leeds and Draper invited Wright along, asking him if he’d like to perform a number with his American counterpart.
“I said ‘I always feel a bit daft just playing one song and walking off. Let’s do that tune of Ryan’s and learn up an old Johnny Horton track called Everytime I’m Kissing You then I won’t feel as much of a plonker if I was just playing one and walking off again’.”
Thankfully the pair struck up an immediate rapport. “He reckons that somewhere down the line we’re distantly related,” says Wright, “and we’ve just about got the same birthday, so maybe we think the same star-sign wise. There were a lot of coincidences in there.
“We were really happy with how the Everytime I’m Kissing You track turned out so we recorded it then I said ‘Would you fancy doing a set of these songs – an album’s worth, 10 tracks?’ And he was up for it.”
With Wright currently too “mowed out” with running a business – he has a coffee shop and print store in Otley with his partner Emma Thorpe while also touring with Terrorvision – to write new material yet still keen to find a new creative outlet, he and Hamilton chose to cover 10 of their favourite country songs.
“As a musician or an artist it’s like a bath and you overflow if something doesn’t happen, so this allowed us to chuck some toys into the bath, I suppose, by making this record,” says the 50-year-old Bradfordian. “It ticked a few boxes and managed to get a little bit of that need out of the way, so it was good for me.”
Choosing which songs to record however proved tricky. “When you’re talking country tunes it’s quite difficult because you realise there’s only three country songs ever written – they just change the words,” Wright quips. “So it’s quite difficult to get 10 songs of that genre to sound different. I did a lot of listening to the words – because a lot of the words to these songs are amazing, they really are powerful stories that they tell and snippets in time – and the sentiment of the song and arranged it accordingly.”
The pair seemed to harmonise naturally. “Maybe we are related, I don’t know, maybe that’s the family connection,” Wright chuckles. “I sing very differently on this album to how I’d sing a Terrorvision song or one of my own songs, and I think we both have our versions of these songs so even if we hadn’t had the other person’s voice in there we’d still have sung it the same way as we did individually then when we put it together we’d have got the same harmonies.
“As it says as the end of the album it’s country and West Yorkshire, it’s sort of translated how you hear it from Bradford and how you hear it from Texas. You can’t shout those songs. We do Jolene, which is very uptempo song but I think it also has some of the greatest lyrics ever written – I’ll go back to Neil Young for a few tunes but I think Jolene is an amazingly heartbreaking, powerful song – and we do it how I hear it. We played it on an old broken-hearted piano that’s not quite in tune – the piano’s actually singing to another piano that’s a lot better.
“I think if you approach these songs with an honest, open heart and just sing them how you hear them, what those words mean to you, then you’re always going to be in harmony with someone who thinks the same.”
The album was largely recorded in Wright’s print studio at Bloomfield Square in Otley. “It was built in 1740 and it’s seen a lot of things,” he says. “It’s probably got a lot of songs itself and a lot of stories to tell. We started the recording session when Ryan was playing here. We put on music sometimes, it’s a good acoustic room. So we just recorded downstairs. At points you could hear people shuffling about upstairs.
“It was strange because we did my recording parts when Ryan was here then Ryan went back to Texas and did a bit more there. Then we sent everything to Worcester where it was mixed – it’s slightly more refined than Otley. Production is a weird thing. As performers we were definitely coming from a sort of moonshine perspective and producers often try to turn that moonshine into champagne which in some respects is not what you want, in other respects you need to hear it so you can say ‘Actually, that’s all the better for being more champagne’.
“It was quite a difficult process because you didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes but as somebody who’s made a lot of records, I also know what I want to make. I was open-minded, I was listening to other ideas and told people not to be offended if I didn’t take them on board and moved back to the starting point. Cutting out the noise of chairs moving and making the guitar sound sweeter or even more in time or more in tune it wasn’t necessarily where we wanted to go, so I brought it back and gave it an honest vibe. If you’re laying your heart on the line, you don’t want to put reverb on it or a soft focus, you want it to be what it is.”
The pair will be playing a handful of gigs to promote the album, including one in Huddersfield next month. Wright hopes that while they’re touring they might also write some original material together. “I’ve got quite a few of these [unfinished songs] and lyrics that might lend themselves, I know Ryan will have too and I said ‘When we do this tour how about we throw all these ideas that we’ve got into original songs inspired by recordings these songs into the hat so we can make an original album that’s born of this starting point?’ That’s maybe what will happen in the future...but if they sound c**p then we won’t.”
Tony Wright and Ryan Hamilton play at The Parish, Huddersfield on June 6. Grand Ole Otley is out on June 8. http://tonywrightandryanhamilton.com/