Prairie Wildfire’s latest single — the tune that debuted at No. 12 and jumped to No. 8 on the internet radio station Bluegrass Jamboree — was written by a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old inside a basement blanket fort.
Buffalo natives Sage Palser and Tessa Taylor, who make up two-thirds of the bluegrass band, along with Morgan Blaney, wrote “West Virginia Train” out of boredom. The two were hanging out and decided it would be fun to write a song.
“Sage looked at me and said, ‘Well, it’s a bluegrass song, so it’s gotta be depressing, and it’s got to be about somebody leaving somebody else,’” Taylor said, with a laugh. “From there, I think we just started playing chords and all of a sudden, there was a song there.”
The group recorded the finished product at Nashville, Tennessee’s Slawdawg Studios earlier this year. After signing a one-single contract with the label Copper Mountain Records, “West Virginia Train” got picked up on airplay by radio DJ’s, including David Pugh’s Mountain Bluegrass show on Bluegrass Jamboree.
“It’s so crazy now to hear this cut version of it getting played all across the country on Bluegrass Jamboree when I still remember the day we wrote it, when we were little kids,” Taylor said.
Taylor, Palser and Blaney are simultaneously juggling a progressing music career that requires trips back and forth to Nashville and communications with their West Virginia-based label with a full schedule of courses and extracurriculars. Taylor is in high school and a varsity volleyball player, and Palser and Blaney are studying music at their respective colleges, East Tennessee State in Johnson City, Tennessee, for Palser and University of Northern Colorado for Blaney.
Blaney had to lay down her part of “West Virginia Train” separately from her bandmates when she couldn’t get to Nashville during spring break. Though the recording process is more enjoyable as a complete group, Blaney said, it’s fortunate that the band is able to communicate and work together even when they’re spread across the country.
And to receive text messages from friends and family telling them their song is playing on the radio, the group said, is “kind of unreal.”
“I’m doing it with people I feel like I’ve known my whole life,” Blaney said. “And I trust these people and I know them super well. It’s hard to know what stage we’re at right now and how big it is or how big it’s going to get; there’s kind of no telling.”
David Stewart, owner of the Occidental Saloon and the band’s producer, has known and worked with the three “since they were pups,” he said. They grew up on the saloon’s stage, hardly able to reach the microphones when they first started performing.
Stewart said he mentors a lot of young bluegrass musicians at the Occidental, and it’s always clear who is motivated to make it in the music business. In the case of Prairie Wildfire, whose oldest member just turned 21, they’re already pros.
“It’s been wonderful watching them grow in music and songwriting and watching them work on harmonies and perfecting their instruments,” Stewart said. “They’re going to do wonderful things.”
Stewart, himself an accomplished musician and songwriter, connected the band with their recording studio and label. Palser, Blaney and Taylor also jam with Stewart often and have been featured on some of his songs.
He and the band plan to travel to Nashville in November — busy-college-kid-schedule-permitting — to record an album.
Palser, who is just a four and a half hour to Music City from her school in eastern Tennessee, studies Bluegrass, Old-Time and Roots music with a concentration in audio production with the goal of eventually working as a producer and engineer. Working with a professional studio and label with Prairie Wildfire, Palser said, is “a step up.”
“It’s completely different from what we’ve done before,” she said. “It makes me feel a step closer to what I’m going for.”
Karen Blaney, once a self-proclaimed momager whose main responsibility was buying dinner and booking hotel rooms for the tweenagers’ gigs, is now a manager to a group of professional musicians.
“I still do a lot of the communication and the problem solving and the booking,” she said. “But the girls are all either out of high school or close to being out of high school, so they write their own music and they set their own practice times and I just kind of am enjoying the ride of being in the background and coaching.”
The musicians, who got their start at Buffalo’s bluegrass camp, which Karen now runs, are now teachers there, mentoring the next generation of young musicians. Though Prairie Wildfire is making a name for itself outside of Wyoming, the group still credits Johnson County’s music scene for their success.
“My parents aren’t from Wyoming, so I like to think every now and then what would have happened if they hadn’t moved to Wyoming, to this little teeny tiny town, because I probably never would have even been in music,” Morgan said. “I learned to play bass at the bluegrass camp. You meet people that you play music with, and they’re people that you never would have been friends with otherwise, and I think it’s a really beautiful thing. That inclusive, communal nature has really influenced the way we think and the way we play.”