The Wilders: Weaving an Epic Murder Ballad After serving on the jury for a murder case, singer Phil Wade was inspired to write a five-part suite that anchored The Wilders' latest album, Someone's Got to Pay. Wade and Ike Sheldon discuss the origins of the story.
NPR logo

The Wilders: Weaving an Epic Murder Ballad

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Wilders: Weaving an Epic Murder Ballad

The Wilders: Weaving an Epic Murder Ballad

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Here's a story. A couple fall in love and marry. Their marriage breaks apart. She moves out, he finds her, and then with her sister watching, he shoots her for rejecting his love. He loved her and he killed her and he'll pay for that for the rest of his life. Does that sound like some kind of ballad? Phil Wade sat in a jury and heard that case in November of 2005. When the case was over, he wrote a five-movement suite about the case called "Sittin' on a Jury."

(Soundbite of song "Sittin' on a Jury")

THE WILDERS: (Singing) Oh murder ballad come (unintelligible) And he took his gun and killed his wife

Phil Wade plays the slide guitar, banjo and mandolin for The Wilders. The songs from "Sittin' on a Jury" anchored the band's new CD called "Someone's Got to Pay." Phil Wade joins us from member station KUAZ in Tucson. Mr. Wade, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. PHIL WADE (Band Member, The Wilders; Songwriter, "Sittin' on a Jury"): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And he's also joined by Ike Sheldon, who also writes for the band, as well as sings and plays piano and acoustic guitar. Mr. Sheldon, thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. IKE SHELDON (Band Member, The Wilders): We're glad to be here. Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Mr. Wade, tell us about how you called for jury duty and what your impressions were.

Mr. WADE: It was fascinating and emotionally devastating, I would say. Having liked criminal-justice dramas and reading books and seeing movies and stuff like a lot of people do, no amount of preparation could've got me ready for hearing the real facts of someone murdering someone else.

SIMON: Now the facts are pretty much, as I understand it, the defendant, his attorney has tried to mount, I guess, the insanity defense.

Mr. WADE: Certainly, the defense did prove that the defendant had a mental illness. The question was whether there was premeditation in the murder, and I think the prosecution did a pretty good job of proving that there was.

(Soundbite of song "Sittin' on a Jury")

Mr. SHELDON: (Singing) Yo prosecutor, he got the first turn, he told us how Davey(ph) planned his crime. He told us how he went out, got himself a pistol, and shoot down poor Lily in her prime

Mr. WADE: So it wasn't difficult to come to a guilty verdict but there were a lot of other elements that made it just difficult all the way around because of the human element. I mean, he was a real person who suffered a loss and just did this really stupid thing.

SIMON: Mr. Wade, when did you permit yourself to say to yourself, hmm, I think I can do something with this?

Mr. WADE: I think I would like to have thought that I let it sit for a while, and then the song came to me. However, I made a notation after one of the days of testimony saying, maybe I'll get a song out of this someday. So apparently, while I was sitting on the jury, I was thinking about how I was going to mine it for information later.

(Soundbite of song "Sittin' on a Jury")

Mr. SHELDON: (Singing) Then Davey's lawyer, he got the next turn. Told us how their marriage had gone bad. Told us how she left him crying in the kitchen. How she took everything away

SIMON: Why the five-movement suite? I mean, that reminds me of the way a "Law and Order" episode is set up, I don't mind telling you.

Mr. WADE: The song sort of lends itself to telling that story, and if you think of each verse of the song as being a part of a trial, there's, you know, an introduction to the trial where you're sort of told what you're going to be doing as a juror, then the prosecution, then the defense, then the closing statements and the deliberation, and then the verdict. That sort of lends itself to a verse-chorus structure, which is how I wrote the song. And once I had it written, I pretty much liked the way that it flowed. The only problem was it was like nine minutes long. You know, I mean a lot of times if you're working on a song and you have too many verses, you may just pull one that's weak or something.

Mr. SHELDON: Phil and I had talked about, you know, this idea of like, let's split this up into completely different musical ideas for each verse, and at the end of every day of recording we're going to record a verse. And everybody just grab whatever instrument they think might be right and then - so it was very exciting for us because it was like a treat at the end of every day. It was like, OK, we've been working on these songs that we play a certain arrangement every night, and then at the end of the day, you're like, OK, we get to just sit down and see what happens, and we would never go through it more than like once or twice. And it's like, turn the tape on and just record it live, and you know, we wanted it to have a real immediate feel to it.

SIMON: Did I get this correctly? You studied to be an opera singer, Mr. Sheldon?

Mr. SHELDON: Yeah, yeah. That's what I did in college, yes.

SIMON: Where was this?

Mr. SHELDON: This was - well, I'll give a little shoutout to my alma mater at William Jewell College, which is a little liberal arts college north of Kansas City, Missouri.

SIMON: And how did you get from that to this?

Mr. SHELDON: There's no good answer for that. It's been a long trip, as far as my musical upbringing. I started playing when I was 8 years old, playing the organ and piano. I grew up kind of in the sticks of southern Missouri, a real hillbilly kind of lifestyle, and I kind of did that rebellious teenage thing. I was like, I'm going to go get some culture, and so I went to school and sang opera and you know...

SIMON: You know, my mother would have been delighted when I was a rebellious teenager if I had said, I'm going to grow up and get some culture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I think for many of us, that's the last thing we choose to rebel with.

Mr. SHELDON: I'm not going to go buy a motorcycle and join a motorcycle gang. I'm going to sing opera. I'll show all of you.

SIMON: Right.

Mr. SHELDON: So I did that. But then, you know, I came back to these hillbilly roots. I mean, it's come around. It's been an interesting trip, and I learned a lot along the way. But I kind of ended up where I started.

SIMON: And that music has some shared properties with opera, doesn't it? Not to sound too much like an NPR interview?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHELDON: How is opera like hillbilly murder ballads? But it's true. It's true. I think they're both very dramatic and they both dwell on the sadder sides of life, you know, the pain, to tell a wonderful story that might be a little - even overdramaticized(ph) but it touches people. And so yes, I would say that it's a very similar thing. They try to speak towards the stories that we all know and we all feel and just try to make it real.

SIMON: All right. I want to listen to, if we could, the track "Hey, Little Darlin."

(Soundbite of song "Hey, Little Darlin")

Mr. SHELDON: (Singing) Hey, Little Darlin', you're the one that I long to see. Stay Little Darlin', stolen moments so sweet. I miss your taste, I miss your touch, I think about you way too much. I know...

SIMON: Did the process of trying to, in a sense, write in Davey's voice give you some insights into that character that a trial alone didn't afford?

Mr. WADE: I wrote this song about sitting on a jury, and all the other songs that are on the album had nothing to do with my experience of being on a jury. However, thematically, they all worked. It almost seems like we're telling the story about this couple, however the songs are never really intended to go with the jury stuff, which is interesting to me.

Mr. SHELDON: We started looking, it's like, what order are we going to put this in? It's like, let's put them in an order that tells a story, and it really fit.

SIMON: Let me ask about another musical feature on the CD. As I understand, Mr. Sheldon, you're piano in the track.

Mr. SHELDON: Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: Let's listen to the one, if we can, the track, it's called, "Hey, Mr. Judge."

(Soundbite of song "Hey, Mr. Judge")

(Soundbite of piano)

SIMON: Are we meant to think of the musical accompaniment for a silent movie - silent Western?

Mr. WADE: These piano pieces, actually, were like the 11th hour put on the album. Since the jury tracks were spread out - you know, there's five of them over a 45-minute album, and you kind of need something to prepare yourself, I think, for them. And to be a sign to the listener that's like there's another piece of the puzzle coming up now, another part of the story.

My wife works at a university and I went to their practice room where they had a piano. I wrote all of those pieces in one afternoon and recorded them the next day. Instrumental music versus vocal music, instrumental music is much more abstract, and I think it's a nice thing to have there to kind of let you create a mood and kind of get yourself ready to hear some more of a story.

SIMON: Almost everybody I've encountered anywhere in this country who's been on a jury winds up believing in the system, a lot, being very impressed by their fellow jurors.

Mr. WADE: That's absolutely true in my case. We had a group of very different people from very different backgrounds who would never have been sitting in the same room together. And in the space of five days, we bonded emotionally as a group and we came to a very difficult decision that I'm sure all of them still have a lot feelings about and will not forget that experience for as long as they live.

(Soundbite of song "Sittin' on a Jury")

Mr. SHELDON: (Singing) Seven long hours and 43 minutes, we talked about how Davey killed his wife. And the end of the 43rd minute, we chose to send that boy away for life.

Mr. WADE: I will say one thing that was particular in my case that I thought was wonderful. Before we voted, we deliberated for about - I can't remember. It was several hours. We pretty much had discussed all of the details of the trial and had come to pretty much - we kind of knew that we had a decision already. But before we actually made the official vote as a jury, everybody held hands and nobody said, let's all hold hands. Everybody just reached. And that's the part of what made that experience so overwhelming for me.

SIMON: Gentlemen, been very good talking to you both. Thanks so much.

Mr. WADE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Phil Wade and Ike Sheldon from The Wilders joined us from member station KUAZ in Tucson. Their new CD is "Someone's Got to Pay."

(Soundbite of "Sittin' on a Jury")

To hear songs from The Wilders' new album, you can visit the music section of our web site,

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.