Scene & Heard: The Prairie Willows

by Josh Thompson / Garnet & Black

After numerous jam sessions, Perrin Skinner, Kristin Harris and Kelley Douglas decided they should put a name on it, and thus the Prairie Willows were born. 

Skinner and Douglas are both long-time musicians, and Harris has been playing since “she was zero years old,” Skinner says. But they aren’t just bandmates: they're friends. 

After jamming together and being told to do open mic nights, the Prairie Willows, formerly the P---y Willows, decided to form in 2012.

Initially playing covers of classic country tunes from artists like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, the Prairie Willows began writing their own songs. Skinner, Douglas and Harris switch off instruments, varying between guitars, ukuleles, banjos and violins.

“We just started bringing in different things we were working on to each other and adding harmonies on it and mixing different instruments in it, seeing where it all went," Douglas says. "And a lot of the beauty came out of just the three of our voices, and we realized that naturally our tones mix."

The Prairie Willows are one of Columbia’s only all-women bands as well as one of Columbia’s only folk bands. With carefully and eloquently placed harmonies, these ladies have layers of vocals.

“We put a lot of time and energy into making ourselves blend, and I think that’s the most organic sound you can create: your voice,” Douglas says.

When it comes to honing their craft and song writing, the Prairie Willows are meticulous. There’s always room for change in songwriting. “We keep progressing, getting tighter and getting better at singing together. Perfecting is the goal,” Skinner says.

All songs essentially begin a cappella, and gradually instruments are thrown into the mix. “Playing through it, we kind of hear ‘Oh, this could use some banjo, or it needs a bass, or some ukulele, something light,'” Harris says.

They select what they want in order to create texture, even if that means pulling an instrument from a song because of competing sounds after they’ve been playing the song with it for a few months.

“Sometimes we’ll spend an entire evening practice on one song; other times we’ll play through a whole set in two hours,” says Harris.

It might seem like the Prairie Willows have a big sound because of their wide range of instrumentation, but the acoustic nature leaves the instrumentation feeling sparse. However, Harris says this works to their advantage by making the vocals more exposed, giving them a bolder sound.

“It was just kind of like we’re friends, we’re playing music, I like what you’re doing, let’s mix stuff together,” says Douglas. Actually, the Prairie Willows never intended for their act to be female-fronted. “Honestly I’m surprised there aren’t more,” Skinner says. Harris adds, “It’s surprising that we’re one of the only ones that have found each other.”

Being in a band that isn’t strictly business has it’s perks. When one of them has had a long day, the others are fully supportive, but that doesn’t mean they don’t try to make things sound as best they can.

“I think you need that chemistry there between friends because you don’t want to play with people you don’t like,” Douglas says.

Band practice isn’t a chore either. “We enjoy playing with each other, and coming up with new ideas, and coming up with new sounds, so it hasn’t really gotten old or boring,” Harris says.

Standing out from the slew of metal and punk bands in the Columbia music scene actually works to the Prairie Willow’s advantage. Bands from Asheville, a hub of folk music, will often ask to play with the Prairie Willows because they’ve got a similar sound.

But sometimes being in a bar scene can be cumbersome, especially “when you feel like, ‘Aw man, this band's super loud and their drums are blah blah blah,' and you’re playing acoustic,’” Skinner says. 

No matter the genre of the other bands, “there’s some good head nodding going on, hillbilly dancin’, some foot tappin’,” Douglas says. The audience usually feels like they have to get really rowdy, but that’s not always the case, as some of their songs aren’t danceable. 

“More times than not, people in the bars will get surprisingly quiet, like we’ll play an a cappella number, and the room will be silent. And then some rock band will come up, and it’ll get loud again,” Harris says. 

The Prairie Willows' fan base is diverse because of the wide range of venues they play at. You can frequently catch them at Art Bar or New Brookland Tavern, but they’ve been known to play private events such as wedding rehearsals and even baby showers. 

A supportive community helps the Prairie Willows keep going. Many audience members tell them that they seem like they’re having a lot of fun on stage when they’re playing music. 

Sometimes the audience can be intimidating, especially when you’re first starting out. Because of their instrumentation, setting up between sets usually takes a good minute or two, and that’s where stage banter comes in. 

Stage banter can be nerve wracking because not everyone will laugh at your jokes. “We’re getting better at stage banter, when things are going wrong, like maybe the banjo won’t tune, and then someone will say something silly that happens to them that day, then the crowd gets more interested,” Douglas says. “Also, because there’s a break in the music, there’s a moment to get to know these people in a silly way.”

Recently they haven’t been playing as much as they’re focusing on songwriting and practicing. But you can catch them at Rhythm on the River in May.

The Prairie Willows have been around for four years, but it doesn’t feel that way to them. “When we first started, we were just kind of jamming, and it still kind of feels like that,” Harris says. Still, they’re a fresh sound to the Columbia music scene.