WHEN TRICK PONY’S BUS PULLED INTO Nashville for Fan Fair last June after yet another road trip, bassist Ira Dean couldn’t believe his eyes.

Right there at the Broadway and West End split (the country music equivalent of Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard) was a six-story-high billboard of himself and bandmates Heidi Newfield and Keith Burns staring right back at him.

“I mean, it’s the biggest billboard in town,” Dean told POLLSTAR, “and I’m just in shock. We decided we were going to get a ladder. We’re gonna climb this!”

Susan Niles, the band’s publicist, was horrified. “She kept saying, ‘You can’t climb it,’ and we kept saying, ‘We’re gonna,'” Dean gleefully recounted in a July interview with POLLSTAR. Niles finally relented.but only after the trio got a written liability release.

“She said, ‘You guys will do anything for attention.’ And we’re like, ‘Now, how often do you get a billboard? We gotta climb it!'”

And climb it they did, whether they were supposed to or not.

Trick Pony is like that. The band’s self-titled debut was released March 13th, and in one week was sitting pretty at No. 12 on the Top Country Albums chart with more first-week sales than any new country group in SoundScan history.

That wasn’t supposed to happen not with a lead single, “Pour Me,” that breaks every perceived rule in Nashville. It’s a drinking song. Not only that, it’s about a woman doing the drinking. It shot to No. 2 on the country singles chart.

The band doesn’t exactly look like it just came from the rodeo, either.

Dean sometimes is mistaken for Kid Rock and plays an upright bass named “Laverne” (he has another named “Shirley”) that’s decked out in chrome plating and headlights. Newfield could pass for Sarah Jessica Parker and stage dives. Only Burns has a country “look,” and that’s mostly because he wears a hat.

All of them swap lead vocals and share songwriting chores another supposed Nashville no-no.

The smash single may have come as a surprise to chart-watchers on Music Row, but it didn’t to the band. The song had been thoroughly road-tested and had always been a fan favorite in the hundreds of clubs the band played over the past three years.

Trick Pony

“When it came time to pick the first single, we knew it had to be ‘Pour Me.’ A lot of people said you can’t have a girl drinkin’ song because drinkin’ songs are over, blah, blah, blah. … But we stuck to our guns,” Dean said.

Chuck Howard of H2E / Warner Bros. Records, the band’s producer and co-manager (with Herbert Graham), knew better. Trick Pony had floored him with the song, performing it in his office the day they met.

“Heidi was a friend of a friend and she called me up one day and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a group.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh boy. Everybody’s got a group,'” Howard told POLLSTAR. “So she made an appointment and I forgot NOT to show up, and they came and played ‘Pour Me’ right in my office and I was just blown away.

“I sent them straight to the studio and they put down a work tape for me, and I signed them. … We went out and made a publishing deal, and we just started from there. I heard it, I loved it, and I tried to cut the record so that it sounded just like they did.”

For Trick Pony, breaking the rules seems to be working. The band released a second single, “On a Night Like This.” A third cut, a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” features vocals by the Man in Black himself and original outlaw Waylon Jennings.

It takes more than good luck, good looks and good connections to create something special. Howard said Trick Pony has those things and more.

“It’s one of those things where you hear a song and it’s just magical they’re a magical group of people,” Howard said.

“I loved the whole idea that a girl is ballsy enough to sing a drinking song. I loved [Heidi’s] voice. It was so edgy and so unlike every other high-singing female vocalist out there. I saw their live show and it blew me away. I knew we could make it even better.”

Howard admitted the band’s sudden success presents a challenge in touring strategy.

“Our philosophy has always been very simple. We wanted to go out as a headliner. No matter how small [a gig] was, we wanted to be the headliner so they could actually put on an hour to two-hour show where they could gain an audience.

“Five years from now, they’ll wind up being one of the big draws because they have a show. A year from now, I don’t know where we’ll be. We’re sitting down and designing out what we’re doing. We’re turning down a lot of dates right now because we’re trying to figure out what we want to be doing next year.

“What would be best for their career? Do we continue on as a headliner in smaller venues? Do we go out and be the number two act on a show? We’re in that state where all you can do is ask, ‘OK, what’s our next move?'”

Whatever it is, just tell Trick Pony they can’t do it. Especially if it involves climbing. Pull quote: “A lot of people said you can’t have a girl drinkin’ song because drinkin’ songs are over, blah, blah, blah.” Photo credit: Robert M. Ascroft II L-R: Ira Dean, bass/vocals; Heidi Newfield, harmonica/vocals; and Keith Burns, guitar/vocals.