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Trick Pony gallops into a heck of a homecoming

Story by Marianne Horner - Photo by Morrison/Wulffraat

The screen door of the big farmhouse slams open. A young man bursts onto the porch, and a slender blond woman in overalls flings herself onto his back without warning. The two of them laugh giddily as their teetering "horsey" staggers sideways to dodge a little girl bouncing on a pogo stick.

To country fans, that blonde riding "horseback" is Trick Pony lead singer Heidi Newfield. But now, surrounded by aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews at sister Kelley's farmhouse in the tiny Northern California town of Healdsburg, she's just "Aunt Heidi."

Chilling on the wraparound porch with Heidi and her family, munching on ham-and-cheese sandwiches and drinking cold beer, are her bandmates, Ira Dean and Keith Burns. Tonight Trick Pony will perform a sold-out show, billed as "Heidi's Homecoming," on the stage of the local Luther Burbank Center For The Arts - on the former pulpit of the Christian school Heidi attended from the fourth through the seventh grade.

"I remember thinking as a young girl, 'Wow, I would love to sing on that stage someday,'" recalls Heidi, settling down in a chair beside her mother. She takes a moment to catch her breath, gazing out over pastures and vineyards, and her face softens with a smile.

"Being home is incredible," she acknowledges. "This is a small agricultural, ranching community where everybody knows everybody. I love that. I miss it terribly when I'm away."

It's while she's been away these past couple of years that Trick Pony broke out of the gate to country stardom, becoming the best-selling new group of 2001. The band's self-titled debut album went gold, spawning hits "Pour Me," "Just What I Do," and "On A Night Like This." Now On A Mission, the title of their second album, aptly describes the attitude of this feisty honky-tonk band.

"We are on a mission," Heidi declares with a grin. "We're taking this whole thing to the next level, and having a good time while we're doing it."

The trio had such a good time making Mission, they never felt the stress of following up a hit album. "We had a sense of confidence that we didn't feel on the first album," Heidi recalls, "so there wasn't that sophomore pressure that everyone was warning us about."

According to Ira - who by now has found a hand-painted sign reading never kick a fresh turd on a warm day and affixed it to his rocking chair - the new hit title song from On A Mission was written with the same relaxed attitude.

"Nobody ever talks about celebrating change after breaking up," he says, peering over his dark glasses. "So we wrote this song, which is all about having a good time. That's pretty much our attitude as a band - Trick Pony is all about good times and honky-tonks, and leaving your troubles behind."

When they're not performing together, Ira, Keith and Heidi are usually writing songs together. All combined, the three of them wrote nine of Mission's 12 tracks. "We have three totally different writing styles, but somehow it all meshes together and works," reveals Keith. "For instance, I'm a roll-up-your-sleeves, craft-the-song kind of guy."

By contrast, Ira comes from an emotional angle. "Usually, I'll have to set myself up in a mood," Ira notes. "I couldn't used to write a heartache tune unless I was down and out. But Keith showed me you don't have to be hurting to write a heartache song, or be in love to write a love song. So I try to sponge off Keith as much as I can."

Keith chuckles, his grin flashing against the darkness of a rugged one-day growth. "And Heidi's the missing link between Ira and me," he notes. "What's great about Heidi is that she's not afraid to say any line anytime, just throwing out ideas, trying to keep everybody's motor running." This past summer, Trick Pony's motor ran all over the country as they went on tour with Brooks & Dunn. "It was incredible," notes Ira. "I mean, two or three years ago, we were covering Brooks & Dunn tunes in clubs. It was really weird to be out there with those guys, sharing the same stage. Me and Kix would smoke cigars and hang out, and me and Ronnie did a lot of partying and playing together out on the road, taking over clubs. It was a great time!"

And as the great times get better - and the responsibilities get bigger - the band is holding up well.

"You would think that as time goes on, and things start to happen, the pressures within the group would build," Heidi muses. "But really, the opposite has happened. It's really brought us even closer together. There is a genuine friendship and camaraderie between the three of us. Everybody's genuinely close, everybody watches each other's back."

Her gaze comes to rest on Keith, who is talking quietly with a shy young cousin of hers, giving him his cell phone number and e-mail address to keep in touch. She smiles. "We're really more like a family going up and down the road," she says.

Later that night, after Trick Pony's rousing concert, friends and relatives gather once more for a midnight buffet at the farmhouse. Heidi drags Keith and Ira upstairs onto a balcony overlooking the open-beam living room inside the farmhouse. With a smile and a toss of her riotous blond curls, she raises a beer and leads a toast, thanking everyone for a homecoming she'll never forget. "It's amazing," she reflects. "When you get out of high school, you're chomping at the bit to get to something else. You just know you've gotta get out of this town and go make something of yourself.

"But the farther I go, and the more places I travel, the more I come back home."