History, horses, and music are three of Elizabeth Elkins’ favorite things, and she set them on a collision course with the formation of her fabulous indie-country duo, Granville Automatic, which released its latest LP, “Radio Hymns,” this past Breeders’ Cup Friday.
Elkins sits on the executive board of Historic Nashville, a post which came in handy while coming up with material for “Radio Hymns,” a concept album that derives its content from real-life events in Music City. Prior to this record, she and lead vocalist Vanessa Olivarez (Elkins sings harmony and plays guitar) cut an entire album based on the Civil War, which included a tune, “Mollie Glass,” about a horse taken from a girl who died during the Battle of Fredericksburg. And “Blood and Gold,” the song that gave the band their current historic bent, was about wild mustangs.
The inclusion of horses in Granville Automatic’s oeuvre isn’t incidental; they were a constant in the life of Elkins, a military brat, regardless of where her family was stationed. And when they settled permanently in Anniston, Ala., their stable grew to seven horses, including three Thoroughbreds.
Among that trio was a retired racehorse named Paul Sullivan. Winless in five races, the 15-year-old colt was “broken down,” recalls Elkins, which factored into his dirt-cheap sale price of $1.
After purchasing the ornery colt, who they called Pat, Elkins’ family received his Jockey Club papers, which contained the startling revelation that Pat, who was born in 1981, was among the last foals sired by the near Triple Crown-winner Nashua, who died in 1982 at the age of 30. Nashua won the Preakness and Belmont after finishing second to Swaps in the 1955 Kentucky Derby—and then came back to trounce Swaps in a match race after the Triple Crown races were run. Pat, who perished in 2011, lived to his dad’s precise age, and Elkins recently took some time to discuss her connection to horse racing and its four-legged stars with America’s Best Racing.
"My mom grew up riding, but my dad was in the military, so it was difficult to have horses,” she says by phone from Idaho, the 50th state she’s been to. “She waited until I was 7 and my sister was 3; we had horses consistently even though we moved around, right up until now. When we were stationed overseas, we had someone keep them for us. We rode some over there at a local stable. As soon as my dad retired to Alabama, they got about a 40-acre farm. At the peak, we had about seven horses. Now there are just three."
As a young girl in Alabama, Elkins rode in dressage and hunter-jumper competitions. Her folks’ farm bumped up against a thatch of forest, giving her and the horses even more room to roam. “My parents put a helmet on me and I was off into the woods by myself at age 8 all the time,” she says.
As for Nashua’s son, Elkins recalls, “Someone said there was a retired horse my mom Betsy needed to see. He had a lot of leg problems. He'd been a three-day eventer after he retired from racing. She got him for $1. My dad was a lawyer in the military, so he drew up a contract. I've seen the paperwork; it just says, ‘Paul Sullivan for $1.’ We got him when he was around 15. He definitely rode like a Thoroughbred, where normal tension on the reins means, 'Get ready to go,' not 'stop.' He was a big horse. He bit my sister once, and she bit him back. From then on, he was really cool with her, but he'd try to nip and push on you in the stall. He was a very dominant alpha horse, but you could work around him. I think Nashua killed one groom, and you could tell Pat, more than any horse, had a mean streak. But he could be very loving and was an extraordinarily smart horse. Every other horse looked to him for guidance. He was at the barn when there were seven horses, and was definitely the boss. He had all kinds of racing genius in him (his mom was Nit Flit), but he never really got the length of stride. He was built more upright—more of an up and down horse."
Pat’s lack of racing success didn’t discourage Elkins from venturing to some of America’s most storied tracks. She visited Saratoga when Granville Automatic had a gig at the famous folk venue Caffe Lena, sang the national anthem once at Keeneland and cruises up to Churchill Downs from Nashville whenever she can.
”Keeneland, there was just something about the pageantry and tradition of it that I like a lot,” she says, before growing more esoteric. “Horses have always been my free therapy. They've kind of been my sanity for a long period of time. If I'm not on the road, I would be at my parents' farm riding. When I was a kid, hearing Dan Fogelberg's 'Run for the Roses,' I was just entranced [by] that sort of freedom and nobility that horses represent. We have a quote as you walk into our barn that says, 'Enter the sanctuary of the horse, ever with honor and respect.' They just have such an incredible historic partnership with man that we've so quickly forgotten in the age of the automobile."