Listening to Nashville’s Country Westerns, I feel like I’ve been transported back to c. 1986, and I’m listening to an SST Records sampler, they fall somewhere between the Replacements and the Screaming Trees, and should be from somewhere in Montana, not Nashville. Or maybe they also sound like early Tragically Hip, so they should be from somewhere in Michigan or Saskatchewan. Country Western are a throwback to a different time and place, drawing on bands like the Mats and the Trees, amongst others. They sure as hell don’t play country/western.
Country Westerns are comprised of drummer Brian Kotzur, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Joseph Plunket, and bassist Sabrina Rush. They all came from other bands, and Kotzur and Plunket got their start in 2016 ‘after bonding over the shared desire to be in a band in a town full of solo artists and guns-for-hire.’ They went through a few bassists before Rush settled into place. Recorded in New York and Nashville, their eponymous début album is a charging dose of nostalgia wrapped up in rock’n’roll.
‘Anytime’ sets the mood for the album, it emerges out of a guitar riff, before the drums, bass, and lead guitar kick in, and this is where I feel like I’m in a grubby old van, driving somewhere between Minneapolis and Chicago on tour in 1985. Plunket’s voice is snarling, snearing, and world weary all at once, and with a hint of a twang, kinda like a more muscular version of Paul Westerberg’s voice, but not quite as battered as Mark Lanegan’s.
That runs into ‘It’s Not Easy,’ which has a lead guitar reminiscent of the Hip’s ‘Last American Exit.’ Now I don’t mean to suggest that Country Westerns are just an SST Records tribute act. They’re not. There is something fresh and exuberant here, even as Plunket, et al. pay tribute to their elders. Like I said, they don’t at all sound like they’re from Nashville, though occasionally they do. I spent a fair amount of time in Nashville when I lived Down South, and this song evokes, for me, late summer, along the Cumberland River, across from First Avenue North, at the foot of Broadway, which is odd, given that that wasn’t my favourite part of town, and I’m guessing it’s not Country Westerns either.
The long and short of it is that Plunket is a top notch song-writer, and he is backed by a cracker band. His twelve-string guitars are centred around riffs, which occasionally veer into that 80s jangly guitar thing, quite beautifully so. But it is Rush’s bass, which both keeps the rhythm, but it is also almost the lead instrument here, it drives the songs forward, whilst Kotzur’s drums are a mix of metronomic and powerful. And so this power trio is exactly that.
Along with the first two tracks, which are stand outs, I am a big fan of ‘I’m Not Ready,’ which erupts out of a riff, as Rush’s bass plunks along, taking the song where it needs to go and as Kotzur pounds out the beat, Plunket sings a universal song, and notes that ‘time don’t feel the way it used to.’ ‘It’s On Me’ is built up around a jangly riff and insistent drums, and Plunket declaring that ‘heaven can wait’ and asks if he needs forgiveness for his faults. In this track, Rush’s bass is lower in the mix, plodding the song forward the same.
‘TV Light’ feels old fashioned, the way Plunket’s lead charges over the riff and the bass and drums, I feel like I’m in a stinky basement bar, drinking crapy beer and watching the band. Even the idea, I guess, of a TV light in 2020 feels retro, like it’s our phones, our laptops, our tablets that are the lights on in our homes at night. The second-to-last track, ‘Slow Nights’ is another song that feels like 1985 or 1986, the rhythm section in lock-step and Plunket’s guitars slashing along. And then we hit the album closer, ‘Two Characters in Search of a Country Song,’ which, I have to say, sounds exactly like you’d think this band would sound in such a song.
Country Westerns is one hell of a solid début, the band arrives fully-formed it feels, they’re not searching for a sound or for themselves, they don’t sound like they’re kids anymore. This is music to be listened to in your grubby flannel shirt, old Levi’s and Chuck Taylors. I can see this one being on heavy rotation around here.