Dropping the needle on a Country Westerns record validates the entire turntable experience. There’s the half-second silent reprieve and then the sound of rock ‘n’ roll living up to its promise.
It’s hard not to get irresponsible with superlatives when talking about the Nashville 3-piece, but I do believe in my heart they are worth your dollars and time. Groups like The Replacements, The Hold Steady, and The Reigning Sound remind us that on any night, a bar band can be “The Best Band In The World”. There’s a good chance that somewhere tonight, Country Westerns are that band, delivering yet another set of slashing guitars, throaty vocals, rough-and-tumble backbeats, and choruses espousing last-call philosophies.
Country Westerns released their self-titled debut in June of 2020, three months into the pandemic, leaving the band without any real chances for a coming-out party. The absence of red-carpet treatment was unavoidable but criminal. Country Westerns is a record that deserves to be heard. The songs are spurred by a ragged exuberance, a sound somewhere between the heartland and the gutter, between blue-collar and skinny jeans, with lyrics that you’d underline if you came across them in a poetry anthology. Tracks like “Anytime” and “It’s Not Easy” showcase the band’s knack for rowdy, raw singalongs. But with “I’m Not Ready” and “TV Light”, the raw and the poignant coalesce, and hooks become anthems.
In June, the band released the four-song Country Westerns EP, featuring one original song (“Coming Down”), and continuing with the bar band ethos, three cover songs: Dead Moon’s “A Miss of You”, Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Wall of Death”, and Jad Fair and Norman Blake’s “Undeletable”. Some bands release an EP as a stopgap between full-lengths or to fulfill contractual obligations. Consider CW EP as a gift from a band looking to make the most of the lockdown. Although more subdued than the debut, the record is hardly a stripped-down affair. There’s still the ache and the angst of its predecessor. But there’s also the exhale of a band taking a breath and another sip while you gather your wits.
In anticipation of Country Western’s September 10th visit to Grant’s Lounge, I spoke with lead singer and guitar player Joey Plunket, bassist Sabrina Rush, and drummer Brian Kotzur.
CF- I wanted to discuss your pedigrees. Brian, you played with the Silver Jews, and Joey, you spent time with Gentleman Jesse and fronted The Weight, and Sabrina, you played with State Champion. Country Westerns have an incredible lineage. Any lessons from those bands’ successes that you’ve brought to Country Westerns?
Sabrina: I guess for State Champions, we all went to art school together in Chicago, and the way we developed as a band is that we shifted with different members. We had two different drummers over the course of the band, and for me playing violin in a band with a bunch of guys who were coming from completely different places musically, I learned how to bounce around and go with the flow of whatever was happening in a song on violin when each set changed dynamically so much. I feel like that comes through in how I play bass in Country Westerns.
Brian: As far as what I learned in Silver Jews, before I was in that band, I was focusing more on the performance of everybody, not the feeling of the band or the vibe of the band. And I think after Silver Jews, I knew that music wasn’t so black and white.
How so? What changed your perspective from that either/or, black or white mentality?
Brian: I guess before that band, I was playing in bands that I didn’t really care about, playing for money or whatever. But in bands I did care about, I was so focused on how well everybody was playing, if they played the licks right, or if the part that they played was right, and if not, I’d get all pissy. And then I think after being in that band [I realized] that you can actually suck, and sometimes it’s pretty cool (laughs)! You know what I mean by that? As long as the feeling is there, as long as the right vibe is there, it’s okay to fuck up. Also, fuck-ups can be endearing.
Joey: This is also the same guy that I’ve said to after we’ve played a show, “Hey, man, sorry, we weren’t that good tonight.” And he goes, “We?” (Laughs)
Brian: I like well-played music too. But I think as far as the way that I was focusing on it, I think I learned that there is more to it than how perfect the performance was as far as what is written.
Joey: Well, I played in The Weight for many, many years, and we had different lineup changes. We had the Atlanta lineup and then a New York lineup. For several years, I played bass with Gentleman Jesse and King Tuff. It was a rejuvenating thing just to hang in the back and have a good time, play music that I really love, but I wasn’t writing as much as I used to. Then I took two years off from playing music at all, and Brian got me back in the game.
Did you think you were stepping away from music for good?
Joey: I was more at that time about opening a business. I always played songs, always wrote songs just as my hobby. It was always in the back of my mind to do it, but it took us getting together for me to take it more seriously.
Joey, I know you’ve moved around a bit, from Atlanta to New York, now to Nashville. Where are y’all from, Sabrina and Brian? Are you Nashville natives or transplants?
Brian: Sabrina’s a bouncer like me. My dad was drawn here through music. He was the one that came, so I’m a second-generation musician.
Sabrina: I moved here in 2013 from Chicago. I lived up there for ten years and grew up in Indiana before that. But Chicago is my hometown. Or what I consider it to be.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about Nashville? I suppose most people would generalize it as a country singer/songwriter destination. I’m curious how you distinguish yourselves from everything else that’s going on.
Brian: It’s hard because there aren’t that many shows going on anymore. But everyone usually falls off to the Americana side of things here. Usually, that’s where it goes. Even the rock bands usually dissolve into that.
Joey: That’s what we do! We play country & western music (laughs)!
Sabrina: There’s also the younger generation. There’s a venue call Dark Matter that puts on shows that are aimed at being all-ages, and they welcome more punk and rock, some bands from here and some from other places.
Brian: Yeah, there’s always been a scene. It’s just not very big, but there’s always been a bit of that from here. Even when I was in high school, there were little clubs that would have shows on Sundays, you know, cool bands that weren’t Bon Jovi (laughs)!
What are some Nashville bands besides you worth checking out?
Brian: Teddy and the Rough Riders are a fun country band. Our friend Connor Cummins’ bands, Spodee Boy [and] Snooper.
Sabrina: Safety Net…
Joey: He has many bands. So many bands have been displaced. There’s been shows coming back a little bit, but like, “maybe the bass player moved back home,” or maybe this or that happened. Everybody knows what everyone’s been through, so it’s a weird time to remember, “What are the cool bands in town?”
Brian: Yeah, we’ll need a couple of months before we figure it out again
How did you keep up the momentum during the lockdown and pandemic?
Joey: I don’t know that we did (laughs)!
Brian: Making the EP sort of helped. We were trying to think of stuff to play, and I had a new system set up at my house [for] recording. We were like, “Let’s do some covers just for fun to play.” And Joey had a song that he had written that we were working on, so we just recorded them, and then when we played them for Fat Possum, and they liked it and wanted to release it. That gave us a little bit of something to do, to work on that. That was fun.
Joey: We were really lucky that we got to play together at home at Kotzur’s place through the thing, so even when it was depressing and things got canceled, we still could actually play music. That’s was nice.
I wanted to ask about the motivation behind the EP, but it seems sort of obvious. It was something to keep you occupied and in a good headspace. You recorded in Brian’s garage. Is that something you want to do in the future, using the same set-up?
Brian: I like both ways. I like doing this setup because it gives us time to just sort of relax and record on our parts, and I also like it when the pressure is on too. I like it if f the songs are worked out. Then I’d rather do it in a studio, all together. And if we’re writing and recording, I’d like to do it the way we did the EP.
You covered “Undeletable”, which has such a positive, almost us-against-the-world, theme-song vibe. Besides recording that song, what else did you do to maintain peace of mind?
Joey: Did we? (Laughs)
Brian: I’ve got kids, so I just focused on that. That kept my mind occupied.
Joey: My girlfriend got an apartment in New York next to Taco Bell, so that helped (laughs)!
When you think of your favorite cover songs, what makes for a successful cover?
Brian: The feeling that you get from hearing the song, I guess. Sometimes, I hear covers and, and I think, “Why would they ever do that again? It’s already good.” But sometimes you hear one, and you think, “That made me feel good hearing that.”
Joey: Most of the covers we’ve ever done, we don’t even remember anymore how to play them. I think it’s just like an exuberance of the first time. You kind of figure it out, and it’s [air guitar squeal] fun!
Sabrina: I think it’s nice when artists take covers and change them from what they were initially. The feeling is what makes it mostly, but it’s always interesting to see a band take a cover and do it in a completely different way.
Brian: Like the Judas Priest cover…
Joey: The only thing I don’t like with covers is when people take fast songs and slow them down to make them seem more poignant (laughs)!
This record is bit more relaxed than the full-length. Is that sound a reflection of the mood, the anxiety of lockdown? Is it a sign of things to come for future releases?
Brian: I think it was the choice of covers. We really couldn’t rock it.
Sabrina: It was not having Sweeney in the studio with us (laughs)! I think with Matt Sweeney, when we recorded the first record, he was there guiding each take. I think some of the songs on the record, you can tell a couple were recorded in Nashville, and you can hear the difference between the way that they turned out versus the ones that we did in New York. So I think it’s just the matter of the collaboration process. With the new record, we were working on them in Kotzur’s garage, kind of casually trying to figure out how to how to record and be productive in a time when we couldn’t do much else. So, yeah, just different vibes.
Joey: We didn’t conceptualize any of it as a record. We just were goofing off in the garage.
Did you conceptualize the first record?
Joey: Yeah, we worked on the debut for three years. We worked on the EP for six months during COVID. We didn’t think even the label would want to put it out. We were just doing our own thing. To me, it was a happy accident that they were into it and wanted to do it.
I wanted to ask you about your lyric writing. With Country Westerns, I get the best of both worlds– legit rock ‘n’ roll, but also lyrics that I consider genuinely poetic. You have so many lines that knock me back for a second or two. Is writing something that comes easy? Or does it bring anxiety?
Joey: I’m getting anxious thinking about the question (laughs)! I mean, it’s kind of chaos, but it’s also like muscle memory. Since I was fourteen, I’ve been writing songs. I don’t have a process to tell somebody to be like, “Hey, you could be a genius songwriter if you do this!” But I mean as far things I admire, I’m all over the board. I love so many songwriters and lyricists, but then I also have a weird blindside where I’m like, “This is my favorite song,” and I’ve been singing the wrong lyrics to it for twenty years (laughs)!
I know you’re going to hit the road. So, and that’s perhaps with an asterisk, assuming that everything’s going to work out, what are you looking forward to the most with touring? Is touring something that’s still fun for you. Is it essential to who you are?
Joey: I love eating at new restaurants. I look forward to touring again. I like even the monotony of it. Yeah, I love riding in the car for 5 hours and meet a sound guy that’s probably rude to you and get paid $150 (laughs)!
Sabrina: I look forward to certain parts of touring. I love seeing the country and being able to be outside and explore different restaurants and things. But I’ve also done a lot of it in the last fifteen years and kind of welcomed the lack of touring during the pandemic in some ways. But I think getting back into it, it seems more appealing than it did maybe before the pandemic started.
Brian: I love traveling, and I prefer traveling when there’s something to do, and playing shows is my favorite thing to do. It’s a great combo. I love to tour. I used to go on tour with my dad. He was in a band when I was growing up, and he used to tour a lot. He’d take me and my sister sometimes. It was always fun.
Charlie Watts passed away yesterday, and I was thinking about him and your EP reminded of Norton Records Rolling Stones covers series. If you could record a song for the series, what would you choose?
Sabrina: I love the Rolling Stones! I would probably go with “Loving Cup.”
Joey: “No Expectations”, “Out Of Time”… I would say “Slave”, but everyone covers that.
Sabrina: “100 Years Ago”.
Joey: That’s it! The perfect Stones song.