Powerful indie duo Plains cultivate Texas tone
Saturday was a big night for Texas at the Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville. As the Astros won the 2022 World Series in Houston, two prominent artists from the indie/alternative frontier played a vibrant, joyful set of country music bathed in Lone Star light. They covered Willie Nelson, Terry Allen and The Chicks, and there were even Don’t Mess With Texas t-shirts for sale at the merchandising table.
But the real story is the songs that Texan Jess Williamson and Alabama native Katie Crutchfield, who performs under the alias Waxahatchee, wrote and sang together. Fans of each other’s music, they formed the new and perhaps unique duo called Plains. their album I walked a path with you skyrocketed to the top of the Americana chart after its release in mid-October. The reviews are effusive. Jason Isbel tweeted his approval. Their ongoing tour offers fans that shared vision where it feels most emotional, the live stage.
After treading on Loretta Lynn’s stumps, Crutchfield and Williamson led their four-piece band through the album’s opening song sequence. “Summer Sun” is a bright, floating letter of regret and separation sung in close harmony, with lyrics by Williamson. Although there was no banjo part like the recorded version does, the performance set a country tone rooted in the populist, forward-thinking vibes of the Judds and the golden vistas of the Flatlanders.
Next, “Problem With It” is one of the catchiest and most subtle songs released in 2022, an American radio hit and a contender for Song of the Year. It’s Crutchfield’s lyrics, which are as striking as the Southern poetry of his Waxahatchee projects, though a bit more down to earth. In another song about leaving a relationship with defiance and dignity intact, she sings, “I’m driving fast on high alert/Pass the Jet-Pep and the Baptist church/On the county line, I’ll be a softly heard songbird”. It’s an Alabama gas station, I’ll concede, but the line immediately makes me think of James McMurtry’s Texas eye for local details: “That place you say you’re looking for/It’s far of the track / It would take a quarter tank of the fire chief / I’m going there and I’m coming back.
“Line Of Sight” followed, always respecting the order of the tracks on the album, with its comfortable stride and soaring chorus. Crutchfield speaks directly to God in this one, seeking existential solace and perhaps recuperation from the restrictions of a religious upbringing (“I don’t wanna give an eye for an eye,” sings she). At this point, the album – and the show – set the bar high and a clear point of view. This music refers to commercial country music that artists grew up on without imitating it. It’s melodious and personal, clear and persuasive. It’s one of the most “eventful” albums of the year, a collaboration that we will be delighted with and want more of.
Crutchfield is a searching and emotionally open singer-songwriter who launched as Waxahatchee (named after a creek where she grew up) after spending time with pop/punk band PS Eliot. Her lo-fi debut won national acclaim in 2012, and she’s been a notable force in left-leaning folk/indie rock ever since. Nothing hit as hard as the 2020s Saint Cloud, a beautifully written collection that found Waxahatchee leaning more towards folk and country than anything she had done so far. Although still somewhat mannered in its distinctive vocal attack, the record plays and reads in some ways like blonde on blonde, with a loose, elemental band supporting colorful lyrics. “I release a disjointed sigh / You illuminate me as I galvanize / A flowery death”, she sings in “Hell” for example. He made a lot of year-end Americana lists. Fork gave it a rare score of 8.0 and tied it with Lucinda Williams’ landmark Car wheels on a gravel road in the Southern Gothic school.
For her part, Jess Williamson told a writer in 2016 that she made her second album with Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell as “guardian angels on my shoulders,” and that’s a good rough idea of her output. thoughtful alternative folk. She also talks about bridle against her conservative suburban Dallas background and building the confidence to take her stories to the stage. She did it during and after college in Austin, then moved to Los Angeles in time to release her third album. cosmic wink in 2018. The one that reunited her with Crutchfield was album #4, 2020 Witch. It’s a beautiful and varied listen, with some synth sounds reminiscent of the 90s and lots of acoustic guitar and melodic vocals as well. In a New York Times feature on Plains, she said it was “the most I’ve ever leaned into country sounds, and it felt like I had unfinished business.”
Williamson and Crutchfield met in 2017 and had grown closer, especially as the pandemic halted touring supporting their respective career best releases of 2020, albums they mutually loved. They had ambition but not quite the kind of energy it takes to head back to the studio on their own for another round. So they concocted Plains as a special project that would allow them to freely explore their love of country music. They noted the legendary Trio album as a touchstone, not that Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt needed to go back to their roots, but that sound, with high-flying harmony and simpler song structures, illuminates the Plains album from its first steps. The artists slipped easily and naturally into a space with less artifice and more blues, less angst and more open road.
Williamson contributed “Abilene,” a singsong country waltz suspended between a disappointing past and a windshield-forward future. His “Texas in my rearview/Plains in my heart” line lends its name to the duo project while evoking soft, flat landscapes as a metaphor for the place on which to build oneself. This is followed, at the heart of the album, with Crutchfield’s “Hurricane,” in which his voice recasts its idiosyncrasies from the cool estrangement of indie rock to a poignant chirp in country context. The lyrics about the complexities of a woman form a dreamy and uplifting chorus. Throughout, the union of these voices is more lovely and book-matching than one might guess from their individual works. The story of mutual musical discovery, friendship and collaboration is reminiscent of the Highwomen and the 2021 duo of Jade Jackson and Aubrie Sellers, but while that connection steered them into rock and roll all the way, Plains looks like a big relaxed exhale, a soft place to land.
The album doesn’t lag in the second half either. They pull a cover, a naked cowboy waltz by Texas artist Hoyt Van Tanner. “Last 2 On Earth” features rolling piano and Crutchfield lyrics that find the singer in a happier relationship, perhaps because there’s a co-writer here, her partner Kevin Morby. “Easy” is perhaps the most beautiful song in the collection. Then, the main voice of Jess Williamson inaugurates us gently with the title song of her album “I Walked With You A Ways”. It is about the impermanence of many of our relationships and the importance of appreciating them fully in any event. This is good advice to consider this magical collaboration. Jess and Katie may or may not be recording or touring again, so this memory of 2022 and the remaining shows on the schedule are all to be savored all the more.
Plains – “Trouble With That”