To think that Country Westerns have only just debuted wth their self-titled album is surprising since it sounds as if the Nashville alt-rock trio have been together all along. In fact, Country Westerns almost didn’t happen. The band—Joel Plunkett, formerly of The Weight, drummer Brian Kotzur, a revolving member of Silver Jews, and bassist Sabrina Rush of State Champion—initially started as a garage band with Plunkett and Kotzur jamming with no clear direction in sight.
“I came off of two years of not doing any music professionally because I was running my bar and just focusing on that,” says Plunkett. “And we just kind of came together as a fun project to hang out in the garage and work on stuff. We started playing shows, but we were very unfocused.”
Transplanting himself from Brooklyn to Nashville nearly a decade ago, Joey Plunkett opened an East Nashville restaurant in 2015. Reconnecting with local musicians and the scene, he slowly slipped back in. For the Atlanta-born Plunkett the New York-Nashville connection is still strong. He visits several times a year, and New York is where Country Westerns relocated, in interval visits, to record their debut (Fat Possum).
“For us, financially, it wasn’t very practical getting away from our businesses, our families, our jobs,” says Plunkett. “But it was just nice to be able to focus solely on the record and eat good pizza and Chinese food and hang out. We recorded it like two blocks from the house I used to live at Brooklyn, by coincidence, so it was a good feeling to be back there.”
Detaching from Nashville was a deliberate move for the band. “It’s nothing against Nashville studios,” says Plunkett. “We were just able to be a little more focused and a little more aggressive about recording [in NY].”
Produced by Matt Sweeney (Iggy Pop, Chavez) and recorded at Brooklyn’s Strange Weather Studios, Country Westerns came together over eight days and three trips.
Country Westerns is carefully contrived collective of musical misfits who effortlessly sewed addictive riffs and melodies, wrapped in bittersweet storytelling and Plunkett’s gravelled vocals.
Showcasing the trio’s versatility as a unit, there’s a swagger to Country Western that builds from the melodic croon of “Close to Me” to the more anthemic “Gentle Soul”—a track Plunkett wrote prior to the band’s inception. Filled with angst throughout on heavier “I’m Not Ready” or “TV Light,” Country Westerns is sealed by a powered up cover of The Magnetic Field’s 1994 track “Two Characters in Search of a Country Song.”
Even though something was brewing in those early garage days, Plunkett credits the late David Berman of Silver Jews, an early advocate of the band, to giving them the push they needed to take it seriously. “He would come to all our practices and be like, ‘oh, you have to do something with this,’” says Plunkett. “We were like ‘yeah, whatever, man. We’re just a garage band.’”
Berman, who had just released a self titled album July 2019 under his new project Purple Mountains, died shortly after from suicide on August 7.
“He really pushed us along,” says Plunkett. “We were supposed to be doing a bunch of tours with Purple Mountains, and then he sadly passed away, so we were kind of back at square one with the ‘we’re just this garage band, who cares’ mentality.”
Then Sweeney, who had been talking to Berman about the band for months, swooped in and was adamant about producing the band. “It was nice to have somebody with some enthusiasm,” says Plunkett, who devoted six hours a week, outside of running his business, to practice, with Kotzur. “We needed that. David and Matt helped us take it seriously.”
After shifting bassists, the duo landed on Bully’s Reece Lazarus for some time before locking on State Champion’s Sabrina Rush. Plunkett had been friends with Rush for years and mentioned to her that they needed a bass player, or they were going to break up. No pressure—but it worked. Rush stopped by their garage practice and everything gelled.
Since its inception, everything has been more of a slow burn for Country Westerns. Right now, Plunkett is taking care of business—his bar and writing and waiting on the day when the band can return to the “sounds and chaos of a good rock show.”
“We work really hard on our music,” says Plunkett. “We always work hard, but we never had some ambitious rollout marketing plan around the band. We care about it, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”