Country Westerns: Lean And Mean

It’s been a curious journey thus far for Joey Plunkett—from fronting much-admired Brooklyn band the Weight to largely abandoning music to run Duke’s, a popular watering hole in East Nashville. “I followed an ex down here who was a country singer,” says the Atlanta native. “I was spinning my wheels, and the relationship ended. I kept thinking I’d move back to New York or Atlanta, but I just kept hanging around—until the opportunity came to open a bar.”

Plunkett’s latest opportunity comes by way of Country Westerns, the trio he’s assembled with former Silver Jews drummer Brian Kotzer and violinist-turned-bassist Sabrina Rush. The name is a bit of a misnomer, given that the band favors raspy roots-rock gut checks over twang authenticity. It’s a sound that’s tightly wound yet slightly unhinged, thriving off that dichotomy. “I’m Not Ready,” the fourth track from the band’s new self-titled Fat Possum debut, has all signature assets of Country Westerns’ Hüsker Dü-by-way-of-Lucero model: a taught melody grounded by a pulsing rhythm section, throat-shredding lead vocals and sporadic bursts from Plunkett’s guitar.

“It’s one of those songs that came to me quickly,” says Plunkett. “It’s mostly about having no control over time and the forces around you. It’s a noisy song about not going gentle into that good night.”

A year prior to Plunkett’s arrival in Nashville, Kotzur had a brush with indie filmmaking as the lead in Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers, a darkly humorous 2009 horror flick shot on worn VHS video. Plunkett and Kotzur eventually met and gelled over their common opinions on the chemistry of making music. “I just wanted to be in a band,” says Plunkett. “I’ve never been good about shifting from one project to the next. For a lot people here, that’s their forte. But it’s not my personality.”

By 2016, the two were recording demos in Kotzur’s garage. Early music featured Reece Lazarus (Bully) before Rush settled in on bass. Recording began in Nashville with engineer Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray For The Riff Raff) and continued in Brooklyn with Matt Sweeney (Chavez, Zwan) and Daniel Schlett (War On Drugs). “For us, it was always about trimming the fat,” says Plunkett. “When we hooked up with Matt, we really cut everything down to the bone. It’s like we took a scalpel to it.” 

Six of Country Westerns’ 11 songs are less than three minutes in length. “Harder and faster compensates for not being as much of a hotshot player,” says Plunkett. “I don’t feel like I’m some virtuoso, but I want to feel like I’m sweating for it.” 

An interesting side note: The video for “I’m Not Ready” was shot at the abandoned Starwood Amphitheatre outside of Nashville. “We had to carry all these amps about a half-mile through the brush to find the place,” says Plunkett. “Brian told me he’d seen Ice-T, Easy-E and Van Halen there. He had this idea to do a low-rent version of Pink Floyd: Live At Pompeii.”

—Hobart Rowland