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Many country songwriters chronicle a search for something bigger, a need to escape from their small towns in order to make it in Nashville or spread out into wide open spaces. It’s been a different journey for Katie Crutchfield and Jess Williamson, who, on their first album as the duo Plains, make music that wanders homeward. Both of these artists come from the South — Crutchfield, who also makes music as Waxahatchee, hails from Birmingham, Alabama; Williamson is an Austin, Texas native. Both musicians also cut their teeth in indie rock for the majority of the last decade. But by 2020, they found themselves in similar spots on their new records, Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud and Wiliamson’s Sorceress, leaning toward the Americana, folk and country music they rebelled against in their youths. “If you only knew how hard I was trying to suppress that Southern accent for so long,” Crutchfield told the New York Times.
With their band, including Spencer Tweedy and Phil Cook, Plains utilize I Walked With You A Ways as a laid-back, golden-hued outlet for continuing to dig through their Southern roots. Together, they unearth gems they may not have discovered alone. Crutchfield and Williamson each wrote four songs individually for the project, and while the differences between the two songwriters’ tracks are perceptible, they rarely feel incohesive.
Williamson takes a retro route with references to the storytelling and country waltzes of the late Loretta Lynn, Townes Van Zandt and John Prine, but her work never feels like country cosplay. “Abilene,” named after a Texas city, is a slow-burning torch song about a bittersweet goodbye. The pain is palpable in Williamson’s lead vocals, as solemn guitar plucks cast a sunset over the town behind her. Written by Texas songwriter Hoyt Van Tanner, “Bellafatima” is an old school ode to a mysterious woman whose “face read like Anna Karenina.” It’s like Plains’ own “Jolene.” The rollicking “No Record of Wrongs” kicks up the energy and twinkles like a twangy Fleetwood Mac tune.
Crutchfield’s songwriting leans into the country pop she came of age to in the late ’90s, adopting Shania Twain’s knowing winks, Martina McBride’s wholesome sincerity and Sheryl Crow’s effortless swagger. Some of the songs she wrote for I Walked With You A Ways could have appeared on Saint Cloud — after all, both records were produced by Brad Cook. Like on Saint Cloud, Crutchfield’s close study of Lucinda Williams’ honest lyricism is ever-present, from when she spits out the consonants of the line, “It’s a pink carnation / It’s a hand hastily played” to when she calls herself “sweet as honeysuckle / when you want a pocket knife.”
When they fully band together, Plains carries on country music’s legacy of sisterhood; like songs from the Judds, the Chicks and Trio by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt before them, Plains’ harmonies convey mutual strength and support. On the jaunty and warm “Summer Sun,” Williamson begins the first two words of each verse by herself, almost teasing a solo, but Crutchfield’s harmony always swoops in to rescue her from lovesick solitude. The chugging rock guitars on “Problem With It” prove that harmonies need not be reserved for heavenly melodies, as they crash Plains back to earth with fiery bluntness. The chorus, “If you can’t do better than that babe, I got a problem with it,” ejects from the duo like twin spurts of venom.
As “Problem With It” suggests, Plains knows what they deserve. With multiple solo studio albums under each of their belts, Crutchfied and Williamson have matured not only in their songwriting, but in their self-assuredness. “I might do a little damage, but you always take my call,” Crutchfield sings with a smirk as she describes her destructive tendencies on “Hurricane.” She has no responsibility to apologize, but she recognizes that only a select few can handle her messiness. I Walked With You A Ways seeks to define unconditional love, and to accept when something simply isn’t it. “They change your heart, and then it’s done,” Williamson sighs on the title track, turning her back to the sun just to see her love “glow in the light” one last time. Even when love has an expiration date, the time spent experiencing it is never wasted. Plains has learned that surrendering to love is the bravest journey someone can take. It might not work out, but it might also lead you home.
Natalia Barr is a music and culture writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications like Rolling Stone, Interview Magazine, Consequence of Sound, and Crack Magazine. Find her on social media @nataliabarr_.