Jess Williamson and Katie Crutchfield of Plains, a project born in the pandemic during long phone calls between the two musicians.Credit…Barrett Emke for The New York Times
Though they first met only five years ago, the musicians Katie Crutchfield and Jess Williamson have long walked parallel paths.
Both grew up in Southern states where country music was omnipresent (Crutchfield, who records as Waxahatchee, in Alabama; Williamson in Texas). Coming of age in the late ’90s, they were shaped by mainstream country radio’s strong but ultimately fleeting embrace of powerhouse female artists: Williamson pored over the lyric booklets to the Chicks records; Crutchfield hummed along to Shania Twain, Martina McBride and Trisha Yearwood songs in the back of her parents’ car.
As many teenagers do, they later rebelled by getting into punk and indie-rock. But as they grew older and matured as artists, both found themselves reconnecting with their country roots and trying to make sense of their contradictory feelings about their Southern heritage, finding kindred spirits in elders like the individualistic outlaw songwriters Townes Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams.
Crutchfield and Williamson finally crossed paths in 2017 — introduced by Crutchfield’s boyfriend, the musician Kevin Morby, at a restaurant in Austin — and became fast friends. “I just immediately was like, ‘This person is for me,’” Crutchfield said on a video call from an instrument-strewn room in her home in Kansas City, Kan.
On the call from Marfa, Texas, in a floral-printed dress and a silver crescent-moon necklace, Williamson remembered another prolonged stretch of bonding time in Los Angeles just before the pandemic: “We’d be at parties and it would just be me and Katie in the corner talking,” she said.
In spring 2020, both released piercingly introspective, career-best albums — Waxahatchee’s cleareyed “St. Cloud,” and Williamson’s enchanting “Sorceress” — but were unsure when they’d be able to tour. They shared their frustrations and creative aspirations over long telephone calls during walks in the early months of the pandemic, and one day Crutchfield blurted out, “This is making me want to start a band.” Simple as that, Plains was born.
For Williamson, Plains’ debut album “I Walked With You a Ways,” out Oct. 14, was something of an aesthetic continuation of her previous solo release. “‘Sorceress’ was the most I’d ever leaned into country sounds, and I felt like I had unfinished business,” she said, describing the project as a way to “channel these influences that we love,” like Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris’s records as Trio.
Crutchfield envisioned Plains, though, as something of a palate cleanser after a rewarding but emotionally intense album cycle. “‘St. Cloud’ was a really big record for me in so many ways,” she said. “I got sober right before I made it, and I had to work backwards to recognize myself again and learn how to write songs and make records again.” She said she wasn’t quite ready to make another Waxahatchee record, “but I had all of this energy to do something, so I feel like this project was such a godsend.”
A self-described “harmony head,” Crutchfield is no stranger to collaboration: All her life she’s sung and made music with her twin sister Allison, most notably with the precocious, now-defunct pop-punk group P.S. Eliot. Williamson, on the other hand, had mostly worked as a solo artist, so the Plains experience meant opening herself up to new techniques: Crutchfield wanted to achieve a loose, spontaneous feel by tracking their vocals in as few takes as possible, for example.
Crutchfield and Williamson each brought five songs they’d written individually — relying on the other for some “in-the-room punch-ups” — and they found their styles to be quite complementary. “A lot of Jess’s songs were these old-school country waltzes, which I love,” Crutchfield said, “and it was a nice juxtaposition to the songs I was bringing in, which were a little more ’90s pop-country or Southern-rock feeling.”
Williamson’s vivid songwriting and keening voice shine on “Abilene,” a heartbreaking, poetic ballad that harkens back to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. Crutchfield’s soulful “Hurricane” filters the take-me-as-I-am swagger of the Chicks through the sharp self-examination of her own songwriting, as she croons in her dusty drawl, “I come in like a cannonball/I’ve been that way my whole life.” When their voices entwine in harmony, though, as they do on the sprightly opener “Summer Sun,” all of these disparate, cross-generational influences unite to form a timeless sound.
They hope their upcoming tour together will be as light and carefree as the project itself. “When you’re touring on your own record, your solo project, your life story, there’s so much pressure,” Williamson said. “This project just feels really fun and celebratory. It feels universal, in a way.”
For both artists, the sound of Plains represents a kind of homecoming, since the evolution of their singing voices have reflected their own personal reckonings with their pasts.
“If you only knew how hard I was trying to suppress that Southern accent for so long,” Crutchfield said. “It’s sad, I listen to the affectation on some of my earlier records and I’m like, I’m really trying hard to cover that up.”
The palpable sense of self-acceptance and hard-won confidence that attracted listeners to “St. Cloud,” though, courses through “I Walked With You a Ways” as well. Crutchfield can hear that maturity in her own voice. “People grow as singers over time,” Crutchfield added. “You develop your voice and chip away at what it’s really supposed to see. As far as I’ve seen, I feel that we all get better as we age. So I think that just trying to relax a bit has helped me a lot.” She let out a deep sigh. “It almost feels like I’ve taken my bra off.”
Williamson was delighted with the metaphor: “I like that image, Katie,” she said. Then, as tightly in unison as they are on their record, they laughed.