While not all country singers are from the South, those who are share an understanding. Rural, blue-collar America isn’t confined to the stretch of states between Texas and Virginia, but Southerners come built with different hardware—not to mention the best biscuits, football teams, summer tomatoes and sunsets.
But simply cheering for an SEC team and shopping at the Piggly Wiggly do not a true Southerner make. It’s the deep appreciation for what makes the South different, and hence special, that burns hot in one’s blood. And those who are further blessed with the abilities to shape that feeling into melody make some of the finest country songs around. Katie Crutchfield, who was raised in Alabama and now lives in Kansas, and Jess Williamson, who hails from the Dallas suburbs, each possess this gift. The two singers, both accomplished solo artists in their own right, have joined forces for a new music project called Plains, and their debut album under the moniker is a rich assortment of country songs inspired by the greats—Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Tanya Tucker, Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette, The Judds, Faith Hill and so on—garnished with their individual distinct styles.
Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee project has taken many shapes over the years—lo-fi bedroom indie, searing punk rock and, most recently, golden-hued Americana and uninhibited, open-skied country, in the form of her acclaimed 2020 record Saint Cloud. It’s the latter of those that further manifests itself on I Walked. It’s clear Crutchfield wasn’t finished trying her hand at the country music she was raised on (she’s a noted Lucinda Williams superfan), and Williamson was the right person to join her in the chase. If Saint Cloud was Crutchfield’s cautious wading out into the waves of country music, then I Walked is a confident foray into not just the genre’s style, but that of its greatest achievers: Parton, Williams, et. al.
The steady hum of the suite of acoustic guitar, banjo and mandolin is the undercurrent of I Walked, from the chipper “Summer Sun” (in which the pair reminisce on getting drunk on “the back deck in the rain”—is there anything more Southern?) to saccharine country ballads “Last 2 On Earth,” “Bellafatima” and “Abilene,” a cousin of sorts to Parton’s hit “Jolene.” In the great tradition of country music, “Bellafatima” tells the story of a tough-as-nails Southern woman, in this case one who “swore like a dry county welder.” But where Williams was changing the locks and Reba’s “Fancy” was dancing her way to her family’s salvation, “Bellafatima” is just “hungry for someone to see” her soft side. The title track, too, features a peek into deeper feelings, when Crutchfield and Williamson pay tribute to those folks who are only in our lives for a “season,” but whose spirit lingers for life: “Well I’ll be better all my days ‘cause I walked with you a ways,” they sing.
A fierce face is also at the center of the Crutchfield-led “Hurricane,” which features some of the record’s best and sparkliest harmonies. But this time, the narrator is hoping to shed some light on her penchant for a chaotic strain of love. “I come in like a cannonball,” Crutchfield sings. “I’ve been that way my whole life.” Crutchfield and Williamson both chime in on the refrain, Chicks-style, singing, “I’ll come back to you.”
Phil Cook and Spencer Tweedy lend musicianship throughout the record, perfectly complementing Williamson and Crutchfield’s honeyed vocals. The result is an airy collection of not just beautiful lyrics and notes, but specific snapshots of Southern life: On “No Record of Wrongs,” it’s a “cigarette in a potted plant,” it’s ripe figs on “Summer Sun” and hot nights in Beaumont, Texas, on “Bellafatima.” Williamson, whose solo work mostly stays in indie-folk territory, but is a tinge witchy, and Crutchfield, who has always used Southern imagery in her work but never so fully, have never really had the latitude to make an album like this—country through and through, and full of Southern-isms pulled from their own lived experiences.
As with albums like Lotta Sea Lice, the 2017 collaboration from Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, and The Highwomen, the superpowered country group project from Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires, I Walked with You a Ways is a special space where two artists who usually run solo operations can stretch their legs together. It just so happens that all the aforementioned albums, including I Walked, are more than the sum of their parts. Whether it’s the start of a beautiful musical friendship or just a flash in the cast-iron pan, Crutchfield and Williamson’s I Walked with You a Ways is roomy, real and charming, and it’s one of the best Americana albums of the year and a powerful display of songwriting skills. And like Brunswick stew, Waffle House and the Iron Bowl, we have the South to thank for it.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.
Revisit Williamson’s 2018 Paste session below.