In Crutchfield and Williamson’s world, breakups are a fact of life, as commonplace and mundanely tragic as the rundown gas stations on a two-lane highway. Their songwriting is more direct than their past work, favoring simpler phrases and evocative still lifes (pink carnations, a cigarette butt in a potted plant). But both artists still relish a circuitous way of storytelling, drawing out a single moment of revelation across a whole song. Take “Summer Sun,” where Williamson offers a meandering apology to someone she dated while old wounds were still fresh: “You had no reason to be afraid that my heart was hidden behind a wall that came before you.” Across her songs, Crutchfield advocates for a partner to rise to her high standards, calling them out on their avoidance and dishing out hard-earned sage advice. “You know you can’t lose a fight if you take cover or abandon it,” she intones, not unkindly, on “Easy.” They make space for the disappointment and heartache while keeping empathy for whoever’s on the other end.
Like all albums birthed out of a particular music fascination, the influences on I Walked With You a Ways are widespread and a joy to uncover with each listen. “Line of Sight,” with its wandering dobro and humming Wurlitzer piano, recalls the Chicks both in their ’90s heyday and their darker, alt-pop turn on 2006’s Taking the Long Way. Williamson covers “Bellafatima,” by contemporary Texas singer-songwriter Hoyt Van Tanner, and transforms it into a waltz that sounds as old as the prairie itself, the kind that Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt might have included on their pair of Trio albums. These callbacks are subtle enough to never upstage the main heartlines running through the album; a mournful guitar solo might sneak in for a moment between chorus and second verse, or an organ might take up a call-and-response melody on “No Record of Wrongs,” only to fade back into the cozy backdrop of acoustic strings and drum brushes.
Outside of the mainstream, more artists as of late have donned their cowboy hats and done their best spin on vintage Americana. Call it the Spotify Indigo breed of country, if you must. Cult favorites like Price, Tyler Childers, and Sturgill Simpson imbue their traditionalist leanings with an anti-authoritarian streak. Others, like Orville Peck or the “Merle Haggard with a Pax” outlaw Dougie Poole, tap into gimmicky yet sincere subversions of a modern country star’s subject matter. Plains, by comparison, feels much less weighty, a logical conclusion to two girls who wore out CDs by Deana Carter and the Judds. Country has been their guiding north star, and it’s a privilege to finally get to see it shine.
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