Jenny Don't and the Spurs were right in the middle of recording their third full-length album when a vocal polyp put a halt to the process.
"It pretty much decimated my voice. I could limp through live performances but when it came to recording it just wasn't able to happen," says the Portland band's singer, songwriter and namesake, Jenny Don't. "My voice was really thin and kept cracking all over the place, and then at certain points I wasn't able to make any sound at all."
There is light at the end of every tunnel, however. One vocal cord surgery and a recovery period later, Jenny Don't and the Spurs are back with a handful of new releases coming out this spring and summer, including that suspended third album, to be released on the excellent Portland-based label Fluff & Gravy Records.
Longtime fans of the band can expect more of what the Spurs do best: traditional country music with a tinge of Southwestern desert noir and a heavy dose of outlaw attitude fueled by their extensive backgrounds in punk rock.
The past few years have seen more than a few former punks shift toward rootsier styles, but few have the kind of credibility of the Spurs, whose members have played in Portland punk bands since the 1980s. Drummer Sam Henry manned the sticks for the legendary Wipers, and in the mid-2000s, bassist Kelly Halliburton started Pierced Arrows with the equally legendary Fred and Toody Cole of Dead Moon. (Lead guitarist Christopher March rounds out the Spurs' lineup.)
But all that punk rock prompted Halliburton and Don't to shift gears in 2012 and form the Spurs. Before long, they were covering country classics and writing their own tunes, which are equal parts catchy, twangy and slightly off-kilter. Since, they've played hundreds of shows around the world. We caught up with Jenny Don't to talk about her music, her band and the clothes they wear.
INLANDER: How did you all settle on traditional country music for this project? What was the draw of this sound?
JENNY DON'T: We've all been listening to this style of music in some form or another for most of our lives. Our drummer, Sam, actually cut his teeth playing a regular gig with a country band as a teenager in the early 1970s. He talks about how, since he was too young to actually be in the bar, he'd have to hang out hidden away in a storage closet between sets while the other band members took smoke and beer breaks. But fundamentally, besides just not wanting to form another punk or garage band, we also felt that this style of music was so rich in possibilities and so fun to play. There's such a wonderful legacy of songwriting within the genre, such a deep well from which to draw musically and aesthetically. And, on top of all that, it's a style that's fun as hell to play.
Are there any similarities between punk and country in terms of songwriting? Performing? Attitude?
As much as purists from both camps might vehemently deny it, there are a lot of similarities between the two styles. Both are pretty much working class styles of music that came from the margins of society, and in a lot of ways the origin stories of both styles have a lot of similarities, whether it was music that came from the industrial British Midlands or the Oklahoma oil fields, whether it was played in smoky honky-tonks or seedy punk bars, it was all kind of the same stripped-down, bare-knuckles, gritty music that came from similar emotional sources.
On a more basic level, though, we've tried to take elements of both those styles of music — as well as some others that have shaped us as musicians and listeners — and combine them to form a style that we'd like to listen to. If other people like it, great. But at the most basic level, it's about combining everything that makes us happy to play, and as long as we can accomplish that we'll keep playing.
When I listen to your albums, one word that comes to mind is "timeless." Why do you think country music seems to withstand the test of time?
Well, I guess that it seems timeless because it is timeless, in a large sense. We draw from sources that are centuries old. American country and folk music comes from European — mainly Irish and Scottish — musical traditions that were imported across the Atlantic with the waves of immigrants that came to the new world starting nearly 400 years ago. Add to that some of the truly ancient elements of African music that found their way into the rockabilly and rock 'n' roll sounds of the American South and you've got the foundation upon which we've built a lot of our sounds. If we can even come close to capturing some of that spirit then that's great.
I just watched the Ken Burns documentary on the history of country music, and they spent a good chunk of time on the clothes the performers wore. Are you still making the band's clothes yourself? If so, why is that important to you?
I am! I'm making all of my own show clothes and just started making jackets for the guys. Kelly has one from me, and Christopher's and Sam's are coming soon. I always really enjoy when a band looks like "the band." I don't want to be on stage looking like I should be hanging out on the couch at home. I want to show that what I'm doing is important enough to dress up for.
I also read a quote in a book about Nudie suits and it said, "You catch their attention with what you're wearing and you keep it with what you're playing." That really resonated with me and I took it to heart. Plus, I can't afford to have custom outfits made for me so I just became my own custom designer. DIY all the way! Anytime I get stuck I can pretty much find a YouTube video tutorial for anything to solve the issue. ♦
A couple years ago, Jenny Don't and the Spurs were en route to the Inlander's Volume Music Festival when their tour van broke an axle, forcing them to cancel. They've made it to the Inland Northwest since, but this week provided yet another hurdle for the Portland band as they prepared for a Spokane show: Business closures due to coronavirus concerns mean their March 26 show at Berserk isn't happening.
This interview with lead singer Jenny Don't was conducted when the show was still a "go," and we decided to run it anyway because 1) they'll no doubt be back and 2) they've just made their first two albums available for free on their Bandcamp profile (jennydontandthespurs.bandcamp.com). Give 'em a listen, and then prepare for their inevitable return to Spokane.
— NATHAN WEINBENDER