Backed up against the hard spine of I-90, the Sundown Saloon in Coeur d'Alene welcomes the weary traveler with the promise of a few cold ones, an empty ashtray and dim lighting — maybe a game of pool or two. One can chart the evolution of beer advertising over the past three decades on the walls. It's the kind of place where a rangy gentleman in full leather chaps can saunter up to the bar, place a saddle on a stool and order a round (no joke).
There's also a fine jukebox, stocked with the greats. Ferlin Husky. Faron Young. Porter Wagoner. Willie, Waylon, and Merle are bound to be in there, too. And in a ringing endorsement, so is the debut album by local honky-tonk heroes Sam Platts & the Kootenai Three. It's a mature record by a young band, stacked with original songs that nail the musicianship and clever wordplay of classic country.
Led by singer-guitarist-songwriter Sam Platts, the group had their first gig at the Sundown nearly three years ago, after kicking around the idea for a while. According to rhythm guitarist Eric Degenhardt, "We got drunk and talked about being in a band for about a year before it actually happened."
Rounded out by bassist-vocalist J Kane and drummer Robbie Frazer, they've played steadily since, utilizing the Sundown as a home base and incubator for new material. "We started out here just winging it, but it actually sounded really good," Platts says. "We did three or four [shows] and decided maybe we should put some time into this."
That time has begun to pay off, with their brand of Bakersfield-meets-CdA country taking them across the West to gigs in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming — even the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Later this summer, they're taking the twang overseas to France at the EquiBlues Country and Rodeo Festival. "It's Europe's largest rodeo and a helluva good time. Last year, one guy had a T-shirt with an American flag, a Confederate flag and a Canadian flag," Platts says with a chuckle.
Onstage, they've developed the easy confidence and witty banter of a great country band, with a seemingly limitless roster of originals and classic covers, which Platts dips into as he sees fit, depending on the venue and mood.
"If it's a [longer] bar/dance night, we'll play what people know — old honky-tonk — but if it's a shorter, 90-minute set, we'll do mostly originals," he says.
Platts anchors the group with his smooth baritone delivery and effortless guitar playing, switching between lead and rhythm and playing call-and-response with his own vocals. Both classic hot country playing and smoother, jazz-inflected Western swing licks are in steady supply.
It's a repertoire Platts has developed over nearly 20 years on stage. Raised in Saratoga, Wyoming, he started sitting in with his dad's band when he was 9, and worked throughout high school at the family's custom guitar company, Stonetree Guitars. (Sam's father, Scott Platts, is the guitarist with Texas Twister.) Later, upon hearing Texas legend Dale Watson at a Denver gig, he committed to music full time and promptly quit his 9-to-5.
With that pedigree, it's hard to imagine him doing anything but play country music, but even he acknowledges the difference between the traditional style in which he plays and the glossier version that passes for country on TV and radio.
"I just don't care anymore," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, they're two different genres, you know? They can do their thing and I'll do mine." ♦
Sam Platts & the Kootenai Three play Volume on Sat, May 31, at 7 pm at Irv's Outdoor Stage • 415 W. Sprague • 21+