Jenny Don’t and the Spurs | Interview | New Album, ‘Fire On The Ridge’
Since their formation in 2012, Jenny Don’t and The Spurs have kept a relentless schedule of recording and touring. The band recently released ‘Fire On The Ridge,’ out via Fluff And Gravy Records.
The Spurs were founded one cold, winter’s evening by Jenny and Kelly. Jenny had been fronting her own band, DON’T, for some time, as well as playing the occasional solo acoustic set here and there. Kelly, who had been in a slew of Portland punk bands since the 80’s, and who had spent the previous several years balancing a grueling touring schedule playing drums with the garage rock trio Pierced Arrows and bass with Portland punk-rock destroyers P.R.O.B.L.E.M.S., and wanted to switch gears a bit.
After the concept of forming a raw, real, and back-to-the-roots country band had taken hold, it wasn’t long before the couple was rehearsing a seminal set of standards by such influential early country crooners and outlaws like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Sr., as well as a sprinkling of originals.
On December 15th the band released EP ‘Lovesick Crawl’ via Bandcamp.
How did Jenny Don’t And The Spurs come about ten years ago?
Kelly Halliburton: Well, it started off when Jenny and I decided that we wanted to make music together. We were both in our own bands – I was playing in Pierced Arrows with Fred and Toody Cole (from the legendary Portland garage rock band Dead Moon) and my punk band P.R.O.B.L.E.M.S., and Jenny was playing in her own band, DON’T. Our respective bands were keeping us on the road quite a bit, but we wanted to make music together during our down time. We really didn’t have any real aspirations or any kind of solid plan for doing anything beyond just having fun and possibly playing some local bars. So, at first it was just Jenny and I sitting at our kitchen table with acoustic instruments learning mostly covers of country standards. Jenny had already been playing this kind of stuff – Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn, that sort of thing – at a couple of places around town, so she already had a batch of songs to work on.
At some point, I happened to mention in passing to my bandmates, Fred and Toody, that Jenny and I had started playing together. At that time Fred and Toody had started doing solo acoustic performances, playing stripped-down versions of their past catalog – Dead Moon, Rats, and Pierced Arrows songs – and they had an upcoming show at a local club called the Ash Street Saloon, which was a medium-sized venue that was having a lot of good, well-attended shows at that time. So, when I mentioned mine and Jenny’s kitchen-table project, it planted a seed in their heads, and, unknown to either Jenny or me, they decided to add us to the bill at this show. The next time I ran into them, they just kind of casually mentioned that, oh, by the way – you’re playing with us at Ash Street in a couple of weeks…this came as quite a surprise! Jenny and I were not even close to being ready, and to say that we sounded rough would have been pure flattery. We weren’t ready to back down from the challenge, though, so we doubled up on our practicing and added a handful of originals to round out our set. There was still something missing, though, so we invited our friend, the legendary Portland drummer Sam Henry to sit in with us to help keep time. Sam had, already at this point, had had more than four decades of involvement in the Portland music scene. He had been a founding member of the seminal punk band The Wipers back in the 70’s, and had been actively playing, touring, and recording in bands ever since. At the time, he was playing drums for Jenny’s band, DON’T, and he was a close friend of ours, so it was a natural fit for him to step in. We decided to keep things stripped-down, though, and Sam stuck to the basic set-up of a snare and brushes. After a few practices, we felt we could give a passable performance, and we played the Ash Street show to a large and enthusiastic crowd. It was a little scary – we were all used to being backed up by full bands and loud, amplified instruments, so we felt a little exposed and vulnerable with our acoustic guitars and minimal percussion! But it was fun, and the response we got was positive enough to encourage us to continue. Slowly, and bit-by-bit, we kept adding elements to flesh out our sound: Sam added a kick, then a hi-hat, and, eventually ended up with a full kit, Jenny and I gradually switched to electric (albeit mostly hollow or semi-hollow body) guitars, and at some point we started inviting guitar-playing friends to sit in with us at our shows. It was a gradual transformation, and it took a few years, but it’s been a long, fun road from a kitchen-table acoustic two-piece to the fully amplified, high-volume twang attack that we are today!
“This latest album is our favorite so far”
I would love to discuss your latest album, ‘Fire On The Ridge,’ how long did you work on it and what’s the typical recording process for you?
Jenny Connors: This latest album is our favorite so far, but it was a long and difficult series of events that had to be endured before it saw the light of day. Everything started out like it usually does – I wrote the basic songs and recorded them acoustically on my phone and, after working through them to my satisfaction, I presented them to the guys at practice. It took a while to come up with a full album’s worth of material because it seemed like there was always something going on to distract us from working out new material: always a show to practice for, or a tour to go on…but finally, in the spring of 2019 we were ready to go. We’d agreed to release the record on the local label Fluff and Gravy, and the label co-owner John Shepski had a studio in the basement of the Northeast Portland home that he lived in with his wife and kids. So, we loaded into the studio and got to work.
The basic tracking progressed fine, but I had started to have some problems with my voice. It felt scratchy sometimes, and I felt like I wasn’t hitting some of the higher ranges that I was used to hitting. Eventually I went to see a doctor about it, and to my dismay, he told me that I had polyps on my vocal cords! It wasn’t anything too serious, it wasn’t like it was cancerous or anything like that, but it was definitely affecting my voice. At the time I was bartending at a venue that hosted both live music and DJ events, so it was a loud environment where I was forced to shout over the music in order to communicate with the customers…this was straining my voice and making things worse, and if this kept up there was a chance that I’d ruin my vocal cords altogether and never be able to sing the way I was used to doing. We agreed on a course of vocal cord therapy – voice exercises, as well as long periods of silence at home where I wasn’t able to speak for weeks at a time. In the long term, the doctor recommended surgery and a change in jobs to something which didn’t involve as much shouting. The band had a lot of things on the books at that point – including a tour in Europe in the spring of 2019 and a busy summer full of shows afterwards – so I couldn’t just drop everything and take time off for the surgery and the period of recovery that would follow, but we agreed to schedule an operation for the fall, when everything started to calm down. So, we recorded the initial tracks and most of the lead guitar parts and decided to hold off on recording the vocals until after I had my surgery, some six months away.
Those six months passed quickly, and our European tour (our third so far) was great, and we had an amazing summer of regional shows. My voice wasn’t as good as it should have been, but it was a lot less noticeable in a live environment than it would have been on the record. I had my surgery in the fall as scheduled and it was fine, and I spent a very quiet month or so at home while my vocal cords healed. In early 2020 I was healed, rested, and ready to go. We had a string of local shows, as well as a trip to Iceland for a couple of shows in Reykjavik, in which to get back up to speed vocally, and then we were ready to go in the studio to lay down my tracks. We showed up at John’s house on the day that we were scheduled to start tracking the vocals and got ready to get to work…John fired up the computer and went to load the raw tracks – and nothing happened. He tried again, but for some reason the files with all of the album tracks that we’d laid down a year before were gone. They’d simply vanished. Nobody is quite sure what happened to them, but at some point the tracks disappeared into digital oblivion and they haven’t been heard from since. So, annoyed but not completely discouraged, we loaded all of our gear back into the studio and began the long, tedious process of re-recording our album. It all worked out for the better in the end, though, since there were a few things that we’d decided to change in the songs, and we all felt that the playing was better the second time around. Unfortunately, fate wasn’t finished with us yet, and we all know what happened in early spring of 2020…along with the world pretty much shutting down due to the pandemic, Covid stopped our recordings in their tracks as well. At that early point in the pandemic, nobody knew exactly what was going on or how seriously we should take things, but we all pretty much agreed that hanging out in a cramped basement studio was probably not a great idea. Eventually we managed to record everything, though, and by the fall of 2020 we were ready to start mixing…and then the water heater in the basement that housed the studio ruptured, flooding everything and shutting things down – AGAIN. Luckily, this time the tracks had been backed-up and they were fine, but everything had to wait for the cleanup and for the studio to be rebuilt before we could mix.
So, that’s the story of ‘Fire on the Ridge’s’ rocky beginnings…finally, though, it came out in June of 2021 and we’re still pretty happy with it.
How would you compare it to your previous album, ‘Call Of The Road’?
Kelly Halliburton: It’s a different album altogether…different studio, different guitar player, and also because we had less time to record and mix it. The mixed-blessing of having all of the first-run tracks for Fire on the Ridge disappear was that, in recording it the first time, we had essentially demo-ed the whole LP, which was something we’d never had the luxury of doing in the past. Whenever we record something, we take it home and we’ll listen to it over and over and pick it apart. There are always so many things that we could have done differently, or things that could have been played better, but normally, on our shoestring budget, we just don’t have the chance to go back and do it again. Call of the Road is a good example of that…there’s a lot of things that we’d probably arrange in a different way, and we could have spent more time mixing it, but it is what it is and it’s still a good snapshot of where we were at that time as a band. I don’t think, though, that any band is COMPLETELY happy with the material that comes out. We’re all our own worst critics.
If I understand correctly, you’re just back from the tour? How did it go?
Jenny Connors: We’ve done three tours of the Western US states this year, and this most recent one that we did was great – definitely one of our favorites so far. We played a bunch of places that we’d never been to before: Bisbee Arizona, Terlingua Ghost Town in Southeast Texas, and some more – seeing old friends and meeting new ones, that’s what makes this all worthwhile.
I’m sure you all missed playing live?
Kelly Halliburton: You mean during the pandemic? Definitely. We had to cancel so many things that we were looking forward to – we had an Alaskan tour booked (we’d toured there in 2018 and LOVED it), a southern European / Mediterranean region tour, and a bunch of shows around the Pacific Northwest. It was hard for us, and really discouraging, especially since we didn’t know how or IF all of this stuff would resolve itself. Locally, we had been a bit spoiled by Portland’s great music culture and all of the city’s cool clubs and venues, and nobody had any idea whether any of these places would survive being closed down for so long. Building Portland’s music scene up had taken decades of hard work by so many people, and to think of everything collapsing was just heartbreaking. In a way, though, we were lucky that we’d never relied on the band for our income, and Jenny and I still had our day jobs and were able to pay our rent and bill through all of this. We were lucky – a lot of people we know really struggled through this period.
But not being able to play live or tour was rough, and we didn’t do much during 2020 and most of 2021. A lot of bands started doing online stuff, livestreams and that sort of thing, but we were never really comfortable doing that. For one thing, we just didn’t have the gear for it – recording something on our phones seemed really hokey, and, even if we did have decent cameras and the skills and editing software to put something together, to be brutally honest most of what we saw from other bands looked kind of like bad 90’s cable-access shows. I mean, there’s a certain charm with that sort of thing, but we didn’t want to go that route. We caved in and did a couple live streams for friends that approached us, but for the most part we just laid low and worked on new material.
Luckily, it all came to an end for us when, in the spring of 2021, Charley Crockett’s booking team approached us out of the blue and asked if we wanted to be the support for his summer tour. WE JUMPED at the opportunity and spent most of summer 2021 on the road, both playing with him and playing our own shows. It was great to be out there playing after more than a year of inactivity.
Who are some of your personal favorite bands that you’ve had a chance to play with over the past few years?
Kelly Halliburton: Well, we really had fun touring with Charley Crockett and his gang – really nice people and very supportive. We’ve made a lot of friends over the years in different towns around the country – we really love playing with Brea Burns when we’re in Arizona, Noelle and the Deserters and Aaron Burnham and the Brushfires when we’re in the Bay Area. Earlier this year, in the spring, we toured for a couple of weeks with sisters Gwenny and Lucy, who performed as Dog Party, and they were a lot of fun. Here at home we play a lot with our pals Roselit Bone (with whom we released a split 7” back in 2016), who are an incredible, indescribable, devastating soundscape, and who absolutely kill it live. We really loved playing, too, with the now sadly defunct Federale, who played some amazing cinematic Morricone-inspired stuff. Great band…they’re broken up, but I highly recommend picking up their recorded material.
“We’ve got a busy bunch of months coming up”
What’s next for you?
Jenny Connors: We’ve got a busy bunch of months coming up – we’re leaving at the beginning of November to play a string of dates in Australia and New Zealand. Then, when we get home, we’ll be touring coast-to-coast early in 2023, with a stop in Memphis where we’ve been nominated for the Ameripolitan Music awards in the “Outlaw Group” category (vote for us at https://www.ameripolitan.org/vote). Later in the spring we’ll be heading to Europe for our tour there, and that will be followed by a lot of regional shows and more US touring in late summer. Stay tuned, we’ll definitely be playing near you!
Kelly Halliburton: Somewhere in the middle of this, we’ll be working on our next album. In the meantime, though, we’ve got a couple of releases on the way – a 12” EP coming out on Missing Fink records (Augusta, Georgia) and a compilation album of our early, out-of-print singles coming out on our own Doomtown Sounds Records.
Let’s end this interview with some of your favourite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
Kelly Halliburton: Well, I’m kind of a record junkie – I’ve been collecting records since I was a kid, and Jenny and I live in a house full of music. The vast majority of what we listen to is decades old, but sometimes we stumble across a release by a contemporary band that we like. A recent discovery for us was another country artist named Rob Leines, who puts on a great live show…almost more Southern Rock than country.
But, like I said, most of what we listen to is decades old and spans a pretty vast range stylistically: everything from 60’s truck drivin’ songs to early 80’s European / UK punk rock, from Lee Hazlewood to the Ventures to Australian garage to Japanese hardcore to 50’s US rockabilly. We’re all over the place. Anything that’s played with passion and sincerity floats our boats.
Thank you. Last word is yours.
Jenny Connors: Thanks so much, we really appreciate the support! If anyone reading this wants to check us out or get in touch, don’t hesitate to go to our website.
Thanks, and we’ll see you on the road!
Headline photo: Christina Iveli