Any excuse to wear cowboy boots

Athens, Ga. is roughly the size of Asheville, and they managed R.E.M. — so when will Asheville produce an indie-flavored band with such explosive potential? (After all, the once-rigid barrier separating Top-40 pop and its po-mo counterpart is subtly coming apart, a point proven this week by the Shins’ two-night engagement at the Orange Peel — a coup previously reserved only for monster jam bands.)

“That’s going to be us — the next R.E.M.,” promises Kate MacCurdy, vocalist for local twang-rockers Sugar and the Plums. Who, by the way, share nothing sound-wise with Michael Stipe’s band, then or now, though they do boast a certain vintage-inspired fashion sense.

“I feel like Sugar and the Plums is accessible — the sound,” says guitarist/vocalist Gabe Johnson. “That’s important to me — that music belongs to everyone. That’s what pop music is: It’s music for the masses.”

In one light, Johnson and MacCurdy are the masses. They’re a young married couple with a baby. They work blue-collar jobs and aren’t making a living from their music. Yet.

And, for MacCurdy, this music business is a new thing, something she never saw herself doing. “Gabe and Jeremy [Powers, slide guitarist] wanted to start a band like the Avett Brothers,” she recalls of Sugar and the Plums’ inception two years ago. (The band also features Eamon Martin on bass and Michael Goode on banjo.) “I told Gabe I wanted to be in a country band and wear cowboy boots. He said, ‘You should be in our band.'”

The group’s tentative start came at a house party, with MacCurdy nervously debuting three cover songs, one of which was the achy-breaky classic “Jolene.”

Today, that chestnut — sung with a dirge-y darkness — is the only cover to be found on the band’s self-produced CD, A Year’s Time (2005).

MacCurdy and Johnson share writing credits for the rest of their material. “I mostly write songs when I’m in the car,” she reveals. “That’s something else I never thought I’d do — write songs.”

The CD’s second offering, “Sleazy,” is perhaps its most catchy. The melody is a driving blend of muted-grunge urgency and gut-wrenching minor keys. Slide guitar fuses with banjo, providing an effect more country-Gothic than line-danceable.

And then there’s the murmur of ambiguous sexuality — not the norm, even in “alt” country: “Julie was my first heartbreak/ Emily my first mistake./ But when I met Tom/ I knew I’d never be the same,” Gabe chimes in on “Sleazy.”

But they also do sleepy, haunting melancholy, as in “Sympathy” and the spooky, banjo-driven “Winter Blues.”

“We started recording this in November of 2003,” says Johnson. “So it’s been a long time. Now we have about two albums’ worth of new songs.”

A Year’s Time was recorded by Candice Lazarou (of the now-defunct group Congratulations) at UNCA. Since the album was Lazarou’s semester project, Sugar and the Plums didn’t have to pay recording costs. For this DIY couple, even juggling band duties with baby raising apparently poses no significant problems.

“Jackson likes coming to shows,” claims MacCurdy. I practiced so much when I was pregnant that he got to know the songs.”

“I feel like when he was born, I just got better at everything,” Johnson adds. “It totally improved my songwriting.”

Then he lets a little reality creep in: “When you have a kid, time is really precious. You have to get serious because there’s no time for bulls••t.”

With a new drummer, Josh Carpenter, in tow (their former drummer, in an impressively indie move, took off for India), Sugar and the Plums seems poised to get serious — at least on the local level.

Sugar and the Plums play a CD-release party at the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Thursday, April 28, with Wayne Robbins & the Hellsayers. 9 p.m. $5. 232-5800.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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