by Ryan McDonald
If person is blessed and talented enough to make a career of making music, eventually that person will confront a choice. Some will stay with what works, building a group of devoted fans drawn to an act precisely because the songs don’t change. Most, though, will evolve. Frequently this consists of shedding a musical direction that has grown tiresome in favor of one more current and can seem desperate as a result, like a middle-aged man trying to blend in at a nightclub. Less common is the artist who, blessed with success, stakes out a new path, and ends up sounding more like herself.
Waxahatchee, the name given to the music played and written by Katie Crutchfield, is one of those artists. Waxahatchee released four albums between 2012 and 2017. Each successive album more marked by feedback and fuzz while not obscuring her gorgeous, expressive voice. All were critically adored.
Then came Saint Cloud, her latest album. Released in March 2020, Saint Cloud is essentially a country western album. It was recorded over 10 blazingly hot days at Sonic Ranch Studios in West Texas, with the backing band that joined her from her previous tour. In an interview with Rolling Stone shortly before the album released, she said she wanted to occupy the “powerhouse space” of performers like Lucinda Williams, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.
Despite the shift, Saint Cloud, too, succeeds. It is clean and unfussy, yet resonant and evocative. “Fire,” one of the album’s standouts, begins with a meandering sequence of keyboard tones and a tight, spare drum beat. It sounds like it could be the work of an electronica artist, before a strings section emerges and reminds the listener that, no, this is all the work of some very talented, flesh-and-blood musicians. Inspired by a drive that took her over the Mississippi River, she periodically intones “For some of us it ain’t enough.”
Crutchfield was born in Alabama. (Waxahatchee Creek, which Crutchfield jumps into in a video from her second album, is a tributary of the Coosa River, along the border between Chilton and Shelby Counties in central Alabama.) She played in several punk bands in her teens and early 20s, including one with her twin sister called P.S. Eliot.
Efforts to pin down Waxahatchee’s music — “indie folk” was the ungainly genre into which she was usually slotted — often felt like shorthand for her unique mixture of Southern authenticity and big city production methods. It also fed her resistance to categorization.
“From the outset I always wanted to be difficult to describe. I want to be genreless,” she told Seattle radio station KEXP last fall.
Arriving at the same time as the pandemic means that Waxahatchee has only recently begun to tour on the songs of Saint Cloud. In January, she played with fellow BeachLife act Wilco at a festival the group curates in Mexico. And this summer, she’s playing a pair of shows with Courtney Barnett, the similarly genreless Australian songwriter, and Sleater-Kinney, the reunited band of Riot Grrrls from the Pacific Northwest. In between, she cut “Other Side,” a song Crutchfiled recorded with Wynonna Judd in a studio on Judd’s farm outside Nashville with an airy, improvised spontaneity. (In a video released for the song, both Judd and Crutchfield can be seen reading lyrics from their phones as they sing into the microphone.)
The mixture lends credence to Crutchfield’s portrayal of Saint Cloud as less a change than a process of rediscovery. She told Rolling Stone that Out in the Storm, her previous album was “not super sustainable for me because it’s so loud and abrasive.”
“I needed to have that experience,” she said. “But I also knew I was going to need to take a sharp turn on the next one.”
Waxahatchee plays BeachLife Ranch September 16.