The din of daily life in New York City can have the effect of obscuring hard work so that labors of love seem to appear out of nowhere. For the past year, country band Bourbon Express and producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (Steve Earle, Joan Jett) have been recording the band’s debut studio album, Cry About It Later, set to be released this spring, behind the well-insulated walls of Cowboy Technical Services Recording Rig in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Bourbon Express was impressed by Ambel’s work with artists such as Maynard and the Musties, The Bottle Rockets, Sarah Borges, and Jack Grace. “It seemed like a good fit sonically, and also, honestly, I really like the name Cowboy Technical,” explains singer-songwriter, Katie Curley. Now that she and her bandmates have spent a year in the competent hands of Mr. Ambel, they have nothing but good things to say about his methods and manner. “It’s nerve-racking to entrust your songs to someone else, but Roscoe was pretty laid back and inclusive. We never felt like it was his way or the highway.”
While actual days in the studio amount to about two weeks, there have been many stops and starts along the way due to conflicting schedules and financial hurdles. “We wrestled with the idea of launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund at least part of the process, but ultimately felt that we’d rather do it ourselves and have a finished product to offer people before asking for money.” Curley laughs and adds, “That meant that my husband (guitarist Brendan Curley) and I each took second jobs and ate ramen more often than we would have liked for about a year.”
Ms. and Mr. Curley met at a bar called A Bar in 2011 where they discovered that they were not only from the same part of the country–Washington State, the town of Home and city of Tacoma, to be exact–but that they shared an uncannily similar taste in music. “I didn’t believe him when he told me that he liked all the country musicians I liked. We were in Brooklyn in the twenty-first century comparing notes on Kitty Wells and Ernest Tubb, and I thought he was just trying to pick me up, so I didn’t return his call,” says Ms. Curley. A few weeks later, however, she found herself in a pickle when she was invited to perform at the now defunct Rodeo Bar and she didn’t have a band. She remembered her fleeting companion’s words at the bar, “I could add any number of instruments to your sound,” and sent him a message asking if he would be interested in the gig. After a few years of playing in various band configurations, the couple, now married, formed Bourbon Express with vocalist Sarah Kinsey and bassist/harmony singer Andrew Dykeman.
Ms. Curley first approached Ambel to produce Cry About It Later in the summer of 2016. They met at his studio where she recalls, “We were just back from touring Appalachia, and I had lost my voice. He was just back from touring Alaska, and he’d picked up a cold that was blocking his eardrums. It was a challenge to communicate!” In spite of the setbacks, the meeting was productive and launched the project. Curley notes that it also inspired the song “Telecaster Man.” “Roscoe entertained me for a few minutes with snippets of his backstory, and because I had mentioned that Brendan and I were fans of Kenny Vaughan, he also threw in snippets of his backstory. I noticed that there were elements in common between all three guitarists’ humble beginnings.” She started penning “Telecaster Man” on the subway ride home and finished it later that day in her apartment.
Curley brought “Telecaster Man” along with eleven other songs she’d written over the course of several years to rehearsal, and the band got to work. At the time, their drummer had just moved to Colorado and harmony singer, Kinsey, had been playing the snare drum at live shows. “Before he moved out of town, I asked our drummer to give Sarah a lesson,” Curley recalls. “Sarah dutifully practiced and got good enough to play live shows, but we needed someone to play a full kit for the recording.” Ambel suggested his longtime friend and colleague, Phil Cimino. Curley recounts her reaction, “I hadn’t imagined such a strong and at times ‘rock’ sound on the drums, but once I heard it, I loved it!”
Bourbon Express invited Jonny Lam (Sinkane, Honeyfingers) to play pedal steel, and Melody Berger (Ganstagrass, The Berger Sisters) to play fiddle. Other instrumentation includes vocal harmonies by Kinsey and Dykeman, captured by engineer Tim Hatfield; Dykeman on bass; B. Curley on piano, mandolin, baritone guitar, electric 12-string, and electric guitars; K. Curley on harp on “Dream Girl;” and Jason Mercer on bass on “Cold Quiet Drink,” which Ambel deems “the campfire song.” For that, the closing track, featuring Ambel on acoustic guitar and Lam on dobro, Ambel brought everyone into the same room to sit or stand in a circle with mics placed just-so by engineer, Mario Viele, and no headphones. Says Ms. Curley of the campfire song, “Once everybody had their parts, I took off my shoes and just sang.”
During the summer of 2017, with tracking on Cry About It Later nearly completed, Bourbon Express received the surprising news that Dykeman was leaving the band to pursue other opportunities. Everyone wished him well, and it was at that point that the title of the record became clear to Curley. “I was thinking about how after nearly three years of playing together and making this record, we would have to shoot the cover without him and it might be kind of sad. Cry About It Later seemed apt.” The cover photography, by friends of the band Alexis Holloway assisted by Gregor Rupret, took place at a steam train museum in the Catskills.
With a new record on deck and new venues and players on tap, the horizon for Bourbon Express looks anything but sad. After a recent mixing session at Cowboy Technical, Ms. and Mr. Curley revisited A Bar, located near the studio, for the first time since their initial encounter there. They recalled the night they met and swapped versions of events. Two whiskies appeared at their fingertips, and they commenced a toast: To Bourbon Express!