Cowpunk is one of those musical-genre names that sticks around because it's so fun to say. The term describes bands that don't necessarily sound much alike aside from merging punk energy and twang, the latter of which is nebulous.
"The cow can be kind of hard to pin down," says Eryn DeSomer. "The punk is easier to find."
Friends have accused DeSomer of making up the word to describe White Rose Motor Oil, the two-piece she fronts with husband Keith Hoerig on drums.
"One time I told somebody we called ourselves cowpunk," DeSomer recalls. "He says, 'You can't just make things up!' I said, 'I promise, this is something people call themselves!'"
She's not lying. The name has been around for decades. It's almost as old as punk itself.
"Then it went away and kind of just became alt-country, and now there's a little bit of it coming back," Hoerig says. You have bands like Lone Justice, which was called cowpunk in the ’80s. They sound nothing like the Vandoliers, which are out right now and call themselves cowpunk."
Cowpunk and alt-country are both apt ways to describe the sound on White Rose Motor Oil's forthcoming album, You Can't Kill Ghosts. The couple has also called it garage country, a giggle-inducing name that nonetheless works pretty well to describe this music.
The new album is a stripped-down affair that recalls Van Lear Rose, Loretta Lynn's gritty collaboration with former White Stripes frontman Jack White. DeSomer's untamed contralto vocals evoke The Virginian-era Neko Case. The White Rose vocalist has had no formal training, and says her interest in singing country music springs from a lot of ’90s country radio, people like Reba McEntire and the Chicks.
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"If you type in '’90s country playlist' on Pandora, whoever pops up on that, that's who I grew up listening to," she says. "I grew up in Washington state, so there was nothing close to anything twangy around me. But I also grew up in the country. I rode horses. It was pretty rural."
She eventually found her twang, because the songs on You Can't Kill Ghosts are twangy as hell. They are also quite sad at moments, but not exactly crying-in-your-beer music, either. DeSomer says that she dug into her personal life — growing up, complicated parental figures, etc. — to craft the songs on the album.
"In the past, I've written a lot of songs that are just a silly story or whatever," says DeSomer. "On this one, I feel I really wrote a lot of things that were actual events from my life. It got a little dark. It's definitely not a perky album."
The album is a followup to the duo's earlier EPs Suburban Horses and One for the Ages. Suburban Horses has a more overt cowpunk sound, which they attribute to not being as good with their instruments early on. Both earlier releases feature a more polished production, however, and they strove for a raw sound on the new record. They keep to that in their live shows, though they do bring a harmonizer pedal DeSomer uses for richer vocals.
"We were really green," she says of their earlier work. "Obviously, we've made albums before with other bands, but we hadn't done one with just the two of us. We didn't know quite how it was going to translate."
The debut single from You Can't Kill Ghosts, "We Will Rise," took several years to write, and DeSomer says it started as a song about an internal struggle, keeping with the other tracks on the album. Although they don't address any specific current event, the lyrics were tweaked before the final recorded version to make the song less personal and more universal in its message. There's just a lot going on right now in the United States, and it was hard for them to ignore. The lyrics took on new meaning as a result.
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"Stuff was happening with Black Lives Matter, and with all those things going on. We were like, 'We really need to change [the lyrics],'" she says. "We changed the last verse to be about solidarity and rising up together." (The band also asks that listeners support Black Lives Matter, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union.)
DeSomer and Hoerig were members of Denver bands the Jekkyls and the Hollyfelds in years past, and DeSomer says the two-piece format they now employ originally sprang from necessity. But it's working out well having just two people living under one roof, especially with a global pandemic currently in progress. They say it's also fun to get to play music with the one you love.
"We had a good time playing with other people," DeSomer says. "We hit a point where we were like what we really want to be able to do is just the two of us pick up and go whenever we want and play whatever shows we want to do, and only be reliant on what the two of us bring to the table."
You Can't Kill Ghosts drops on September 18 and will be available on Bandcamp. The singles "We Will Rise" and "Will Not Fade Away" are available now. White Rose Motor Oil has a live performance at 5 p.m. on August 29 in downtown Loveland, at East 4th Street and Railroad Avenue.