When Jeff Plankenhorn, arguably one of the busiest and most highly regarded guitar players on the Austin music scene, tells you that he “hardly ever takes sideman gigs anymore,” take it with a grain of salt.
Yes, it’s true he’s made a concerted effort to carve out more time for his own solo career ever since issuing his breakout second studio set, 2016’s SoulSlide — and he aims to find even more of that “me time” come the May 4, 2018 release of his new album, Sleeping Dogs on Spike Steel Records.But as far as scaling back on the whole sideman thing goes … bear in mind that there’s a big difference between “hardly ever” and never. Namely, the former still leaves the guy just enough wiggle room to happily say “yes” when legends (and friends) on the level of Ray Wylie Hubbard or the Flatlanders need a can-do guitar man for a sold-out theater engagement. Or, say, when fellow A-list Austin sideman “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb — the MVP co-producer of Sleeping Dogs — finds out he can’t make it to a very special Johnny Nicholas gig in Hawaii, and asks “Plank” if he’d be up for subbing for him. Who in their right mind is going to say no to that?
Plankenhorn still selectively takes those kinds of calls not because he gets them, but because he’s earned them. For the better part of the last 17 years, ever since he first moved to Texas with nothing to his name but a Geo Prism, $100, seven guitars and the generous hospitality of Ray and Judy Hubbard, the gifted multi-instrumentalist from Columbus, Ohio has busted ass to prove himself not just able and willing, but above all worthy of playing with the best of the best. And the reason so many song poets like Hubbard and Joe Ely like having Plank at their side is not just because of his prodigious chops on all things stringed (especially those played with a slide), but because of his intuitive knack for knowing when to hold back, always allowing the singer room to land a lyric and go for the proverbial kill. “That’s just part of the skill set I learned very early on: ‘When in doubt, layout,’” Plankenhorn explains with a chuckle. “That joke about knowing when not to play? It’s true.”
Not surprisingly, that particular skill — along with myriad other lessons in the finer points of songcraft that he’s picked up from sharing stages with the masters — has come to greatly inform Plankenhorn’s own music over the years. But it’s never been more apparent than it is on Sleeping Dogs. Make no mistake: Plank plays a lot of guitar on the album, along with pedal steel, piano, upright bass and seemingly anything else he could lay his hands on during the sessions at the Zone recording studio just outside of Austin. But in stark contrast to SoulSlide, which by his own admission was by design a showcase for his custom-designed lap slide guitar, a patented “Frankenstein” beauty he calls “the Plank,” Sleeping Dogs is first and foremost all about the songs.