County Line has been around since 1994, but only just recently released its debut album, “Montana.”
The Missoula outlaw-country and rock band developed a strong following over the years, particularly at the old Elbow Room, where they could keep the dance floor packed with a slate of covers.
The new record, with 10 songs written by vocalist/acoustic guitarist Shawn Christensen and vocalist/guitarist Doug Koester, is their way of embarking on a new phase: a band that plays its own material.
“We were that fun bar band,” Christensen said.
Now, “We’re strictly wanting to get our originals out there,” he said.
Rounding out the group is Stuart Jackson on guitars; Mike Hegwood on bass; and Drew Barker on drums and percussion. Koester, Christensen and Jackson all contribute to the harmony vocals that accent many of the songs.
There have been some games of musical chairs over the years. Christensen, for instance, helped start the band just out of high school and originally was in the drum chair, and all of them have been long-running members at some point in the group’s existence.
For a long while, the band was playing three out of four weekends a month or more, Koester said, making them a staple at the Elbow Room in the old days when the bar was housed in a double-wide trailer.
They were full nights with four-hour sets, Koester said. The band’s job was to keep the dance-floor moving with a slate of familiar songs.
“It was everything from Garth Brooks to countrified rockin’ versions of songs like the Eagles and Merle Haggard and everything in between,” Koester said. (“Between” included some decidedly non-country hits, like Billy Joel’s “You May Right” and Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”)
The sets were long enough to test-drive some originals, though.
“We had a blast. It was a popular band. We always had great crowds and a strong following. We were paid well,” Koester said.
After a while, despite the fun, playing out that often got tiresome.
“The band last finished up the gruesome gigs-all-the-time schedule about three years ago,” Koester said.
The band regrouped after a few years of minimal activity with an eye on their own material.
“Now our emphasis is on our original music and so we’re more picky as to what schedule we work when we play,” Koester said.
He and Christensen wrote the 10 songs on the album, recorded in a single whirlwind weekend at Ryan “Shmed” Maynes’ Club Shmed studio in Missoula.
They’re promoting it this winter and are looking at festivals around the state this spring and summer. They’ve already cut their teeth as an opener for touring country acts like Jake Owen, who played a sold-out show at the Wilma Theatre, and Corb Lund, who played the Badlander in December.
The tunes on “Montana” show off the band’s tight interplay from all those gigs, with country harmonies and guitar leads that have rock-and-blues grit and flash, and reflect the vibe you’d want to keep a trailer’s dance floor full: good times, whiskey, women, and love gone right and wrong.
Christensen’s “Saturday Night” is a feel-good tune about the basics: six-packs, pickups and a date, rendered in a sweeping country feel.
Koester’s “Working Man’s Game” adds more rock for its lyrics about the day in, day out of working life, with six-string work that bares his love of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas blues. Another of his tunes, “Honest Love,” also has a Texas strut for its rough-and-tumble tale of woe.
“There were some songs that Doug wrote when he was in metal bands,” Christensen said. “There’s such a diverse sound in there.”
He said the response has been positive, an encouraging sign for a band that wanted to enter a new phase and was unsure how they’d be viewed.
“I never thought it would be received as well as it has,” Christensen said.
And they have another record in the works. With all that time before the debut, they’d built up a backlog.
One song dates back to when Christensen was only 18 years old. The next set of tunes will have a shorter gestation period: They’ll be back in the studio this spring.
Find out about upcoming County Line shows by following them on Facebook.