“The Plank guitar came from me wanting to mix together the two worlds of bluegrass dobro and the sacred steel tradition, and my whole last album was dedicated to that one instrument — to get it out there,” he says. “SoulSlide also really helped put me on the map as a solo artist, which is why I’ve moved on to focusing more on doing my own thing and only doing a side gig once in a while when I really want to, with people that I really respect. But now, with Sleeping Dogs, I wanted to take a bigger look at how the whole world of music is available to me; it’s not about just one guitar or sound, but rather about using all of the instruments I play and bringing all of my influences together — and about really wanting to bring my songwriting to the forefront.”
To that end, there are no covers on the new album, but half of the songs were born out of co-writing sessions with a handful of his longtime friends including his co-producer (and bandmate in Austin’s the Resentments) Newcomb, Gabriel Rhodes, Miles Zuniga, Jon Dee Graham, and of course Hubbard — the “Wylie Llama” of Americana/Texas music, who Plankenhorn still credits as his personal gateway to the whole scene. “Pretty much everyone I’ve ever played with is like, one degree of separation away from Ray,” he marvels with a laugh. It was also Hubbard who set Plankenhorn straight years ago when he doubted his own merits as a songwriter.
“I had just started out playing some of my own songs at these little acoustic gigs, but I remember telling him, ‘Ray, I don’t think I should be doing this — I’m just a side guy.’ And he said, ‘Where’s your proof? Are people coming to your shows? Are people listening to your songs? Yes? Well, there’s your proof.’”
Naturally, the song Plankenhorn and Hubbard cooked up together, a satisfyingly greasy howler called “Tooth and Nail,” just happens to be all about the not-for-the-timid troubadour path and the discipline of songwriting, without so much as a grain of sugar to sweeten the pot. “We had already written a good portion of the song when he came back to me and said, ‘It’s like an old cat having kittens / You just crawl under the porch and do it,’ which is a very Ray line,” Plankenhorn says. “But what’s cool is there were other lines where his wife, Judy, was like, ‘Ray must have written that,’ and I was like, ‘Ha, no, that was me!’”
And the Hubbard-certified gnarled blues of “Tooth and Nail” is just one of a handful of different styles Plankenhorn makes his own on Sleeping Dogs. Both the hurricane Harvey-inspired “Further to Fall” (co-written with Rhodes) and the closing “Heaven on Earth,” Plankenhorn’s awestruck tribute to his wife’s transcendent love of nature, hit the same deep, soulful notes that defined his last album (with that trusty Plank guitar put to especially righteous use on the latter song). But there’s also “This Guitar,” a disarmingly folky, listening-room-ready paean to the workhorse acoustic Martin that’s been his go-to writing guitar ever since it was anonymously gifted to him not long after he first moved to Texas. And perhaps most surprising of all (even to Plankenhorn himself), there’s even a few free-spirited ventures into buoyantly catchy, unabashedly poppy rock ’n’ roll.
“I had already recorded a few rhythm tracks before this, but the day that Scrappy first came to the studio was also the day that Tom Petty died — and somehow, everything just kind of shifted that day,” he says. “Not on the entire album, but for a good portion of it, there were discussions of like, ‘What would Mike Campbell do on this guitar part?’ And out of that, some of the songs like ‘Sleeping Dogs’ and ‘I Don’t Know Anything’ really changed and moved into more of a roots-rock thing. Which wasn’t something I was expecting — I mean, it came out of nowhere — but I loved it.”
That wouldn’t be the last happy surprise, either. The stately, hymn-like “Holy Lightning,” an arresting co-write with Newcomb and Zuniga (of Fastball fame), actually almost didn’t make the final cut. “I had started that one myself but just really wasn’t digging it, so I took it to Miles and Scrappy in the studio, and between the three of us we completely reworked it from scratch over a couple of hours,” he recalls. “But even then I still wasn’t entirely about it. But then Scrappy sent the demo to Patty Griffin, and she goes, ‘I want to sing on this!’ As soon as she said that, I was like, ‘Well, I’m definitely putting it on the album now!’”
Needless to say, “Holy Lightning” is now one of his favorite songs on the record. Not that there’s a single track that he’s not proud of on Sleeping Dogs, which is a testament both to the positive experience he had recording it and the confidence he feels going forward into the next stage of his career. And should he even find himself second-guessing his conviction on that solo sojourn, well, he’s already written his own anthem to sing his way through the doubt.
“When I wrote ‘Sleeping Dogs,’ I got this image of sleeping dogs lying, and how I need to let shit go,” he explains. “I literally took a lot of things that I’m really bad at or think I’m really bad at, and told myself, ‘If I sing this for a year or two on tour, it may make me better at these things; maybe I won’t take stuff personally, won’t let things get me down.’ And I thought, ‘Maybe somebody else will hear this song and maybe it will help them, too.’ And I really like that idea: I like the idea of writing songs that have a little moral imperative to them.”
Some would call that a sense of purpose. Or, as Hubbard put it best to Plankenhorn way back at the start of his journey, “There’s your proof.”