As country music has shed its conservative image in the past half-decade, the term “cosmic country” has been popping up a lot. It’s one of those “you know it when you hear it” genres, and though it often doesn’t sound too different from classic honky-tonk, it’s defined more by a sensibility: expansive, mystical, stoned, head-in-the-clouds even as its boots stay firmly planted in the mongrel American dirt that gave us country music.
“Of all the tags you could have, I’m pretty OK with that one,” says Portland singer-songwriter Jeffrey Silverstein. “When people don’t know what that is, they almost have to kind of stop and wonder: I thought I knew what country was.”
But perhaps a more accurate description of Silverstein’s sound can be found in the title of his new album, Western Sky Music, which was released May 12 on Arrowhawk Records. Atmospheric, faintly ambient, and willing to indulge in instrumental flights of fancy, Silverstein’s second full-length reflects the awe of living in a city with some of the most dramatic skies in the country, one that always seems in the midst of being swallowed by nature.
The 35-year-old is a fairly recent Portland transplant, settling in the city in 2018 with his wife. He was born and raised in the suburbs of New Jersey, where he first honed his musical chops playing in garage bands with his close friends.
“It was pretty sleepy,” Silverstein says. “But it was a pretty classic scenario where like a lot of my friends were all picking up guitars or drums or bass around the same time just to find something to do.”
Most of Silverstein’s friends in Jersey were playing pop punk, as teens in the 2000s tended to do. Upon relocating to Baltimore to study journalism at Towson University, he fell in with the city’s hip indie-rock scene, which included artists like Future Islands, Beach House, and Dan Deacon.
Silverstein cut a few recordings as a member of a group called Secret Mountains, then formed a duo called Nassau when he moved to New York to get his master’s degree in special education at Hunter College. Though these bands’ reverb-drenched psych folk gives a clue as to Silverstein’s later direction, he did not think of himself yet as a country artist.
“My friends and I were not listening to country music,” he says. “There was no country music in my house. It’s not part of my DNA, necessarily.”
Though Silverstein’s uncle was a “touring folk musician” with wild stories to tell about country legends like Jerry Jeff Walker and Townes Van Zandt, it was not until Silverstein started collecting records that he discovered his true love of country music.
“The thing you can find most often for the cheapest are country records,” Silverstein says. “It’s a really cool way to start collecting.”
Among his early record-store discoveries were Chet Atkins, the guitar virtuoso who helped popularize the “Nashville sound” that kept country music’s commercial viability alive during the late-1950s rise of rock ‘n’ roll, and the soundtrack to Easy Rider, featuring countercultural freak-folk artists like the Fraternity of Man and Holy Modal Rounders.
Silverstein pays tribute to both influences on separate tracks from his two full-lengths. His 2020 debut album, You Become the Mountain, includes a song called “Easy Rider,” and Western Sky Music features a song called “Chet,” made in collaboration with latter-day Nashville guitar virtuoso William Tyler.
One of the elements that drew Silverstein so strongly to the genre was the sound of the pedal steel guitar. “When I’m digging in dollar bins, a lot of times I’m focused on who the steel player [on a record] was,” he says.
A year after arriving in Portland, Silverstein released his debut EP, How on Earth, on Driftless Recordings. Driftless co-founder Patrick McDermott performs in an ambient duo called North Americans with pedal steel player Barry Walker, and after hearing a few releases with Walker and discovering he was a “Portland guy,” Silverstein called him up.
Walker—also a member of Portland country-psych project Rose City Band—is one of many luminaries to grace the liner notes of Western Sky Music. Others include Tyler, whom Silverstein met through curating a tribute compilation to obscure Detroit musician Ted Lucas, and Tucson folk singer Karima Walker, who sings the final track “Birdsong in the Canopy.”
Though there’s a rich community of Portland artists with bold and forward-thinking takes on country music, Silverstein says it’s not just a local phenomenon. Silverstein finished a U.K. tour last month and was amazed to find English artists like Bobby Lee and Joe Harvey-Whyte performing their own take on “cosmic country.”
“It’s a wild time to be in that pocket of music,” he says. “It’s exciting, and there’s so much of it I genuinely really love and support.”
SEE IT: Jeffrey Silverstein and Fruit Bats play Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark St., 971-808-5094, revolutionhall.com. 8 pm Thursday, May 25. Sold out. 21+.