Joseph Running Crane found himself back in Browning for the winter some four years ago, for much longer than he had anticipated.
The musician — who moved to Missoula with his rez-punk band Godammitboyhowdy before creating the noise rock outfit King Elephant — started writing songs in his parents’ house on an acoustic guitar with the goal of finishing a song a week.
“As a means to stay from going crazy, and to stay away from worse habits, that was the impetus,” Running Crane said.
Many of those tunes made it onto his first solo album named after that winter on the Blackfeet Reservation, “Dog Winter,” which was released in September.
“This is definitely the first earnest attempt putting my name on something, putting my stamp on it,” Running Crane said. “Our mantra was kind of ‘crucify the ego.’ ”
Running Crane recorded in 2018 at Aaron Jennings’ home studio Listening Hat, along with upright bass player John West and drummer Michael Bustamante, who played in Running Crane's former backing band the Dirty Birds. Jennings, also of the Dirty Birds, provided pedal steel and dobro solos.
After years of playing punk, noise and country-punk, Running Crane fully transitioned to a western Americana singer-songwriter sound after spending time with a friend’s country band, who inundated him with history and country education that helped him fall in love with the genre.
He added that, even after playing punk shows in his early days in Missoula, many after-parties were still soundtracked by country music.
“By virtue of being in Montana, you can’t get away from that style of music,” Running Crane said. At this point, “I feel uncomfortable working in any other style, which probably isn’t good.”
The style suits Running Crane, however, whose voice can shapeshift from song to song from a low husky drawl (very Jason Isbell) to a more high-pitched Hank Williams whine. His guitar playing, and his backing band’s accompaniment, provide bright, shuffling licks and rhythms to soundtrack the hangdog lyrics.
Many of the album standouts — “Well Worn,” “Neon Blue,” "Someday You Won’t Remember Me” — came from the Browning winter writing session.
“Anything that has themes to do with cold and heartbreak,” Running Crane said.
There are two cover tunes, Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End” (only available on physical CD) and “When the Fire Goes Out,” written by J. Daniel Kane of Sam Platts and the Great Plainsmen.
“That was included for thematic purposes, but it was really the saddest goddamn thing I’d ever heard,” Running Crane said. “The ideas of heartbreak, winter, the changing of the seasons, they just coalesced into something.”
Running Crane spent the summer of 2019 in a “human jukebox” band, playing gigs where audience-requested covers would make up the set list. At one point, his bass player showed him a documentary he’d made on rez dogs as a school project.
“One thing a guy said really stuck with me,” Running Crane remembered. “When you see all these stray dogs hanging around all these homeless people, those are their drinking buddies that came back.”
He found even more poetry in the history of his tribe, one of the few that held dogs sacred.
The ideas coalesced into “Dog Winter,” which, in its 30-some-minute run time limps along with swing rhythms and stuttering guitar solos like the three-legged dog on its cover, who is beaten down but keeps on, like the sad sack narrator of “I’d Be a Singin’ Man,” who pleads, “I’d be a singin’ man/if you’d forgive a fool like me.”