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ACL Fest 2011: Cowboy and Indian

1 p.m. Saturday, Austin Ventures stage

Peter Mongillo

A year and a half ago during South by Southwest, Jazz Mills, a former member of Austin funk group T Bird and the Breaks, was asked to play a solo acoustic set at a day party. Not having much material or experience with that type of performance, she didn't really want to do it. To ease the burden a bit, she asked her new friend, actor Jesse Plemons, to sit in. Aside from his role as Crucifictorious frontman Landry Clarke on "Friday Night Lights," he had written a few of his own songs.

"I said, ‘Hey Jesse, why don't you play this show with me because I don't want to do it by myself, because you have more material than I do and I'll just be your backup singer,' " Mills says.

Plemons accepted the invitation, and it went over well enough that friends urged them to play more shows. Mills had worn face paint and braided her hair for the show, and since Plemons is "kind of a cowboy," they jokingly called themselves Cowboy and Indian. The name stuck, and so did the project. Within months, they had booked a tour and hit the road. On Saturday, they'll play a set before one of their largest audiences so far at ACL Festival.

A lot of things have changed during the band's short existence. When Cowboy and Indian first went out on tour, Plemons was a working actor and they still didn't have much material. To beef up the lineup, they picked up a third member, Daniel James of San Francisco roots rock band Leopold and His Fiction. Since then, they've added three more members: Peder Gilham, Dorian Colbert and Stephanie Hunt, who introduced Mills and Plemons (she knew Mills as a fellow member of T Bird in the Breaks and worked with Plemons on "Friday Night Lights").

For Mills, the growth of the band is one part of the whirlwind that has been the last 18 months, during which the band has managed to record one album and enough material for a second, despite being on the road most of the time.

"Basically everything that's happened to our band so far has been us just trying to keep up with ourselves," she says. "We had no intentions of starting a band, but then people kind of liked it, and then we had a tour booked, and by the time we got done with that tour we had another tour booked, and we just never really stopped touring, and eventually recorded an album over the last year and a half in four or five different states."

That album still hasn't been released. The band is trying to figure out the best way to do that, whether it's with a label or independently. They have put out two singles, "Troubled Tracks" and "Ledbellies," which differ pretty dramatically in style. "Troubled Tracks" is a slow, sparse country lament, with Plemons taking the lead with a sad croon not completely unlike a "Heartbreaker" era Ryan Adams. "Ledbellies (Hurt My Pride)" is a different beast, an old-timey, toe tapping blues number with James and Mills taking vocal duties.

The band takes pride in their diverse style, according to Mills, who says that her tastes are rooted more in Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby and "things that are vocally and melodically driven." James is more rock-inclined, she says, while Plemons tends to draw from Hank Williams or singer songwriters like Townes Van Zandt. It's a difference that is reflected on the upcoming album. The writing process for the group thus far has been fairly collaborative, Mills says, something that has resulted in a set of recordings that blend their various influences.

"Some of our songs are clearly rock or clearly gospel and some of them are folk, and the rest of them kind of blur the lines," Mills says. "They're really hard to put into a genre. I think what we're most proud about the album is that we don't really have two songs that sound anything alike."

As for plans beyond the Austin City Limits Music Festival, the band plans to continue touring, something which Mills says has taken some getting used to. "A lot of times when you're going from one gig to the next gig, one venue owner isn't concerned with how far away you were the night before. They just want you there and they want you to put on a good show. It was a lot harder than I thought. Tour is amazing, it's also difficult and tiring."

pmongillo@statesman.com