Harvest Thieves revive classic alt-country on auspicious debut album

“Please don’t shoot us.”

Harvest Thieves have just unleashed a blazing cover of Whiskeytown’s alt-country stomper “Take Your Guns to Town,” and Cory Reinisch is having a little fun with the crowd. Good news: The folks who have come to the Continental Club on the night after Christmas appear content just to whoop and holler their appreciation for the energy Harvest Thieves are expending onstage. No additional firepower is necessary.

Opening for country mainstays Mike & the Moonpies, Reinisch and his four bandmates wear their love for classic American roots music on their sleeves. They confidently churn out versions of classics from the Neil Young and Doug Sahm songbooks, even as they reveal a near-obsession with Whiskeytown by playing four songs from the Ryan Adams-fronted band’s 1990s heyday.

But it’s Harvest Thieves’ own material that gets the most stage time. Their 75-minute set surveys most of the dozen songs on “Rival,” which the band releases this week with a celebratory show Friday night at Scoot Inn. A four-song EP in 2013 hinted at the band’s potential, but “Rival” heralds Harvest Thieves’ arrival as a contemporary heir to the hard-twang sounds pioneered two decades ago by the likes of the Old 97’s and the Jayhawks.

Their sound reflects what can happen when a bunch of small-town Texas country folks immerse themselves in Austin’s vibrant indie music scene. Reinisch, bassist Dustin Meyer, guitarist Coby Tate and drummer Wes Cargal migrated here from Brady, Victoria, San Angelo and Longview, respectively; only keyboardist Annah Fisette is a native Austinite.

Reinisch, who writes most of the band’s songs, grew up steeped in the honky-tonk sounds that dominate rural West Texas. The first concert he ever attended was Johnny Bush, the so-called “country Caruso” who wrote Willie Nelson’s signature tune “Whiskey River.” As a teen, Reinisch pulled weekend-morning DJ shifts on Brady country station KNEL-AM.

Both he and Tate went to Texas Tech in the late ’90s, though they didn’t know each other then. Reinisch often attended shows at Lubbock bar the Blue Light, catching the rise of Pat Green, Cory Morrow, Wade Bowen and others who were carving out a “Texas country” niche that bypassed the Nashville machinery.

His initial interest in most of those acts faded when he realized he wanted material that dug deeper. “I suppose there still are some really hip songwriters in that genre,” he says, “but they don’t take a lot of chances. They don’t go far off the formula.”

Coinciding with the onslaught of good ol’ boys on the Texas country roadhouse circuit was an uprising of roots bands in towns such as Chicago, St. Louis and Austin, which took their cues more from the adventurousness of punk rock. That’s where Reinisch, who’d played in some rock-oriented cover bands while at Tech, finally found his voice as a songwriter.

“You could tell on first listen that there was just more effort put into it,” he says of the late-’90s alt-country sounds that caught his ear. He remembers thinking, “I like rock and punk music, but also, this sounds familiar. It sounds like home. These two things blending together — that’s me. That’s what I want to do.”

After college, Reinisch moved to Dallas and worked for a few years in radio advertising. In 2007 he moved to Austin, determined to play music. He bonded with bassist Meyer while they were in the band Guns of Navarone, which released an album in 2011 before splitting up.

Reinisch and Meyer became the foundation of Harvest Thieves, where they serve almost as dual frontmen. Reinisch sings lead, but Meyer adds essential harmonies and chips in as a songwriter. Onstage, he’s as likely as Reinisch to engage in between-song banter, offering friendly welcomes and humorous asides that help make Harvest Thieves one of Austin’s most endearing live acts.

Meyer’s chance encounter with Tate in October 2013 locked down the band’s lead guitar slot. Tate, who’d moved to Austin after several years with the Bryan band Ben Morris & the Great American Boxcar Chorus, brought rock sensibilities to country guitar, making him an ideal fit for Harvest Thieves.

A key turning point was the addition of Fisette, who joined around the same time as Tate. A Bowie High School and University of Texas grad who was raised playing piano and violin, she’d played in the dream-pop band Letting Up Despite Great Faults before taking a sharp turn toward rootsier sounds with Harvest Thieves.

“I’ve never really preferred one genre over the other,” says Fisette, who has also picked up mandolin since joining the band. “I’ve been really fortunate, with this band and Letting Up, to work with really great songwriters. Cory can write a song that really speaks to you.”

Cargal, whose resume includes both hard-edged indie-rockers Not in the Face and honky-tonker Weldon Henson, is the most recent recruit. He joined after original drummer James Taylor, who also booked the now-shuttered downtown music venue Holy Mountain, moved to Minneapolis in October. Taylor played drums on “Rival” and remains Harvest Thieves’ manager; Reinisch calls him “still very much a part of this band.”

Though day-job obligations will limit the group’s touring behind “Rival” mostly to short hops around the state, they have dates in New Mexico booked for early February, as well as a Midwest jaunt in early March. In the meantime, they’ll remain busy locally, following up Friday’s Scoot Inn show with appearances later this month at Cactus Cafe, the Parish and the Blackheart.

Back at the Continental Club on that late December night, Harvest Thieves have kept a packed house fully engaged for an hour when they launch into “Part-Timer’s Lament,” one of the new album’s best tracks. A midtempo number with a starkly anthemic grandeur, it’s a near-perfect marriage of Reinisch’s country existentialism and the band’s rock ’n’ roll abandon.

“Hell is half full of sinners and spies; the other half’s full of men who don’t try,” Reinisch sings, bolstered by Fisette’s harmonies and clarion-bell keyboard chimes. Soon enough, Meyer’s thumping bass and Cargal’s thundering drums drive the music to a fevered peak, as Tate rips off a glorious cascade of notes and chords that strike straight into the song’s emotional heart.

They’re a good band. Please don’t shoot ’em.

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