Love him or hate him, you’ve got to admit that Pat Green is pretty amazing. He’s the Texan who’s sold some 255,000 independently released records since 1995 and become a legitimate star in Texas, even though the rest of the world is just catching on to his version of country music.
But we’re putting the cart before the horse.
Back before he became a Texas musical legend, Pat Green grew up in Waco, where his parents divorced when he was seven. When they remarried, the family swelled, and he found himself the eighth of nine children. All those kids listened to a range of music Ð plus, Green’s father, a school teacher, had lead roles in regional theater-musical productions. In high school, Green liked, mostly, the Doors and, oddly enough, Louis Armstrong, with a little Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, and George Strait mixed in. Then, as a senior, he stumbled onto Robert Earl Keen’s No Kind of Dancer, which changed everything, moving his attention first to hardcore honky-tonk and then hardcore Texas music.
Green was 18 when he started singing and playing “to pick up chicks”. As he recalled in a recent interview with PopMatters, “We were in college [Texas Tech in Lubbock where Green eventually graduated with a degree in General Studies]. Me and my buddy Cory Morrow were playing together Wednesday nights at a buddy of ours’ house. Just getting together for drinks and playing all night long, you know, till the sun came up, and eventually more and more people started showing up at the house, our friend’s apartment. Our friend got kind of tired of it because every time we left, the place was in shambles, and so he went out and got us a gig out of anger”, Green laughs.
From there, word of his music spread quickly Ð like the frenzy that follows “last call” in any Texas honky-tonk. In 1995 when he was 23, Green borrowed 12,000 dollars from his family to record his first record, Dancehall Dreamer, with Lubbock legend Lloyd Maines producing.
He remembers, “Lloyd [Maines] was the first guy I ever met as far as the studio, and he did six of the seven records we have out now. The only reason why he didn’t do—it was the fourth one—was because somebody else paid me just to be on that record. You know, he’s just Lloyd. He’s like my dad and my big brother at the same time in the studio, and we’ve done a lot of work together. Lloyd is a comfortable security blanket”.
Daughter and Dixie Chick Natalie has also sung on a few of Pat’s albums. It’s impossible to listen to that first record, home to Green standards like “Dancehall Dreamer” and “Southbound 35”—Green described it to Texas Music as “a shitty first record. Everybody’s got that shitty first record”—without hearing the influence of Robert Earl Keen.
His own style became clearer on subsequent albums like 1997’s George’s Bar and 1999’s Here We Go. Then there was Green’s live recording from the Live at Billy Bob’s series, which, with 70,000 copies, has sold more albums than any other artist in the collection except Merle Haggard.
But it was the live shows that brought out fans—Green’s audience was, at least initially, primarily comprised of Texas’ sizable college crowd who were drawn not only on his party-friendly style but also to his ability to relate to their experience. Maines has said that Green performs with a level of intensity he’s only seen matched by Joe Ely, which is high praise, and you don’t have to spend long at a Pat Green show to see exactly what he means.
All those students at the shows kept passing around Green’s self-released discs, and his career grew from there. It’s a career path, especially in music, that most would agree is atypical where artists generally try to sign with a major label in exchange for national attention, often compromising their earnings as well as their artistic autonomy. For Green, though, things are going well. Consider the popularity of his live shows. According to Texas Monthly, between mid-February and mid-April of 2002, he sold more than 180,000 tickets Ð that doesn’t even include his shows at Billy Bob’s (sold out in 35 minutes), Spring Break at South Padre, and Chilifest. More than 56,000 watched him at the Houston Rodeo where only George Strait and two shows with a range of country musicians outsold him.
So what was it that led to Green’s unorthodox career?
“I hated country music as it was so much”, he remembers. “I really couldn’t stand it—I was just sick when I turned on the radio. I had to listen to anything else, really. So when I started, I was just, like, ‘Hey, I want to be the only guy who has a life-long career that makes plenty of money for everybody in the band and myself and never leave Texas’! I was really naive at the time, too, but—blah!—I didn’t want to be part of that: People trying to change me and dress me and tell me who was in my band and tell me who’s going to write my songs, you know”?
Although Green’s independent career route has enabled him to preserve his own artistic autonomy, in the summer of 2001 he signed with Universal Records for his first major-label record. Three Days has new material as well as songs Green’s released previously and entered Billboard‘s “Country” chart at #7, selling almost 100,000 records before the release of the second single.
Although he’s been a big hit with fans, at least regionally, Green’s relationship with critics has been rather different Ð indeed, “Pat Bashing” seems to have evolved into a minor Olympic sport. Rob Patterson’s 2000 comments in the Dallas Observer provide a fairly representative sample: “The 1990s saw a flowering of the Texas singer-songwriter scene. Now come the weeds, and the most virulent strain goes by the name of Pat Green”. In the same article, he refers to Green as “Mr. Potato Boy” and his fans as a “hollering rabble”. Most critics have also pointed to what they see as Green’s limited subject matter when songwriting, confined primarily to Texas, tacos, beer, and road trips.
However, it doesn’t take much to realize that while those are thematic staples, his music covers a wide range of topics. Indeed, such criticism led to Green’s infamous “Pat Green: Texas Songwriter” t-shirts, a clear jab at the critics.
He cites as influences musicians whose work is original. “Jerry Jeff, Willie Nelson, Kristofferson, Cash, Jennings—pretty much anybody”, Green says. “And not just on the country side. I like people who create their own, make their own noise, make their own sound, make their own thing happen. A lot of the guys from Pearl Jam and Nirvana, when their bands were king, they kind of came in and did their own thing on the rock side of the world. I think certainly you could look at guys like Willie and Waylon—they didn’t ever really take anybody’s advice on how to run their careers or write their songs or who to have in their bands. I mean, they’re the real deal”.
(It’s worth adding that Green’s sung with Willie twice, contributing “Threadbare Gypsy Soul” to Three Days. Laughing, he says of working with Nelson, “It’s a trip. I mean it is! . . . Willie’s a 30- or 40-year career, and he’s never considered himself a megalomania star, one of those jughead people who put themselves above others”.)
When it comes to influences, you also have to talk about Robert Earl Keen. As far as Green is concerned, Keen’s in the same class as Texas’ finest. “[Keen’s doing] the same thing that Willie and Waylon. I mean, he’s writing songs that I could relate to about going out and having fun. You know, it just wasn’t the whole ‘girl-love-dove-from above’”, he says in an exaggerated voice, “the kind of songs that you hear on the radio these days. I started listening to him—it was just total rebellion, you know”.
Green explains of his own music, “I feel like that’s where we are—I think that our sound is different enough to be considered out of the mainstream, but, hopefully, we’ll create a new mainstream, you know. I think country music as a whole is . . . I’m not going to say it’s in jeopardy—that’s too strong a word—but it’s on a decline that hasn’t been slowing down or stopping at all. I just feel like we could all use a refresher course on what it’s like to write songs that don’t have the same catch phrases, and we’re not looking for hook-lines. We’re just looking for good songs”.
Green also cites Southern Rock as a “huge” influence on his sound.
“I love the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd”, he says. “That’s pretty much all we do. We have a few less electric guitars, but Southern Rock’s great. It’s got soul. I love mixing the blues into country and rock into country because it infuses two things that make a lot of sense. That’s what’s real”.
A central element of the “Pat Green Sound” is his consistent blending of electric and acoustic instruments.
“Yeah, I wave that flag pretty strong”, Green says. “I think acoustic instruments that are high in the mix juxtaposed against an electric instrument really, really just creates a dynamic that is absent a lot in music right now. To be so electronic and so over-done and over-produced, and I just think that the simple things in life, like an acoustic guitar and a violin and a mandolin can really just make an electric guitar pop or make the drum pop. That’s just the way it’s meant to be to me”. Despite the criticism of his songwriting, it’s something Green takes very seriously, and he’s written or co-written most of the material he’s recorded.
“I just feel like lyrically speaking, you’ve got to write good music—tell a story. Have a clever way of telling something instead of a clichd way of saying something. On my last record, I put a song on there called ‘Count Your Blessings’, and it’s just a string of clichs; it’s kind of a funny way of looking at it. I was, like, ‘Man, if you’re going to be cliché, that’s how you do it’. Put a hat on somebody and a belt buckle and have them sing along—‘She’s hotter n’ a cat on a hot tin roof’”, Green says with an exaggerated accent. “Just makes me want to puke”.
For him, writing is a fairly spontaneous experience.
“I don’t know how. It’s weird”, he says. “I come about it in weird places and times of the day. Sometimes it’s in the bus; sometimes I’m at my house; sometimes I don’t write for a month; sometimes I write six songs in a day. I really can’t put a finger on what it is that gets my juices going. When they start, they don’t stop until it’s done”.
And for those “beer-tacos-and road trips” critics, Green’s songs also examine more serious subjects.
“I don’t mind looking into the abyss”, he says. “And, you know, I am a positive person. I love my life. I love what’s going on with it. I love everything. You know, it’s a very awkward place to be at times because people are around you that aren’t experiencing that success, and you want to share in your success. But I look inside. I mean, I have my own problems. I can be a real jerk at times. Yeah, for the most part, I write exactly how I feel at the time, and if I’m feeling down, I mean, these songs are talking about”, he laughs, “booze and going down the wrong road and all this stuff. But for the most part, I’m in a great mood”.
He continues, “And, you know, what’s wrong with writing how you feel? I mean, that’s the only way to really communicate anyway. If you’re going to write songs about being depressed or about being upset about something, well, you better be depressed or upset about it because otherwise it’s going to sound like a sham”.
The evolution of Green’s music bears examination, something that’s easily done because a number of his signature tunes have appeared in various forms on different records. Take, for example, “Southbound 35”.
“That’s an anthem song”, he explains. “Anthem songs that are popular with whoever band you’re in. Anthem songs that are popular will never go away. It’s just like ‘George’s Bar’ or ‘Carry On’ or any number of those songs—three or four songs that we have are like that. And I think when it comes to the evolution of it, I think when you have a song like that, you have to let it grow up. You have to let it grow with you because if you don’t, it becomes dull to perform”.
Despite his success, Pat Green’s in no immediate danger of becoming a Diva in Ropers, thanks in large part to his wife, Kori, a fellow Tech alum and current law student at the University of Texas.
“My wife is not ever going to let me get big-headed”, Green says. “I’ve got a wonderful wife that I’m absolutely just crazy about. You know, I could be a dump-truck driver, and she would love me the same, so she doesn’t want to be married to the big celebrity. That doesn’t really fly around the house”.
Plus, it’s not like Pat Green’s exactly a household word just yet.
As he points out, “We do pretty well around certain areas of the country—the Southeast and the Northeast and sometimes in California and some in the Midwest—but there’s about 40% or better of the country that we go out and play, there might be 100 or 200 people there. So there’s always a challenge, and you can always strive to be better and strive to grow as a musician and try to get bigger crowds in all these different places. Basically, I don’t feel like I’m done. I don’t feel like I’ve hit—I don’t think I’ll feel like I’ll ever hit the top of the mark. I just think that, really, all I want to do is get better as a singer and a songwriter. And, hopefully, that’ll carry me through my life as far as my career and obligations are concerned—you know, paying for a house and kids and cars and food and all that”.
Not that he’s complaining about being heard outside Texas.
Green says, “I really didn’t plan on any of this happening, and then as I kind of grew along—excuse me, as our band grew along—I felt like this is good music, and it deserves an ear outside of our little world, our little pond. It deserves to get out there and see if it can make a real impact. You know, it started to make a big impact, and when it started hitting radio and getting a lot of spins in L.A., a lot of spins in New York, a lot of spins in Florida, I was, like, ‘Okay, this is important to pursue. Hopefully we can make a change without changing ourselves’. That’s really what I look forward to seeing”.
Signing with Universal Records has allowed Green to reach more people while maintaining artistic control.
“It’s absolutely perfect”, he says of working with the label. “That’s the same answer I give anybody who asks me, but they’re not heavy-handed; they don’t control my life; I don’t ask much of them. Whereas most bands who are coming out into that circuit would ask for tour support and end up massively in debt to these people, I just say, ‘Hey, go promote the record, and I’ll spend the money on the road’ because it’s really expensive to come out and tour the country when you’re only making money in 60% of the places you’re working in. But I still think we’re better off than a lot of guys out there”.
Part of Green’s creativity stems from working with his band, both on the road and in the studio Ð none of the standard-issue Nashville studio musicians for him.
He explains, “The band’s very heavy-handed in the studio, and that was another important thing: You know, the first few records, we were too young, too inexperienced to really be effective studio musicians. But now, they’re so accomplished, and they’re so, just, wonderful in their own creation of music that I wouldn’t have it any other way but to have the band and me and the producer working all together to arrange the songs and critique the songs—if the lyric is weak, hey, mention it. Say something. Don’t let it go by because it’s all of us on the line here; it’s not like it’s just one guy whose name’s on the top of the page”.
Laughing, he adds, “I mean, we all want to look good.”
Although Green’s energetic and positive throughout our entire conversation, echoing the enthusiasm of his live shows, his tone changes when asked about why his music has seen such resistance from critics, and, especially, the alternative country scene. “We’re successful”, Green says. “Anything that’s ‘alternative’, that declares ‘alternative’, that declares itself to be different is thereby inviting other people to be different with them and thereby not making it alternative. If you follow that logic, that’s how it sits in my head. And I never asked to be part of a group; I never asked to be part of anything; I asked to go out, play my shows, and get as many people out to those shows as I could, and try to make a career of myself”.
He continues, “I’ve had some scathing words said about me by No Depression, and the Austin community is kind of what I think of as the ‘velvet rut’. I mean, you get stuck in there, and as soon as anybody in there gets successful, then, ‘Oh, they’re a sell-out, a washout. There’s something wrong with them’. That’s just simply not the case”.
As he concludes, his tone lightens, “So whether I’m accepted or not, that’s not what’s important to me. What’s important to me is my family and what I can go out and accomplish, and I think we’re doing a damn good job of going out and doing that”!
As for the future, well, Pat Green’s just going to “carry on.”
“We’re going into the studio in [mid-November]. Hopefully, it’ll be out by May. There is some more introspective, and there’s some almost comically trivial stuff, but that’s just the way it is. I’m excited about this record; I’m excited about getting out in touring and backing the record and seeing if we can’t get a few songs up the charts and even further our little process here in the world and saving the souls”, he concludes, laughing.