For over a decade now, Courtney Granger has been a member of the Cajun/Creole outfit The Pine Leaf Boys. Though the band’s sets are usually comprised of exactly those two musics (and sometimes the intersection thereof), over the years there have been moments when Granger was able to sing a country tune or two to the delight of PLB fans. The more often he did, the more fans would approach him after shows and ask him when he was going to do a country-based solo album. He even gave some thought to what songs he might record.
Granger, who is quick to remind anyone asking, that he doesn’t write material, knew that it would be a covers collection. He just needed time and a reason. Then the reason came.
He remembers that moment clearly. “The day George Jones passed away,” he says. “That hit me hard and I knew that I needed to go in and make this album.”
The long-player in question is Beneath Still Waters, a collection of sometimes obscure but always heartfelt tunes that speak to the broken down and the brokenhearted. Granger briefly considered making an album of Jones-only tunes, citing ‘The Possum’ as his biggest influence. “But then I figured that if I was going to go in and do a record, I might as well do my own and maybe down the road I can do a tribute”, he says, though his appreciation for Jones remains strong.
“I grew up playing Cajun music and when you sing you have to sing from your heart and your soul, from your toes. His singing was very relatable to me because he did the same thing. He also grew up two hours away from me, so there was that connection. Vocally”, Granger says, “he gave all he had.”
Coming up with a list of songs to record was no problem and neither was the criteria of having things that were largely unknown. Finding the material became a bit of an obsession for the singer. “I dug”, he says. “I went on YouTube, I looked everywhere I could for these old songs that spoke to me.” He whittled his choices down from 50 to 13, including cuts penned by Keith Whitley, Hank Cochran, Dallas Frazier and Hazel Dickens.
“I’m drawn to stuff that hits home”, Granger notes, “I’m 34 and I haven’t had the easiest life. I come from a broken family. I’ve dealt with alcoholism and the deaths of loved ones and songs that speak to that are what I usually go to.”
Though he did not write “Don’t Put Her Down You Helped Put Her There” (it’s a Hazel Dickens/Alice Gerrard co-write), he says that he could very easily relate to the story it tells. “It automatically reminded me of a person that I knew back in my hometown,” the Eunice, Louisiana native says. “It was like her story: She was always in the bar and any kind word a man would speak to her, she was automatically falling in love with him, then he’d use her for whatever his thing was and then just drop her like a hat. She’d go on and do the same thing the next weekend. Life got to her and abused her. When I heard that song, I knew exactly who I would be singing about.”
Perhaps one of the reasons that Granger sings with such authority on these tracks is that he has experienced or witnessed these stories before. Growing up, he says, he was often in the company of his elders and quickly came to see life through their eyes. “I always hung out with people my parents’ age. That’s just who I was drawn to, intellectually”, he says, “I never really got along with people my age, so just sitting back and watching older generations go through their lives in the barroom taught me a lot.”
If barrooms and a tendency toward self-pity make for uneasy living, they can, it has been well-noted, also make for excellent country songs. That’s the case of “Listen, They’re Playing My Song”, penned by Glen Garrison and Charlie Williams, which tells the story of someone who sees misfortune all around. Granger was most familiar with it from Jerry Lee Lewis’ 1969 version, though it has been recorded by Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings and others. It was the Lewis rendition that he was first familiar with and his friend Ginny Hawker who encouraged him to record it.
“I can kind of relate to it too”, Granger notes, adding that his measure for singing a piece is exactly that. “I sometimes say that if you can relate to one word or one line in a song, I recommend not singing it, that’s just how I feel. If I can’t relate to it in some way, I don’t sing it because I can’t do my best with it.”
Many of the songs that appear on Beneath Still Waters were written during an era that most would call the time of classic country music, though there are exceptions: “She Never Got Me Over You”, reportedly the last song written by the late Keith Whitley and recorded by Mark Chesnutt and “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today”, a hymn that dates to the early hours of the last century.
Of everything included on the record, the latter probably has the strongest personal gravity for the singer. “One of my stepbrothers had passed away right before the recording started and then all of a sudden the song just popped up in rotation and I knew that I had to do it”, Granger says. “We did it live, just a piano and a snare drum and a guitar and a bass and let the tape roll. We did it three or four times. What it meant to me at that time is what I think gave it something new.”
The disc’s titular piece, written by Dallas Frazier and recorded by both George Jones and Emmylou Harris, was almost always a contender for that position. “It kind of summed up the whole concept of the album: The love and the cheating and the heartbreak, sneaking off”, Granger says. “That’s what the whole album is about.”
No matter who wrote the songs or Granger’s reasons for recording them, he says that the record is finally a gift for his fans. “I didn’t do it for myself”, he offers. “I did it for the people that supported me and wanted the rest of the world to hear it.”