Cory Branan's brand of rocking country doesn't fit very well into music industry slots, but the Nashville-based songwriter is carving an idiosyncratic niche for himself regardless.
"Some people dismiss my music because it has humor in it. Or they blow across it because a lot of times, if it's working, it's working in a clichéd format. They'll just hear that it's a song type, and they'll dismiss it," says songwriter Cory Branan. "But you've only got three and a half minutes, right? So to play with something, you have to raise expectations, really quickly, and then be able to subvert them."
Indeed if you listen to One Hit Wonder, Branan's fourth and latest album, with half an ear, you'll hear all kinds of roots-flavored song types, from the bittersweet post-break up ballad ("The Only You") to the backwoods ode to whiskey ("Sour Mash") to the boot-stomping, road-house busting country rock single ("No Hit Wonder"). It's only when you consider these songs more closely that the twistedness comes out.
"The Only You", for instance, sounds like a love song, sweet and rueful, until you realize that the object of affections has been replaced by a 23-year-old version of herself. "I don't know. It just cracked me up," says Branan. "You know who else does that pretty great? Nick Lowe. You know, 'I Trained Her to Love Me'? It's a little distorted but still sweet in a demented way."
"I like songs like that," he continues. "John Prine has some deceptively sweet things. I find that if you're going to write a love song, it's good to have an insult in it. If you're going to write something dark, add humor. For me, I like them that way."
From Church to Metal to John Prine
Cory Branan comes from Southaven, Mississippi, a town in the northwest corner of the state about 15 miles from Memphis. His dad was a drummer, but he got most of his early music from church. He says his lyrical rhythms still reflect a childhood steeped in King James Bible verses. Then at 14 he picked up a guitar and played in "whatever band would have me," but mostly metal.
Branan didn't start writing songs until his mid-20s when a bartending gig brought him out of his shell enough to sing in front of people. He started playing open mics at the Daily Planet in Memphis, performing mostly covers. But then a chance encounter with a John Prine song, via the eclectic, all-volunteer WEVL radio station, changed Branan's course. "When I heard John Prine for the first time, it was massive to me," says Branan. "It was the first time I ever heard country or folk that appeared simple -- like you kind of wanted to have a beer with the guy -- but as you're listening to the guy, you're like, wait, something's off here. It's a little bit askew."
Branan began writing his own off-kilter songs. In 2001, he released his debut The Hell You Say on MadJack Records. "What Paul Westerberg did for sensitive Minnesotans, Cory Branan does for sensitive Southern boys on The Hell You Say," wrote Paste's Blake Aued, calling the songs "fresh and brilliant." He followed four years later with 12 Songs, and then in 2012 with Mutt. PopMatters' Rob Browning named this third record, "undoubtedly the best Branan release to date, a shiny new jewel in the Bloodshot Records crown." And now, two years later, an unusually short gestation period for Branan, the songwriter is back with No Hit Wonder.
Leeway Across Genres
Like all of Branan's previous albums, No Hit Wonder jumbles rootsy subgenres with aplomb. It is, perhaps, all you need to know about the scope and span of this record that it features cameos from Jason Isbell, Caitlin Rose and the Hold Steady's Craig Finn.
"You know, Tom Waits does that. He pulls from the entire American lexicon," Branan says, when asked about the heterogeneity of his songs. Yes, but he always sounds like Tom Waits, I counter. "Yeah, he's the unifying thing. When he sings, you know it's Tom Waits," he admits. "I don't have that sort of thing, but I'm trying to give myself the leeway to work in all the roots genres. It feels natural to me."
The one exception, Branan says, is blues, a genre so close to his heart (and turntable) than he doesn't feel like he can mess with it. "Blues is so natural; it's almost scriptural to me. I kind of stay away from that, because it's so important to me. It's mainly what I listen to."
But Branan says that playing solo, as he usually does, the gaps between genres become less apparent. "When I'm out doing my thing whether I'm opening up for a punk band or a country rock band or a folk band, you have to take the song at face value. It's just me on a guitar."
Blood On the Strings
The standout on Branan's newest album is the hard-rocking title track -- that's the one that Hold Steady's Craig Finn and Steve Selvidge played on. It's raging chorus of "blood to string" sounds like a rallying call for making every note matter. Branan says it's that, sure, but also a matter-of-fact description of how he plays his guitar.
"When I play, I rip my hands up," he says. "I play pretty hard. And then I also have crap technique. My son was playing with my old guitar the other day, and I was like, maybe I should clean the blood off."
Both Branan and Selvidge have done stints in Lucero, though not at the same time, and the two have known each other for years. So when the Hold Steady was in Nashville recording at the same time as Branan, he invited his friend over. "I always have my buddies play on my records. On every record. So they were in town recording, in Nashville, and I just invited Steve over to sing on the record, because I had all these parts that were written in the end, and I didn't want to sing them all myself," he recalls.
Selvidge came to the studio with a surprise guest, the lead singer for the Hold Steady. "So I think literally, 15-20 minutes after I met Craig, he was on the record. It was a great time. I'm a huge fan. He was very kind to do it. He's probably the only stranger who's ever sung on my record."
Branan also brought in Jason Isbell to sing on "You Make Me". Isbell lives in Nashville now, with his wife Amanda Shires, who is a long-time friend of Branan. Caitlin Rose also came in for "All the Rivers of Colorado", which Branan says has become one of his favorite songs on the record. "It's not really the kind of song that I would normally write, but I was literally driving through Colorado, driving through the Rockies and by the time I got out of the mountains, I had written that all in one go.
"Obviously Jason and Caitlin and some people who are on this record are kind of high profile in the world that I run in. But I just ... I try to have people on that I know it's something they'll enjoy doing and hopefully they'll sound good on. I'm not having names on just to have names," said Branan.
Memphis Bravado and Nashville Precision
Branan recorded No Hit Wonder with Paul Ebersold in Nashville. The bulk of the record was made during three days of sessions in early 2013 at The Sound Kitchen. Then as spring came, Branan was sidelined by allergies. "There's something in Nashville that's not in Austin, something in the air here that I'm allergic to. My first two years I was on tour so I didn't know. The first spring here and all the sudden I can't sing for two months," he said.
It took almost a year for Branan and Ebersold to reconvene, finishing the record early this year. Branan says that despite the delay, he's happy with the results. Like Branan, Ebersole has roots in both Memphis and Nashville. "Paul has that Memphis bravado ... the roll-fast-and-see-what-you-get thing which is good for me, because I arrange them ahead of time," says Branan. "But he also got these great Nashville musicians. So I say I got Memphis spontaneity and Nashville precision."
Branan's backing band for No Hit Wonder includes drummer John Radford of the Dynamites and the legendary Robby Turner on pedal steel guitar. "You know Robby played with Waylon Jennings when he was 14 years old. Robby was in the Highwaymen, and he played with Charlie Rich. There's some great steel guitar on that record," says Branan. "The problem now is that I have to figure out how to play these songs on the road, so it sounds like Robby Turner without Robby Turner."
This Gun's for Hire
Branan originally moved from Memphis to Nashville to be closer to the Music City's publishing industry. He'd like to do some writing for other more mainstream country artists. "I probably couldn't write one of these bro country songs if I wanted to. One of these lead-off singles from Joe Big Hat and Boots," he admits. "But usually those guys bury a song on their record, or two of three, that are country songs."
He adds, "The idea of writing, just being a song writer really appeals to me. I like Tom T. Hall. There's a huge, rich tradition of that here. I'm definitely interested in that. Especially since I've got to put two kids through college. I'm going to need my mailbox money."
Writing for the Nashville hit machine is very different from pounding out your own songs, though, says Branan. For one thing, it's a more collaborative process. "Nashville publishing companies will want you to get together with two or three people on a Monday morning and sit around writing songs. And what they're doing is hedging their bets. You get three guys from different publishers and you start thinking, well one of these guys will earn a payday," he says. Branan says that when he first started shopping his material around town, buyers were surprised that he'd written it all himself. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, and I got dressed myself and drove down here.'"
Branan also cautions me against dismissing even the most commercial of country songs. "Even when you're writing the worst sort of formulaic song, there's still some pleasure in the structure," he says. "There's a reason why the verse chorus structure works. There's a reason why we like meter and rhyme, setting it up and diverting it. There are some really good writers here in town. I wouldn't mind working with some of them. I wouldn't mind being in those ranks."
Don't underestimate the strength of people's commitment to country, either Branan admonishes. He says that his wife, originally from LA, recently spent some time with his mother in Mississippi and came away with a whole new take on country music. "She was like, 'Oh I thought this was all a big kitschy joke, country music. And then I've seen people use this music,'" he says. "And they do. They use it like folk music, functional music. For the dances, for the weddings, for the grieving. There are songs in country music that are still applicable to people's lives. You're going to get laid? You've got this song. You're going to get married. You've got this song. Your mother has cancer? You've got this song."
"Some of the songs are really cloying, heavy handed and poorly written but some of them aren't. And even those mean something to people and they're getting something out of them. There's a functionality even the most typical country radio music," he added.
Branan is already working on new material -- as well as revisiting songs from his back catalogue that have never made it onto a new record. But don't be surprised if the next music you hear from him are a little different. These days, he's been writing for a new audience -- his two and a half year old daughter and his six-month old son. "I'm writing a lot of kids' songs. Not even on purpose. I pick up a stuffed owl kids have got and I wrote a song about him. You know. 'See him walking down the street, Mr. Owl, see him walking down the street, he's cool,'" he chuckles. "Whatever's going to make my kids laugh -- that's the song that I'm writing these days."