Country singer Justin Moore loves an entertaining night out and the tight bonds that have come to typify the genre. If he weren’t playing shows, he would still be attending them. “There are no more passionate fans out there than country music fans, in my opinion,” Moore says. “Maybe that’s because our fans relate better than some other artists in different genres. They see us in them, and vice versa. I am just a fan who has a cool job, and I get to see the show from a different angle.”
Indeed, Moore has been playing loads of country shows since his self-titled studio album debut in 2009. The Arkansas-born talent has amassed a gaggle of loyalists drawn to his candid persona and rollicking stage presence. Much of this big-dream success has been predicated on his small-town roots.
“I grew up in rural Arkansas, about 45 miles south of Little Rock, in a town called Poyon of about 300 people. It’s full of genuine, humble, hard-working people. I grew up outdoors; hunting, fishing, riding tractors, and country music was the natural way I leaned to in music. We had five stations. Four of them played country music. I grew up listening to the traditional stuff and Southern rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd… stuff that is now considered country. When I think about Hank Williams Jr. and Alan Jackson, I felt as if they were writing songs about me, describing how I was growing up, and I certainly related to them.”
While definitions of what exactly “traditional country” is tend to vary, sometimes including differing opinions from artist to artist, Moore says that his sound is a mixture of the fiddle and steel instrumentations of old-time country arrangements and the guitar chords of the popular Southern rock ballads he listened to in his youth. “I think that traditional country starts with the structure of the sound and that it is lyrically honest and real, and it is something that folks relate to. It focuses on the lyrics maybe a little more than any other genre, in my opinion. It speaks to its audience maybe more so than other genres.”
Moore says one of his distinguishing trademarks as an artist is his ability to summon and deliver a distinct type of Arkansas-bred twang to his vocals. “Funny, when I moved to Nashville, one state over, 200 miles from where I grew up, people would ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I know it is just across the border, but people’s accents change from one state to the next. Most of us in Arkansas talk slow a little, and we drag everything out. My wife is from Southern Louisiana, and we had a hard time understanding each other for a while. We’ve been together 20 years now, so we got it down pat.”
As a young kid, Justin dreamt of succeeding at sports, playing baseball and basketball in high school. After realizing that his 5’6 140-pound frame wasn’t likely to carry him into a career of professional sports, he considered other options, and it was his father, Tommy Moore, who planted the odd notion of musicianship in his head.
“In a small town of 300, I was selected to do Christmas specials, and my uncle was and still is in Southern rock bands. We had festivals, but I didn’t play an instrument. Subconsciously, I enjoyed it. My dad said that I should think about playing music for a living. I asked, does that happen to normal people? I had the support of my parents at ages 17 and 18. They allowed me to go to school and paid my bills until I got on my own. Four months after graduating high school, I moved to Nashville, where I met some good people, like my manager Pete Hartung. I surrounded myself with a lot of people who were a lot smarter than me. Jeremy Stover produced all of my albums and taught me how to write songs.”
Investing in Connections
Moore didn’t grind it out at a lot of workaday clubs in Nashville, countering the common misconception that the only way to “get discovered” in the industry is if a musician plays on Broadway long enough for a record executive to stumble in and hear them. He did it the old-fashioned way: he invested in true friendships and formed connections with people who cared about him and his music.
“While there was a learning curve to the studio, to recording albums, I always felt as if I was a kind of a natural on the stage. I’ve always felt comfortable on the stage and never had to learn that…beyond that, you then learn how to bring the audience up and down and back up, to talk to the audience, what works and what doesn’t work, and recognizing that.”
Since the launch of his career, Moore has generated eight number one hits, including “Point at You”, “Lettin’ the Night Roll”, “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away”, “Small Town USA”, and “Till My Last Day”, as well as seven Top 10 hits and obtaining PLATINUM-certified and GOLD-certified successes. Justin says he never set out to smash any molds or re-devise any formulas, and good things have happened to him almost incidentally, while he has been “simply doing my own thing”.
“There are only so many stories that there are to tell, but I try telling them in a different way, and naturally, everyone has their own spin on things… When I write a song or go to record an album, I try to do it the best that I could possibly make it. I try to be as honest as I possibly can. I’ve learned over the years that what matters more than a concert ticket or a T-shirt or an album, people want to know who you are as a person. When I write a song or record an album, that provides insight into who I am. I think that my longevity is a direct result of that.”
Moore says that he is careful not to overproduce any elements of his art, fashioning a simplicity that has been one of the many low-key ingredients which have pushed his considerable success. Simple is a flexible word he equates with sparse, light construction and the tenets of humility and integrity.
“The hardest songs to write are the ones that seem so simple,” says Moore. “In the new one, ‘We Didn’t Have Much’, it is simplistic, the production is little. In the lyrics, though, there is an obvious beauty in that simplicity. In songwriting, I sometimes start with a title and what makes sense melodically, or I build a song around a certain line. Sometimes the song is built around a guitar lick that I had, and it lends itself to the title. When we songwriters are in rooms together, we are hard on ourselves. I probably annoy the other songwriters because I’m critical of lyrics and hard on myself in the middle of a write.”
The behind-the-scenes phases of songwriting, the arcane recording elements, the interchange of inspiration and revision, technical things such as these are rendered mute when the artist takes the stage, front, and center of a boisterous crowd gathered for the guarantee of a real good time.
“Bottom line: if it is apparent that we are having a good time, then it is infectious. The goal for me is not to be the best singer someone ever saw or heard. I want someone to leave and say, ‘that was a whole lot of fun!’ To forget about a bill or a lien or the asshole boss that they have to deal with tomorrow, to completely forget about all that for an hour and a half.”
Brian D’Ambrosio is a music and arts and true crime journalist based in Montana and New Mexico.