The Nashville songwriter is a little bit country and a little bit blues — but he’s still got a lotta punk ‘tude, too.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been a long hard slog for Corey Branan. After playing in bad metal bands as a kid – everything from hair metal to black metal – he saw the light… or rather heard it, in the form of John Prine and realized story-based songs backed by strong acoustic guitar was his true calling.
Spending years on the road, sharing stages with everyone from Gaslight Anthem to Jason Isbell, he turned in a couple of great records and a split that got little notice, before he finally stumbled on the right home for his 2012 record, Mutt. Bloodshot Records – the alt-country label that’s put out records for folks like Justin Townes Earle, Alejandro Escovedo and The Old 97s – seems a solid fit for a guy who draws everyone from country fans to punk rockers to his shows.
Living in Nashville now, where he recorded his latest, the remarkably stellar No-Hit Wonder, he was able to take advantage of some pretty talented buddies living nearby, coaxing folks like Isbell, Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and Steve Selvidge and legendary steel guitarist Robbie Turner, among others, into the studio.
Self-deprecating title aside, the record is a brilliant snapshot of one of the best songwriters working today, a worthy heir to the aforementioned Prine, as well as Kris Kristofferson and the Willie.
Branan spoke recently about the new record, the tug between his family and life on the road and writing that perfect song for his mom.
BLURT: I talked to you about three years ago, right around the time you had finished recording Mutt and were shopping it around. It looks like you landed at the right label.
CORY BRANAN: Yeah, it’s a pretty nice fit. I always wanted a label that had a following of people that really trusted the label and a label that trusts me. I just give them the record. They’re not like micromanaging me.
It’s a nice home because it kind of the perfect blend of country, Americana and punk. Since you first started recording, there’s a lot of folks – Tim Barry, Chuck Ragan, Frank Turner – who are playing acoustic music that straddles those genres. You’ve toured with punks and country rockers. Are you finding your audiences changing much?
To me there’s never been much of a difference between the two. They’re both [punk and country] trying to say something with the least amount of bullshit. There’s a reason all The Clash fans like Johnny Cash. I just take work where I can get work, I’ve played guitar in hair metal bands and black metal bands, but I’ve never played in punk bands before.
Over the years, I’ve just sort of gone where there was work and I’ve been lucky enough to fall in with some good guys like Chuck, Tim and a lot of those dudes. I’ve gotten a lot of support in that world and even with Dashboard Confessional and with indie rock and emo bands. I haven’t done as much work with the country and Americana world. I was born in Mississippi, raised in Memphis and live in Nashville, so you can’t wash that off. That’s kind of where I come from. People ask if I play country music and I say, well, I’m country, but I don’t write about trucks that much. I sort of leave the tag stuff to everybody else, because they sort of feel like toe tags to me.
Nashville’s been home to you for a while, and it’s surprising to me how many different bands, form all kinds of genres, are flocking there now.
Nashville’s booming. You start off with it being a great place to live. It’s doing alright. It’s still a little splintered as to the different scenes; there’s not a whole lot of crossover with bands. But there really is a whole lot going on here.
This new record, more than some of the earlier ones, seems to be a little more optimistic. You got married not too long ago and have a new child. Does that seep into what you’re writing?
Well, it’s funny you mention that. I was just talking to someone else and they said “You’re kind of a pessimist aren’t you?’ We’ll yeah, I’m a bit like Eeyore. But I gotta tell you, I’ve had a lot of bad things that happened these past few years with losing family members, but I also have so much preposterous happiness with my kids and my wife. It’s kind of messing with my world view; I’ve had such a string of good luck and happiness recently and that showed up on the record. There’s still that rub of being a lifer and doing this, being on the road is a stark contrast now that I have a family at home. Choosing to go out on the road is a heavier choice now. It has a lot of weigh to it.
Having kids, have you had to change the way you tour?
I’ve tried to time it a little smarter. My daughter is from a previous relationship, she’s in Tulsa, and my son is only six months old, so I try not to go out for two month stretches anymore. At the most, I try to get out for three weeks. Ideally, two weeks on and two weeks off is the best for me. Things are different a little bit with Skype; that kind of stuff helps a little bit.
You have a ton of guests on this record. Was that intentional or did it just happen to work out that these folks were around when it came time to record.
Well, both. You know, I’ve had guests on my past records, but now that I live in Nashville, I’ve been lucky enough through my touring to just have some rad buddies and lots of people that I’m fans of, I’ve just been lucky enough to fall in with. The good thing about Nashville is that they’re all right around the corner. I always planned to have Jason on, he’s a good friend. I try not to have too many guests, but for instance, on “Sour Mash,” I knew that I needed sort of a gruff vocal, but it needed to have a clarity to it, and Tim [Easton] was just right for that. I knew Caitlin Rose would be perfect on that country song. I’m just lucky enough to know some really rad folks.
What was it like to work with Robbie Turner?
Oh my God, man he was just a dude! The producer goes to church with him and said, “I’ll call up Robbie.” And I said, “Who’s Robbie?” “Robbie Turner.” He came in and I swear to God it was crazy. He opens up the case and takes out his steel guitar and it’s a Robbie Turner model. You know it’s going to be good when that happens. He listened to the song once, took a pass at it and it was perfect and then he said “Let’s try it again.” He did another pass in a different style and it was perfect. He ended up taking three passes, in three different styles, in real time, and each one was perfect. I’m like great, now I have option’s disorder. I bowed out and made the producer pick the part. They were all perfect.
How autobiographical is the song “Daddy Was a Skywriter?”
My dad was a jet mechanic and skywriter was just more of a metaphor. He was real Southern, real stoic and not a whole lot of words. He was much more of a speaking through actions kind of guy, so the idea of writing something in the sky and it disappearing seemed to fit.
It’s a great song.
My mother said she was going to put the chorus on the headstones for her and my father and I said, “Jesus, mom! Let me come up with something better. You have to stick around until I write something better about you and dad, to put on the gravestone.” I’ll make her live forever, I’ll just never write it.
I want to talk about one more song, the title track, “No Hit Wonder.” Can you talk a little bit about the story behind that one?
Sure, I started writing that around the time they were having this Folk Alliance thing in Memphis – which is actually where I met my wife – and the top three floors of the hotel, there was a different artist playing in every room, so you could go room to room and hear Brazilian folk music or Michelle Shocked and I was always astonished by this amazing talent that’s out there hustling and all the road dogs I know. And I’m in there too of course, I put my list of grievances in there.
The record comes out shortly and then you’re on the road all of August, September and half of October, so far.
Yeah, and looks like the rest of October, November and December are filling up now too.
Photo Credit: Nicole C. Kibert. Go to Branan’s Bloodshot page to view his current list of tour dates – he’ll also be hitting the road with Justin Townes Earle in early November.