Memphis-via-Nashville songwriter returns to Lancaster tonight.
Cory Branan doesn’t really care if you know his name or recognize any of his songs. Just give him a chance to show you what he can do in a live setting, and he’ll have you hooked with one strum of his guitar.
When it comes to crafting a musical career, the singer-songwriter has gone to great lengths to forge his own path. There was the early praise from Rolling Stone for his 2002 album The Hell You Say, followed by an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. He went on to tour continuously for years, performing in backwoods dive bars and large concert halls – playing for anyone who would listen to his country-tinged punk rock anthems with a folk aesthetic.
He decided to take a different direction with his follow-up album – 2006’s 12 Songs – which didn’t receive the same critical acclaim as The Hell You Say. But Branan was not deterred. He continued his road-warrior ways, teaming up with people like Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional and Chuck Ragan of Hot Water Music, which introduced his music to a whole different fan base. His 2012 album, Mutt, was a major step forward, released on popular indie label Bloodshot Records, which carries a roster that includes Justin Townes Earle, Ryan Adams and Neko Case.
Branan’s career choices may not have been the most direct or the most logical route, but it was what felt right for the Southern acoustic guitar master recognized for his deft guitar finger picking skills. And while he may not have produced a hit song (yet) in his long and varied musical career, it doesn’t make Branan any less of a songwriter. (Among the circles of the songwriting community, Branan is recognized as a “songwriter’s-songwriter.”)
His newest album, The No-Hit Wonder, came out in August and features 11 powerful songs about life on the road, raising a family and late-night drinking escapades. It includes vocal contributions from musicians like Jason Isbell, Caitlin Rose and Craig Finn and Steve Selvidge of The Hold Steady. Branan has also been receiving more critical acclaim, including WXPN’s World Cafe Next musician for September, a segment on All Things Considered on NPR and more write-ups in Rolling Stone.
The Memphis-native-now-Nashville-resident is also busy with a newborn at home (while still touring relentlessly). Two of his songs are also featured on the November release While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records, covered by Ragan and British rocker Frank Turner.
We caught up with Branan last week while he was traveling to Philadelphia and had just come from a tour of the Martin Guitar factory in Nazareth.
Fly Magazine: Have you been surprised by some of the early response to The No-Hit Wonder?
Cory Branan: It’s been good. People have been nice before. I’ve been lucky enough to not have many scathing reviews. It’s great when it results in people coming to the shows. But a lot of times, [the press] is just there and gone. Print and media and music have all been digitized and spread out in a very thin layer. It’s energizing in a way that it’s democratic and everywhere, but it’s a very thin layer [laughs].
FM: As a musician, how difficult is it to find that musical breakthrough in the digital and ADD generation?
CB: There’s no hub. There’s no way to filter it to reach people in non-commercial ways. It’s not a new story – commerce dictating culture. It’s been happening in everything for years, but we’re getting diminishing returns. And that’s not separating my music from any other music or making judgments on what’s better or worse. But when you have corporate guys at the top deciding who gets exposed, there’s less risk involved and zero artist development.
FM: Have you ever had conversations with fellow musicians to create a kind-of consortium to mentor young musicians?
CB: Yeah, it happens organically. I know that I’ve met so many people on the road that there are some people who have that in their personality more so than others. Like Chuck Ragan – his whole acoustic revival tour that I’ve done and lots of rock and punk people have done. Chuck’s got that kind of personality. He’s a walking saint who puts everyone first. But when you try to build a scene, I don’t know if that works or not. I’ve never been involved in that. Of course, I’ve never tried a thing in my life – probably to my detriment [laughs]. I don’t try – it’s not one of my words.
FM: So it’s been a “see what happens kind of approach” for your musical career?
CB: Mine is just a very matter-of-fact career. I have to work. I have to stay on the road 120 days a year or my bills don’t get paid. Now I’m with a label – Bloodshot – that wants to work and put out a record every year and a half. That’s fine, that’s cool with me. A lot of people have the luxury of putting out a record and doing a two-month tour on it and then sitting around and writing and meandering in the studio. I have to work, and when I’m not working, I have to be there with my family. It’s laid out and pretty clear. I don’t take exposure gigs. I tell everybody, “I’ve been exposing myself for 10 years, and it ain’t ever gotten me anywhere.” [laughs]
FM: What’s been your experience as a touring musician?
CB: I’m very blue collar, very working man. I’ve got to do the gigs. But playing solo acoustic has worked out for me in strange ways – from people hearing the music and liking it, to people taking me out on tour. I think Chris Carrabba [from Dashboard Confessional] was one of the first people who took me out on a tour that was not necessarily where I would have found myself naturally. I’ve fallen in with a lot of people like Gaslight Anthem and Chuck. In a few days, I’ll be opening up for Gaslight and Against Me! And then I’ll be out with Justin Townes Earle, which makes a little more sense on paper. So I just go where the work is, and I don’t change what I do. I change a little bit how I play according to the size of the room each time. When you’re up there with an acoustic guitar, there’s less for people to balk at. They have to like the song or not like the song. They can’t not like steel guitar – they can’t be like, “That’s country.” I guess they could not like my accent. I could be in Maine, and they could be like, “What’s this hillbilly doing?” [laughs] But if they can get past the accent, there’s not a lot to balk at.
FM: A few of the songs on The No-Hit Wonder are older compositions, but when did the new album really start to take shape?
CB: About a year after Mutt, so I guess in the seven months before I recorded it I wrote a lot of it. Songs like “Sour Mash” and ‘Daddy Was a Skywriter” and “The Meantime Blues” – those were songs that have been around for years. I noticed I was writing a little bit more of a roots-type record, and those little bastards have been tugging at my leg for years, so I was like, “Here’s a home for them.”
FM: So it felt like the right time to put those songs on an album?
CB: Yeah, and even the intro for “The Only You” has been around for 10 years. It was just a little line and a funny idea I had, and then I was like, “You know what? It’s got so much going on in that intro – in a good way.” I think it’s angry and smart-ass, and then it turns around right on a flip in the fourth line. Then it’s tender, and I thought it was good enough for a song. I sat down and fleshed that one out into a full song. That was the last one I wrote for the record.
FM: What was it like for you to be able to get Jason Isbell involved for some songs on The No-Hit Wonder?
CB: I was really happy he was around. We’re buddies, and I’ve had my buddies on all my records. Making a roots record and living in Nashville and knowing some of the people who are a little more high profile in the roots genre, it was definitely fortuitous that he was around. I try not to have people on a song just to have them. I try to find places where they’re going to sound great. The idea was just to make “You Make Me.” When he came in, I was like, “Well, while you’re here, how about this other song?” [laughs] I put him in double duty. He’s one of the sweetest dudes I know, and he’s obviously a great writer, but what a singing voice. I could do some damage if I had a voice like that. So it was great to have him on there.
FM: How about the other people featured on the album – like Caitlin Rose and Craig Finn of The Hold Steady?
CB: I tried to do it with all the guests – putting them where they would shine. Like on “Sour Mash,” I knew I needed a high harmony that still had grit. And it’s not a lot of singers who can sing higher and still have that grit in their voice and get that note in at the same time. Tim Easton immediately sprang to my mind. He’s a buddy who lives right down the road, so there’s an advantage to living in Nashville when you’re recording.
FM: I’ve been seeing a lot of stories lately about the gentrification of Nashville going on. What’s your impression of the changes going on in the city?
CB: I’ve only been there three years, and even in the three years I’ve been there it’s changed like crazy. It’s rad that the town is becoming a more diverse town and more of a rock town – a lot of different things happening there, musically. It’s also growing faster than they’re envisioning. A city like Austin that develops and invests in itself and its future – I hope there’s going to be some vision for Nashville. They’re going some cool things down by the water, but they’re slapping up some condos in historic neighborhoods. There’s a danger of a city that grows out pricing the culture that made it grow – the artists and the songwriters who are there and can’t afford to live there anymore. There’s a danger of cutting off the oxygen to the city. But who knows. I’m from Memphis, so I don’t know what a city’s supposed to be like anyway [laughs]. It’s troubled and gritty, but I still love Memphis. It still has an appeal to me in a way that Nashville feels very buttoned-up next to. But I also had a guy get in my car with a gun in my ribs for two hours in Memphis, and I got mugged three times and broken into three times. You start doing the math, and it’s like, “OK, I’ve got a kid. Maybe I’ll live in Nashville.”
FM: You’ve spoke in the past about the difficulty of musicians playing for crowds in Memphis. What wakes it so hard for a musician to get a good response in Memphis?
CB: I don’t know if anyone has an answer to that. Memphis is one of the hardest towns to play, and I’m so lucky to be from there as an acoustic guitar player. You just get thrown in the deep end. They don’t give a shit about anything. Once you’ve got them, they’re loyal as hell. But there’s an element of Memphis that’s very knowledgeable and hipster in the old sense of the word hipster – way ahead of the curve, and they know music history. So to show them something new or interesting is hard to do. There’s that element, and it’s a small element and a smaller part of people who would probably include themselves in it. Then you have the rest of Memphis, which is almost like a college town without a big college. They don’t give a shit. The whole town spins on the axis of a bottle. It’s one of the drunkest towns I’ve ever been privy to. Being from there, you have to learn how to write hooks and finesse and pivot [laughs]. I feel really lucky to be from there. Memphis is a mean-spirited town, too. It hardened me up pretty fast.
FM: Growing up in Northern Mississippi, what kind of affect did the blues have on your musical tastes?
CB: Growing up, initially the only blues I was exposed to was a little more electric blues – Lightnin’ Hopkins and some of the Texas stuff. Obviously, the first thing you get exposed to is Robert Johnson and some of the Delta stuff, and then you dig deeper. That’s been a lifelong thing with me. People ask me what I’m listening to, and I’m like, “You know – nothing really recorded after 1948.” [laughs] I’m not going to make a blues record per se, but one of these days I’ll make a record that’s a little more informed by that. But all my finger picking is just a bastardization of Mississippi John Hurt and those ways to accompany yourself while you tell a story.
FM: What’s it like to have Chuck Ragan and Frank Turner cover your songs for the upcoming Bloodshot Records 20th anniversary compilation?
CB: It was very flattering. I don’t know Frank that well, but I’ve met him once and played with him a couple times. He did “The Corner,” and in his charming British accent he kept all my bad Southern grammar in it, which is just doubling down the charming [laughs]. And as far as I’m concerned, “Survivor Blues” is Chuck’s song now. I was just covering it. He’s got the voice to bring the spirit of that song out.
FM: Have you figured out a way to make a family band a viable option to bring them on the road with you?
CB: I don’t know if it will ever be able to happen. It’s my dream, but my wife is like, “Veto.” [laughs] She knows what the road is like, and she has no interest in it. Maybe when both my kids are teenagers they can haul my decrepit ass around and we can play some coffee shops.
Catch Cory Branan at the Lizard Lounge at the Chameleon Club (223 N. Water St., Lancaster) tonight, October 7. Lancaster’s Patrick Hatt & The Genesee Gents open. 8pm. $12 at the door. Click here for tickets.