by: Thomas D. Mooney
Josh Abbott still has an 806 number. He may have just recently relocated his rising Texas Country band to “The Live Music Capitol of the World,” but I think it’s safe to say, Abbott will always call the Panhandle–Lubbock in particular, (and maybe Idalou more specifically)–his home. Call it cliché if you want, but Abbott will undoubtedly always be in a West Texas state of mind.
I’m sure there’s plenty who are already calling him a “sellout” (undoubtedly the most overrated term in the music industry) for moving to Austin already, thinking it’ll somehow restyle Abbott’s style. Or maybe that it’s just a pit stop for a bigger move to Nashville. Before jumping to any of those conclusions, I’d probably give Abbott’s upcoming “Small Town Family Dream” a listening to before making my mind up just yet.
Abbott’s third album, which will be released next Tuesday, April 24, revolves mainly around life in Smalltown, Texas–both the good and the bad. At the very least, Abbott and company explore the difficult and very real and definite aspects of growing up in a community that revolves around ranching and farming.
Abbott kicks off his small town dream with an ode to his hometown of Idalou with the aptly named, “Idalou,” where he practically invites us in giving us a tour of the town. From there on, the album is sprinkled with songs about the highs and lows of living in a small town in Texas–everything from high school football references and FFA to working 12-hour days and devastating fires along the countryside.
Obviously by now, everyone has heard the radio dominating single “Touch,” which picks up right where 2008’s “Taste” and 2010’s “She’s Like Texas” left off–which was typically in the hearts of every high school and college-aged sorority girl. Sure, Abbott gets plenty sappy with a few songs (and may even get pigeonholed to an extent), but really, Abbott is unmistakably sincere and genuine. He’s not going through the motions.
More than anything though, Abbott and company show some growth and maturity with “Small Town Family Dream.” They seem to be more loose, comfortable, and more confident in where they are in their careers. I’m sure this spike is due to not only being more experienced in the music business, but also just the natural progression one goes through from their early 20s to their mid-to-late 20s. Maybe Abbott has come to the realization that he can do more than just write heartbroken frat-boy anthems and good ol’ boy night adventures. That’s not a knock on his previous songs, discography, or fans, but rather, an artist continuing to grow and one who isn’t content with staying in one place.
New Slang: I guess I want to start things off by talking about the new album coming out soon, “Small Town Family Dream.” Compared to your previous albums, where do you think you’ve grown most as an artist?
Josh Abbott: Well, I think that every band hopes to grow. I think on this new one, you’re going to see several new kind of–it’s still Josh Abbott Band. It sounds especially like the last CD, “She’s Like Texas” because we used the same studio and the same producer. But, since recording that album and recording this one, we have picked up a new bass player. And so, I think you’re going to instantly see a little bit tighter of a rhythm section. That’s not a knock on our former bass player; that’s just how great our new bass player is. Another thing you’ll see is the real emergence of the banjo. On our last CDs, you could hear banjo for sure. But, it was on maybe half of the songs at the most. Kind of hear it in the background. Maybe it was on three or four songs each CD. On this new album, it’s on every song except for “Touch.” You can hear it on every song pretty much–and, he even has some solos, which is pretty unusual for a band to have banjo solos. I think that’s really cool. I think that the fiddle, his solos are as great as ever. I think everybody in the band really recorded well. We’ve all grown as musicians, so we were able to record a better album.
NS: I’ve listened to an advance copy of the album and yeah, to me, it sounds like there’s more fiddle and banjo–and it sounds like they have more freedom on the songs for lack of a better term. They’re more prevalent. Now, the album is called “Small Town Family Dream” and it feels and sounds like a concept album in so many ways.
JA: Yeah, it’s great that you noticed that because that’s what we want people to notice. I just kind of had the idea that for this album being something that represented people from the rural part of life. People from small towns–and farmers and ranchers–the blue-collar people across not just Texas, but everywhere really. So, that’s just kind of the direction we went with it. And there’s some songs on there that say nothing about small town life or farming. But just in general, the majority of the CD is focused on that. It’s awesome that you noticed.
NS: I was wanting to talk a little about a few songs in particular. The second song on the album is “I’ll Sing About Mine.” There’s a few lines in the song that–I don’t necessarily say take shots at Nashville’s way about singing about small town America–but, are in the least, being critical in how they sing about rural life, when they don’t necessarily know anything about it.
JA: Yeah, man. That’s a song I did not write. It’s actually the first time we recorded some songs that none of us in the band wrote. That was kind of a challenge for us. [We had to] kind of psych ourselves because it was best for the album. I think this song just fits what we do and it fits this album. It’s like I said in another interview, I’ve heard nothing but great things about Kenny Chesney. I’ve heard he’s a great person and a really fun person to tour with. But, the simple fact is, tractors aren’t sexy [laughs]. It’s really just saying, look, all these people who kind of cartoon it up and glorify what it’s like to be a farmer and a rancher and that you got this sexy chick crawling all over your tractor just waiting to have a hee-haw ho-down with you when you get home; it’s just true. It’s a hard way of living. A lot of my best friends are farmers and ranchers and come from farming and ranching families. It’s not easy. Planting, watering, and taking care of cotton for 12 hours a day for a pretty good majority of the year, it’s not easy. (The lines we’re referring to in particular are “When the radio’s on, I just don’t understand because tractor’s ain’t sexy and working is hard for small town people like me. And the radio is full of rich folks singing about places they’ve never seen…)
NS: The next song on the album is “Touch,” the current single from the album. You know, when that song was released, I wasn’t sure if I was on Facebook or the Josh Abbott fan club website. I swear, there were so many people posting the song.
JA: Oh, that’s awesome [laughs]. Thank you.
NS: Yeah [laughs]. Now the song, it’s in many ways like a sequel to “Taste.” What was your wife’s response to it, since obviously there’s really not a way you can write a song like that and not be influenced by her? What was her reaction when she first heard the song?
JA: Yeah, it is a sequel to “Taste.” You know, my wife is very supportive of what I do. She’s just really cool with me being on the road and understand that I’m probably going to flirt with some girls to be nice when I’m taking pictures. What I mean by that is, when I’m in the autograph line, there’s nothing wrong with me telling some ol’ gal that she looks pretty. My wife is really comfortable with that–because you know, some women would be like “what the hell did you just say to her?” My wife is not. Be friendly, do your thing. She’s just really cool. She loved “Touch.” I wrote it with Radney Foster and another guy, a friend of mine named Jay Clementi. I thought it came out amazing and I thought we recorded it great. It’s just one of those deals where when I showed it to my wife, she was like, “wow, that’s going to be huge.” That’s always nice having somebody supporting you like that.
NS: Also on the album, you did a couple of Terry Allen songs. What made you decide to cover them (“FFA” and “Flatland Farmer”)?
JA: Well, Terry Allen is one of my favorite Texas Country singers. Really, his 1979 album, “Lubbock (On Everything),” I think is one of the best Texas Country records ever made. Nobody in our modern generation really knows him. That was more our parents’ generation. You know, I just listened to his version of “FFA” and “Flatland Farmer” and how they kind of work together and just saw the potential. I just thought it could be a song we could do really well with. We could make it a little faster, change the solos up a little bit, and make a fiddle and a banjo solo. I just saw potential there. And the guys, the band was really gracious and really saw what I was going for when I played them the track. It’s got this really cool bass line. It’s got this groove. It’s really one of my favorite songs to listen to off the album.
NS: The song “My Texas,” you did a duet with Pat Green. To me (and many others), there’s a lot of similarities between you and Pat. Obviously there’s the Lubbock connection, but also just kind of how both your careers have grown.
JA: Yeah. You know, when I was in college–right before you, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews all day. Right before you, I was talking to this girl from a college newspaper in Auburn, Ala. and I was trying to explain how big Pat Green was in Texas. You don’t understand, from like the mid-’90s to the mid-’00s, there was nobody bigger in Texas than Pat Green except maybe someone like George Strait. So, for me when I was in college, he was like my first Texas Country album to buy. Him and Cory Morrow. He was one of my first Texas Country concerts. I’ve always had this huge appreciation for him and what he does and for the fact that he came from Texas Tech and started out in Lubbock. You know, it was real inspiring. And so, I wrote “My Texas” with a songwriter by the name of Thom Shepherd. He’s written a bunch of hits like “Riding with Private Malone” and “Redneck Yacht Club.” He’s not from Texas, but we were talking about it. And he was like, “what is your Texas to you?” We were just talking, but I said, “That’s the song we’re going to write.” Just making a bucket list of things that we appreciate about Texas. I made it sound more old school Texas Country–Something that was a throwback of late-’90s like Pat Green, Roger Creager, Cory Morrow kind of country. Which is why, I chose to include them in the song. And then, I was like, “you know what, what the hell. I’ve met Pat Green a couple of times. He’s a cool dude. I’m going to e-mail him.” My manager had his number, but I was too scared to call him [laughs]. I just e-mailed him and said “Hey dude, here’s a copy of this song I just wrote. I would just really love it if you sang on this album with me.” I kind of did the whole, “I understand if you can’t or don’t want to. My feelings won’t get hurt” kind of thing because, you never know what they’re going to say. He e-mailed me back saying he’d love to do it. I was just like, “HELL YES [laughs].” That’s kind of like a bucket list dream for me. Now over the past year-and-a-half, Pat Green and I, it’s not just someone I’ve opened for, but we’re actually friends. We’re good friends. I feel like I can call him up and he can call me up. We’ve done some tours together, both acoustic and full band. It’s just really cool becoming friends with someone you really look up to.
NS: Yeah. When I was listening to the song, I could tell right way with where you guys were going with this. The whole bucket list thing. I mean, I think no matter who you are, if you’re from Texas, you’ve done at least a good handful of them. Now, you guys have really just gotten a lot bigger as a band as far as popularity is concerned over the last few years–especially this past year it seems. Do you feel any pressure when it comes to expectations or anything? You feel any pressure that now you’ve got to sell X amount of albums, have X amount of hit songs, things like that?
JA: No. I mean, you can’t control certain things. I think the pressure is to record a CD that you think is the best CD that you can make at the time. But as far as the other stuff, you can’t make people buy your albums so I don’t think there’s pressure there. You can’t make people come to your concerts. We’ve been very fortunate as a band to have a lot of great fans. We have been somewhat successful for an independent band in terms of sales and numbers. We hope that those numbers continue to grow, but you never know. Life in general is a bell curve, so your music career is definitely is. You start out at the bottom and you work your way to the top. You’re at the top and pretty soon, you’re on your way down. Sometimes that last four years for people and sometimes that lasts 30. You never know what’s going to happen. I think you just have to appreciate everybody that helps you out along the way and all the fans in particular–and just hope that the ride lasts a long time.
NS: Let’s go back to when you just started playing around Lubbock. When you were playing at The Blue Light, doing open mics. When was that first moment where you thought–not just being a local singer-songwriter–but where you thought, I can do this and it can be a lot bigger.
JA: I think there’s several of those moments. When we first started out, I just had four or five original songs and some fraternity brothers who didn’t mind me playing Greek parties and the local college bar on Tuesday nights. That was pretty much it. And I’d say a year-and-a-half to two years into it, when we got into 2008 and “Taste” was on the radio, and it was so popular that even though we basically had no other songs–we played a few originals and we some covers. Because of that one song, we had so many people coming to our shows that we had to stop playing at the local bar and we had to start playing at the bigger honky-tonk in town. Which, was really weird because there would be bands that tour all across Texas, they were coming to Lubbock, and some of them were opening up for us. They were like, “who the hell is this? Why are we opening up for this local guy?” But, “Taste” was just so popular that I think that’s the first moment where I realized that I could do this. I didn’t know it could get as successful as it has, but that was a moment where I definitely thought, “wow, we’re not just a local band anymore. People really think we’re a great band. People are really coming to our shows.” And then a couple of years down the road, when we sold out Billy Bob’s for the first time. I think that was in 2011–I think it was January 2011–when we sold out Billy Bob’s for the first time. I’m not for certain though. But, when we did, it really was like, holy crap! Because, no body goes from selling out Billy Bob’s to being a bum on the street–unless you just really kill yourself and your career. So that to me, was a point when I went, “man, for us to sell out the largest honky-tonk in the country, one of the most respected venues in country music, for us to sell this out, I feel like this is going to give us some longevity.”
NS: Alright, I’ve got one more question for you. It’s looking towards the summer and the rest of spring. You’ve got a number of music festival dates such as Lone Star Jam. You guys excited for all those festivals?
JA: Oh yeah. We’re getting into that time of the year where there are a lot of really cool music festivals to play. This week we have Chilifest (The interview conducted the week before the music festival). We have Larry Joe Taylor, and then Lone Star Jam in Austin. There are lots of festivals, rodeos, and county fairs coming up. From now until about July 4, it’s going to be a really fun time. Hopefully it just won’t get too hot outside.
NS: Oh yeah. You’re also playing Viva Big Bend in July.
JA: Yeah, we are. We’re really excited about that.
NS: That’s what I’m really excited for. We’ll be down there doing some coverage.
JA: Well, I’ll see you down there for sure then. Definitely going to be a good time.