The Warren Brothers have their first bona fide hit with “That’s the Beat of a Heart,” at No. 22 on the Billboard country singles chart in early September. The collaboration with labelmate Sara Evans, included on the Where the Heart Is movie soundtrack, is soft, melodic and full of borderline saccharine sentiments. But Brett and Brad want to make it clear: That is not what they’re all about on their new sophomore record, King of Nothing.
“The single that’s out now is doing very well, and we’re very happy with that,” Brad explains as he grabs a quick lunch in the BNA Records conference room. “But the balance of the album is really us — rockin’, raw country music is what it is.”
The Florida-bred brothers spent years honing their live sound in the bars around Tampa, then later built a huge local following in the Nashville suburbs. The duo hoped to capture the energy of those live performances on King of Nothing by taking more creative control. The Warrens mostly used their road band in the studio. They co-wrote all but two cuts and co-produced the album with Chris Farren (Deana Carter).
“There was just something about that first album [Beautiful Day in the Cold Cruel World] that was a little watered down,” Brad says. “We were selling more units playing live with Faith Hill than we were in the stores.”
“On the first record, the songs were there, but the production wasn’t as meaty as we are, wasn’t quite as edgy and loose as we are,” Brett adds. “Instead of the sophomore jinx, we almost went the other way with it and said, ‘You know what, this might be our last chance. Let’s just go in and make the record we want to make.'”
Instead of safe radio fare, the duo came up with haunting tunes like “King of Nothing,” a mournful acknowledgement of botched love, produced by Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin). On “Waiting for the Light to Change,” they collaborated with Benmont Tench, keyboardist for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, whom they met through their manager. And the Rembrandt’s Danny Wilde helped the brothers write “Move On,” the album’s next single. Brad says they aren’t afraid of working outside the Nashville norm.
“We can’t play George Strait’s game better than he can,” he says. “We’ve got to play our own game.”
The duo also had more input on the artwork for this outing. They wanted the photos to look more realistic than the last record.
“They made us look real pretty and put tons of makeup on us,” Brett says. “We just looked a little bit feminine on the first record, and it kinda ticked us off a little bit.”
“Yeah, I don’t know who those girls on that first record were, but they weren’t my sisters,” Brad jokes.
Although the aim was to capture the free-spirited nature of the Warrens through sound and pictures, King of Nothing also carries a subtle theme of maturity. The cuts “Strange” and “Where Does It Hurt” clearly focus on marriage and fatherhood, something both Warren brothers have experienced in the last couple of years. Brad, 31, and his wife, Michelle, have just welcomed their second son, Quinn, and Brett, 29, recently married and had his first child, Cole. On “Do Ya,” a song they co-wrote with noted tunesmith Bob DiPiero, the singer begs his woman for a commitment, saying “I ain’t ashamed, I ain’t afraid/To tell you how I’m feeling.” Brett says they write about life as they see it in the moment.
“Who I am at 29 is a lot different than who I was when we wrote the first album,” Brett says. “You realize that all the things you thought were important in life aren’t that important anymore when you have a son. All of a sudden I want to vote locally about local laws. I’ve got a will and life insurance policies. I’m scaring myself.”
The Warrens also turn inward for “What We Can’t Have,” a simple but effective take on the “grass is greener” human flaw.
“The original spark for that song came when I was talking to a friend and was telling her that my girlfriend at the time was pregnant,” Brett says. “We weren’t married yet, and I was a little scared and freaked out. I had all this stuff going through my head, and my friend said, ‘Man, I’d give anything to be able to be married and have a kid.’ I thought, ‘Man, it’s so weird, but we all want what we can’t have.’ It’s not that I didn’t want to be married or have my kid, but I was scared. And that was my friend’s dream.”
Brad says the song’s first verse — about a rich man envying a struggling guitar player in a bar — is autobiographical.
“I remember sitting in an acoustic bar in Florida, me and Brett busting our chops, not making any money and seeing these rich guys on vacation throwing their money around,” Brad says. “All they could tell us is they wished they could play guitar. It’s pretty real for us.”
Although the brothers have taken on more adult responsibilities in the last couple of years, they still have that Warren wild streak they’re known for. After a show at the Wildhorse Saloon June 14 (during Fan Fair Week), Brett allegedly punched one of the club’s managers during a scuffle. He and Brad were charged with simple assault.
“Everything gets blown out of proportion, but the bottom line is, it was nothing,” Brad says. “Somebody got out of line and started throwing our gear around. I confronted the guy about it, and he grabbed me and tried to push me back. Brett knocked him out cold. Now, when you’re about 220 pounds, 6 feet 2 inches and a 160-pound guy knocks you out cold, you’re going to call the police because you’re upset.”
“It’s amazing the stories we hear coming out of there, like there was seven bouncers that drug me downstairs, and they ripped my shirt off and had to hold me down,” Brett says. “I walked downstairs and sat on the curb and waited on the cops to come to tell them what happened.”
Brett “Ali” Warren has even conked country superstar Tim McGraw in the nose, but it was an accident. While touring with McGraw’s “A Place in the Sun” tour last year, the Warrens took on McGraw and his brother for a little game of two-on-two basketball.
“I took him to the hole, and he couldn’t hang,” Brett jokes.
Even so, the Warren Brothers have been tapped to open for McGraw and Hill on this year’s wildly successful Soul 2 Soul tour. The husband and wife team had been taking rotating opening acts on the road, but then decided in August to give Brett and Brad the slot for the rest of the tour (which extends through October). The Warrens say the exposure to arena-size crowds has helped them land their second straight Country Music Association award nomination for vocal duo.
“I think they’re directly related,” Brett says. “You look at the success of our first record, although it was critically acclaimed, we didn’t even go gold [sell 500,000 copies] with it. But, we did two tours with Faith and toured with Tim and the Dixie Chicks.”
And besides, hanging with McGraw on the road gives the Warrens a good excuse to play.
“Tim’s got three little motor scooters, and we ride ’em in the parking lot,” Brett says. “He’s wearing a baseball cap and glasses and nobody even knows it’s him. Every now and then, somebody would be like ‘Oh my God! That’s Tim McGraw!’ And you’d hear her husband go, ‘No it’s not! He wouldn’t be out here riding a skateboard.”