Country-rocker Cory Branan has always lived near music — from his hometown of Memphis to Austin, Brooklyn and Los Angeles. He’s settled in Nashville now, though, and says it’s the perfect place for a touring “road dog” like himself.
“I just need a music town, and I need to be central to the country,” says the songwriter. “Austin was a great city, but you can get to Mexico before you can get out of Texas.”
On Mutt, his new album for Bloodshot Records, the country, soul, gospel and classic rock he’s absorbed through his travels filters down to just its barest and strongest elements. Then it’s all tempered by the mellow charring of Branan’s voice, which is so smoky that even at full power it retains a whispering quality.
After joining Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown tour last year, he’s continued doing what he does best — writing songs and performing around the world in rowdy clubs and music halls. He spoke with CMT.com about growing up with gospel music, getting detained in London and guessing what his mama will think about the new album’s artwork.
You were on the big Country Throwdown tour, as well as Chuck Ragan’s Revival tour recently, which is a lot smaller. How would you compare the two?
Branan: When I did the Country Throwdown tour, I was part of the Bluebird stage, so it was primarily a lot of Nashville songwriters. Most of them were songwriters for other people and not trying to be artists in their own right. There’s a great tradition of that here in Nashville, of course, but that was the first time I’d ever been exposed to that. When I first moved up to Nashville, I actually tried to write some on the side for country artists, and I’d go into some publishers and they’d be, like, “You wrote this song by yourself?” And I’d be, like, “Yeah, well I got dressed and drove down here, too.” (laughs)
Then, of course, everybody was an artist on the Revival tour, so they were kind of a bunch of road dogs. I consider myself kind of a road dog, but I was green as hell compared to Chuck. I learned all kinds of good tricks, like how to duct tape two guitars together for your package on the flight overseas so it counts as one. It was like going to school on that one.
What were your first experiences with music like?
My father was a drummer, my grandfather was a guitar player and his father was a fiddle player, so it’s family and then, of course, the church. Then I’m a kid of the MTV generation, so whatever filtered through that. It’s really piecemeal in Mississippi. You get Iron Maiden at the same time as Minor Threat and Easy E. Whatever pisses your parents off is kind of what came to me. But obviously growing up in Mississippi, there was a strong exposure to gospel and country music. I remember the radio in the truck was always set to this AM radio station that would almost exclusively play gospel quartets, so I was exposed to that pretty early. You’d think I’d be able to sing better being exposed to such good singers (laughs).
With a new album, you’ll be touring across the globe. Where are you most excited to visit?
I’m real excited about the U.S. tour because it’s been a while since I’ve done my own headlining tour, but it’s been a couple of years since I’ve been to Europe. I can’t wait to get back to London. I went over and got turned around last time because of the riots. A little bit of bad paperwork meant I had to turn around and come back, but they let me stay one night. They’re like, “You’ve gotta go back now and get deported, but the good news is you can stay for a night, you know, to sleep in the detainee unit.” And I’m, like, “You know your country’s on fire, right?” We drove through a bunch of baseball bats, but I was so exhausted at the time that I wouldn’t have known if somebody had hit me with one.
“Survivor Blues” shows up twice on the album. Is that song special to you?
That song did actually mean a lot to me when I wrote it, and I just heard it two different ways. It’s kind of like my “Born to Run” except the characters have significant pasts so they know that running won’t do any good. I wanted to record it with some energy, but then I’m real proud of the words in that, and I was afraid maybe they would get buried in a faster version, so I just cut it both ways. I ended up liking it sort as a set of bookends.
It’s interesting that you mention “Born to Run” because another song, “Bad Man,” reminds me of Springsteen.
That comes from a very specific origin, just about people in Memphis not being able to mind their own business. I love the South, but if you’re from here, you know what I mean. People love to talk.
I read that you designed the album cover for Mutt. It really grabs your attention.
Yeah, Joshua Black Wilkins is the photographer on that, but I kind of dreamt that scene. I couldn’t find an alligator mask though, so I made one out of papier-mâché and painted it.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a nude model on the cover of a country record. How do you think that will go over?
Umm, probably like a lead balloon. (laughs) I was surprised that my record label let me do it. And it was tricky because, I don’t want to over explain it, but she’s like the muse. The Mississippi Madonna with a boom box, kind of like a folk art thing. So it’s supposed to be like a goddess, not like, “Hey, there’s a naked woman.” So the trick was it had to be the right girl because she needed to be beautiful as opposed to sexy, you know?
I’m sure that was a tough job for you, by the way.
(Laughs) Well, the photographer chose the model. And my girlfriend was there with me the day of the shoot so that helped to make me a little less nervous. But yeah, my poor mama, she hasn’t seen it yet. I warned her. I know it might not go over so great with her, but I kind of live by “If you’re gonna make a mistake, never make a small one.”