Cory Branan is a blue-collar, Mississippi-bred, Nashville-based singer songwriter that grew up listening to metal before discovering John Prine and making one of 2014’s best country records. The No-Hit Wonder is barely a month old, but his fourth record welcomes guest appearances by a who’s-who of those that call him a friend: Jason Isbell, Craig Finn and Steve Selvidge of The Hold Steady, Tim Easton and Caitlin Rose.
Branan spoke to Weld about his evolution and those relationships before his appearance at Bottletree on Wednesday.
Weld: Before you discovered Prine and started playing guitar, you were in your mid-20s. Did you have a day job before that?
Cory Branan: Oh yeah, man. I worked every [expletive] job in Mississippi. I did some landscaping and some construction, a lot of bartending and waiting tables. The worst job I ever had was a detailer for the big rigs – so they’d come in, you’d have a trucker that’s been out for a long haul, I’d have to be in the cab, cleaning out the cab with a toothbrush, just fine-tuning this petrie dish of – you know, it was the worst job I ever had [Laughs].
Weld: Were you doing that in Nashville or was that back in Southhaven?
CB: Yeah that was in Southaven, and then I was doing the bartending at a nicer place called Peabody’s after I moved to Memphis, after high school.
Weld: Did you go to school in Memphis?
CB: Well, I went down to Delta State in Cleveland, Mississippi for a bit, then I went to a community college, then I went to the University of Memphis for a bit. I went all around, never finished.
Weld: You were at Memphis, and I know you’re good friends with Jason Isbell from North Alabama – did y’all cross paths at Memphis?
CB: We did not, somehow. He’s younger than I am, I know that. That’s probably the reason. Someone else was there at the same time I was there – but I wasn’t there for too long, at the University of Memphis.
Weld: So you left Southaven right after high school and eased your way toward Nashville. How long did it take you to land there?
CB: Oh I’ve only been here for two or three years. I lived in Memphis for the longest time. Until I was 27 or 28. I went to L.A. for a couple of years. Lived in Brooklyn and Fayetteville, Arkansas and Austin, Texas for a couple of years. I moved around a lot. Then my father got sick and I moved home to help take care of him until he died. Then I sort of stayed around Memphis, just to be close to the family for a year. I started seeing my now wife and we moved up to Nashville about three years ago.
Weld: Did you struggle leaving Southaven?
CB: Oh no, it was easy as [expletive] [Laughs]. Southaven is just on your way out of Memphis. My old man was a jet mechanic for Fed Ex, so he moved us up from the Coldwater area to the last town in Mississippi. They say Memphis is the capital of North Mississippi anyway. It wasn’t like I was going off from Kansas off to the big city – I was moving 20 minutes up the [expletive] road a piece, you know? [Laughs] I didn’t have that displacement. It was just an obvious choice. There’s some great towns in Mississippi – Southaven at that time wasn’t one of them. It’s grown a lot. It’s still my hometown, so I still like things about it, but it’s still one of those places that you can get any type of fast food in the world and no proper book learning.
Weld: Were you influenced by the hill country blues of the area?
CB: It didn’t influence me, but I sure enjoy it. As soon as I started playing shows, I was trying to sneak into the Antenna Club. I was playing in a metal band. … College, when I was at Delta State. Anytime R.L. [Burnside] was close. Any of that. That was definitely everywhere. It wasn’t really influential in my music, but it sure made the beer go down sweeter.
Weld: What artists are coming out of Memphis now that you enjoy?
CB: I don’t even have my finger on the pulse of Nashville, much less Memphis anymore. [Laughs] I know John Paul Keith is doing great work. I don’t know who the hell is coming out of Memphis right now. That’s the thing about Memphis; for better or worse, things don’t come out of there for the most part. It’s insular. It’s probably because there isn’t much infrastructure there for studios and producers and things like that. There’s never any chance of you playing on a Wednesday night and thinking, “Oh, who’s going to discover me?” [Laughs] Which lends an authenticity to it. If you’re humping it and playing more than one show a month in Memphis, you must [expletive] love music. It is a tough crowd, it doesn’t pay for [expletive] and it’s a tough music crowd. One of the toughest I’ve ever seen. I’m very lucky to be from there. I got thrown right into the fire. If you can hold a crowd’s attention in Memphis, you can do it anywhere in the [expletive] world. And I’m talking war-torn countries [Laughs].
Weld: No-Hit Wonder is fabulous. And you were able to assemble quite a supporting cast with Craig Finn and Jason Isbell and Caitlin Rose. How did you work so many talented artists into your own project?
CB: Yeah, you know, I’ve had my buddies sing on my records since day one – every record has had my buddies on it – but I’ve always tried to be careful not to have them on just because they’re my buddies. Not to have them on just, in this case, I almost balked at this many guests because there are a lot of high-profile names…and I was almost like, “Well, this is going to be distracting.”
I like to have my friends on where they fit and where they’ll shine. Not just to have them on because we’re buddies and stuff. I knew, for instance, with Tim Easton that I needed a high harmony for the “Sour Mash” song that can still keep the grit in his voice when he’s singing a high harmony. That’s a rare vocal talent to have high grit and pure note at the same time. Not everybody has that. And Caitlin was the easy choice on the song she’s on. And Jason came in and originally, I just had him in mind for “You Make Me” and he knocked that thing out of the park immediately, and I was like, “Well, since you’re here…” [Laughs]
The one rare exception was Craig Finn and he’s a rare exception on all of our records. I know Steve Selvidge – Steve and I go way back, he’s a Memphis boy – and they were in town recording at Blackbird Studios and I invited Steve over to sing and Craig was with him. I had never met Craig. I had all these parts at the end of that song. I had written almost a round, and I didn’t want to sing them all myself and be all Bjork about it, so I had Steve come in and Craig was there, and literally, 20 minutes after I met him, Craig was singing on my record. He was very kind, and I’m a huge fan. So he’s kind of the one exception of almost stranger that’s on my record. And it was great. I think their voices make that song. What a cool singer. I’ve never seen anyone sing consonants the way this guy does. The whole word, not just the vowel, the whole word comes out of this man at the same time. It’s awesome.
Weld: Did you and Steve play in bands before he was in the Hold Steady? What is your relationship like?
CB: I was never in bands with Steve. He played in Big Ass Truck. He was briefly in Lucero when Brian decided he didn’t want to go on the road for a while. Steve’s played, he’s just one of those guys in Memphis that’s done everything. He’s a genuine, tender soul. Steve had played with me down at South by [Southwest] a couple of times, and…”back in ‘Nam” when I played on Letterman, that was Steve playing guitar with me. We go way back.
Weld: You were much more deliberate with the timing of The Hell You Say, 12 Songs and Mutt, but you turned this one around much more quickly. What was the driving force that sparked that quicker pace?
CB: Oh, I just had a label that wanted to put out a record. Trust me, if my first label wanted to put out a record every year and a half, I would have. It was pulling nails to get that second one out. Between – the six year timeline people talk about between 12 Songs and Mutt wasn’t really, because I recorded Mutt two years before it came out. I had to fund it privately and then it got picked up by Bloodshot and then we put it out. So it doesn’t line up exactly like that. I would have – I have a stack of songs from all of those years of not getting to put out the record that I wanted. Hell, three of them made it on this record: “Meantime Blues”, “Skywriter” and “Sour Mash”. Those are old songs. They’ve been around five or six years. I was just waiting to put out ore of a roots-oriented album where they fit. Hopefully it’ll be every year and a half from now on. This one would have been out sooner if I hadn’t have gotten some allergies, some weird thing that [didn’t allow me to sing last year].
Weld: “All the Rivers in Colorado” is a classic country song – I almost feel like it’s something that would have been on a late ’90s George Strait record.
CB: Thank you.
Weld: With the geography and the steel guitar…what influenced the subject matter and what influenced the sound of it?
CB: You know, I was just driving – that’s one of them that fell in my lap. I usually like to take a pole and a hook when I go fishing, but that one jumped right in the boat. I was driving through the Rockies and by the time I hit the bottom of them, I had written that one. I had always envisioned just a straight country song. When Robbie Turner put the steel on it, I was like, “Yep, there it is, right there.”
And I try not to make small mistakes. If you’re going to make mistakes, just go big with it. That’s the things I end up loving about the record anyway. I fought my whim, Caitlin Rose sings on that – she’s got such a lovely voice. She had doubled a part in this one thing, and I almost used the double, because her voice doubled sounds exactly like 1982 country – right before it went off the deep end. When it had that strange pop edge up top. I almost did that. But it sounded too kitsch and retro and the rest of the record sounded too organic and natural feeling, but I almost went 1982 on it. Instead I let it stay maybe late-’90s when George Strait was holding up the last of it.
Weld: When you record those records that have so much of a “pure country” sound, does it make you miss your old metal days? Do you wish you could go back and cut a metal record?
CB: If I write a song that needs to be metal, hell, I’ll put it on the record as metal. Hell, I don’t care. Ain’t nobody gotta tell me what to do. My security gave me a license to do whatever I want. Bloodshot, bless their hearts, they’re one of those labels that will chime if you want, but if you want to just hand them the record, they’re fine with that, too. I’ve got complete control, so who knows? Maybe one day I’ll break out the double bass and my old P.C. Rich and [Laughs] get a terrible guitar tone and do it one of these days.
Weld: You have really deep Southern roots and its that time of year, are you an SEC fan?
CB: My old roommate, Gary Parrish, I don’t know if you know Gary, he’s a sportswriter…
Weld: Yeah, absolutely!
CB: Oh, wait, yeah you know Gary, never mind. He broke the Albert Means scandal. [Laughs] I’m talking to someone from Alabama – yeah, you know Gary Parrish [Laughs]. Around that time, we were roommates, and man, we couldn’t even go home there were so many death threats and bomb threats and slander to his name and stuff. It was ridiculous. Living with him over the years, I got inundated with all of that, so I’ve been out, man, I’ve been out. I feel like I can go to a game here or there, but I don’t keep up with anything anymore.
Weld: What’s the best pork in the South?
CB: Oh, it’s in Memphis. Depends what you want; if you want dry rub or wet or if you want pulled pork. My favorite, and it’s probably just familiarity, is Central BBQ. It’s become my favorite over the last five years. I used to like Interstate, but Central is kind of crushing it and it’s right there in Midtown.
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
CB: Immediately, I’m like Thin Lizzy? Not American.
Hmm. Top five American rock bands. I’m just going to blank right and left. I would think The Band, but they’re Canadian and American…
Weld: Levon was from Arkansas, so we always allow it.
CB: Alright, so The Band. Probably number one for me. Chuck Berry invented the damn thing. I’ll go with Big Star, which is power pop, but we’ll call it rock and roll. Rock and roll is a big open highway. This will be controversial, but Steely Dan. I love Steely Dan. Very divisive band. Let’s just go with The Stooges.
Cory Branan comes to Bottletree Cafe on Wednesday, Sept. 24. Van Hollingsworth and Adam Guthrie will open. Doors open at 8 p.m., while the show is set to begin at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10.