Cory Branan has pared down his touring operation about as far as he can: right now it’s just him, his guitar and his van. Learning to “slug it out early,” says the Memphis-reared singer-songwriter, helped him hone the kind of fortitude necessary to walk out onstage in front of crowds there to see the likes of Gaslight Anthem, his buddy Jason Isbell “and some bands that I probably have no business playing to their fans,” he quips.
“But when it’s one guy with a guitar, they’ve gotta take the song at face value,” Branan says while driving through Florida one afternoon last week. “It works out, you know?”
Branan, who is around 40, is also tight with Lucero, the band whose fusion of bruising punk rock and uplifting Stax-style soul has made them something of a Southern answer to the Replacements, as well as one of Memphis’ more successful 21st-century musical exports. He sang on the title track of Lucero’s second album, 2003’s Tennessee, and various members have appeared on Branan’s earlier albums like 2006’s 12 Songs. He even lived in the same warehouse as some of the Lucero guys for a while back then, he says.
“Way back,” the congenial Branan notes. “Good dudes.”
Since Memphis, Branan says he’s lived all over the map, including a two-year hitch in Austin in the early 2010s. He loved it, he says, noting it was important to him to live in a music town. Still, Austin’s relatively remote location helped prompt Branan’s decision to move to Nashville about four years ago.
“It was really isolated to tour out of,” he notes. “You can get into Mexico before you get out of Texas. You’re down there (laughs).”
Around his Austin years, Branan signed to Bloodshot Records, the Chicago-based label that has offered a home to maverick, roots-minded recording artists for more than 20 years, dating back to the days of the Old 97’s and Whiskeytown’s early albums. Featuring some of his Austin friends, his Bloodshot debut Mutt came out in 2012, and his spot on the label has afforded him quirky opportunities like recording a split 7-inch of Prince covers with labelmate Lydia Loveless for Record Store Day 2015. He took on “Under the Cherry Moon,” while Loveless grabbed “I Would Die 4 U”; “WAY SOLD OUT!”, says Bloodshot’s site.
"[The label] posted something a year or so ago for April Fools Day, that they had a Bloodshot record of Prince covers coming out,” Branan says. “They made a fake album cover for it, and people got really mad that it wasn’t real. I was like, ‘Just let me know; I’ll do that in a heartbeat. That’s one of my favorite artists of all time. I’ll screw one of his songs up easily.’”
The quick sellout came ”maybe not on the merits of our versions of the songs at all,” laughs Branan. “Maybe people just like purple vinyl. It went pretty fast.”
Last year, Branan released his second album for Bloodshot, The No-Hit Wonder. A spirited affair that walks a crooked line between upbeat roots-rockers (“Taking the Highway Home,” “Missing You Fierce”) pure honky-tonk (“All the Rivers In Colorado,” “Daddy Was a Skywriter”) and artsier moments like the Tom Waits-ish, near-Parisian “All I Got and Gone,” the whole record is very much in Bloodshot’s wheelhouse. (“C’Mon Shadow” sounds like something you might have heard in an Old West saloon.) Designed to be enjoyed with the aid of one of those old-school ViewMaster toys, the 3-D video for “You Make Me” features Branan again touring, only this time standing in front of a long list of landmarks like the Alamo, the Hollywood sign, the Kremlin and Easter Island.
“The background image goes back and the foreground image comes forward, and the main image stays 2-D so you can watch it without it being blurry,” he explains. “But if you put the red and blue glasses on it’s crazy 3-D. It was a lot of fun to make.”
Branan has his doubts about how “country” No-Hit Wonder is, noting Craig Finn of the Hold Steady’s appearance on the title cut, but Rolling Stone Country selected it as one of its Top 40 country albums of 2014, and Spin picked “No Hit Wonder” as one of the year’s Top 40 country songs. The song, a distant cousin to something Bob Dylan might have recorded for Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, pretty much nails what it’s like for a musician who’s not exactly struggling but not doing much more than scraping by. Asked what he thinks the country-music establishment in his latest hometown thinks of his music, Branan admits “I don’t think they think of it very much at all.”
“You say country music in Nashville and it could mean 100 different things to 100 different people — I’d say things are very broad and open,” he laughs.
Nevertheless, Branan says one of the reasons he came to Nashville, besides it making a more centralized touring base for him, is to try his hand at the ancient Music City art of song-plugging. With bro-country looking pretty stale by this point, Branan figures there might be a little room for his songs in Nashville’s ever-shifting tastes. Maybe.
“Maybe as a deep cut,” he chuckles. “Maybe not the radio stuff. Maybe some guy who still wants some country songs on his album. I can write those.”
Cory Branan performs at 9:30 p.m. tonight at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. The Memphis Dawls go on after at 9:30.
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