By Cody Oxley
(May/June 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 3)
Does anyone have an opinion on Josh Abbott?
Now there’s a silly question. More to the point: does anyone not have an opinion on him? In the four short years between their debut single, “Taste,” and “Touch” — the lead single from the new album Small Town Family Dream — the Josh Abbott Band has enjoyed a meteoric rise from fledgling, unknown openers to bona fide headliners from one end of Texas to the other. Success that fast is usually met with some measure of backlash from those predisposed to contrarian resistance, which means that the Lubbock-formed JAB would probably still be one of the most polarizing acts on the Texas country scene even without the added fuel-to-the-fire help of Abbott’s sometimes blogger and/or hater-baiting Twitter habit. Single after single, show after show, and tweet after tweet, Abbott knows just how to keep his ever-growing fan base satisfied — which, naturally, keeps his detractors happy, too … because where’s the sport in knocking an obscurity?
Fan or not, the Josh Abbott Band’s success cannot be debated. Somewhere between the release of “Taste” and the band’s full-length debut, 2008’s Scapegoat (featuring the hit “Good Night for Dancing”), the stage was set for a major breakthrough, and 2009’s She’s Like Texas delivered in spades via the title track and the nationally charting “Oh, Tonight.” Abbott’s fan-friendly marketing sensibilities sealed the deal, with ticket and merch giveaways early on in his career leading to bigger and bigger crowds every time his high-energy band (now comprised of Preston Wait, Edward Villanueva, James Hertless, Caleb Keeter, and Austin Davis) returned to a particular venue or college town. It’s worth noting that Abbott’s concerted efforts to connect with his fans on a personal level both online and at shows stems from more than just savvy business smarts; as his endless tweets about his music and his favorite sports teams reveal, Abbott himself knows how to be a fan. He’s been spotted at Houston Texans games vying for player autographs looking happy as a kid in a candy store.
Of course, Abbott has quite a lot to be happy about these days. On top of still being a recent honeymooner, the positive fan reaction and chart success of both the “Touch” single and video and Small Town Family Dream (which debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard 200) makes it clear that his band’s bright star is still on the rise. It’s no wonder then, why he seemed in such good humor when we caught up with him a few weeks before the new album’s April 24 release, whether he was riffing on his own success, his critics, or the question of who might be the tastiest singer in the Lone Star State.
Most of the girls I’ve talked to love your music, but the guys say, “Josh Abbott — he’s a douchebag.”
I get that. A lot of musicians aren’t like me. There’s a personality to most musicians, and I’m the guy that they hate. I’m the college fraternity guy that decided to pick up the guitar and sing songs about beer. I look up to Pat Green as opposed to, say, a Bob Dylan. It’s just a personality difference, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I know I’m a good person. We donate a lot of money and do a lot of charity work for people.
I don’t personally own any Taylor Swift or Kenny Chesney CDs, but I’ve heard from people who have worked with them that they are great people to be around. You might not like their music, but don’t attack their personalities. There’s types of music I don’t like, but that doesn’t make those artists douchebags or shitty people. I just think attacking the personality of someone you don’t know is really naïve.
A lot of the people that don’t like me are people that aren’t in my demographic. It seems that young women and college students really get what we’re doing, and we’re happy to play to that crowd. When the college girls fill up the dancehall, the guys tend to follow.
Things do seem to be going very well for you. What do you hope to accomplish with this new CD?
I’m really appreciative of my fans, my band, and the people who helped writing this album. Even the people who have not been our fans in the past will listen to this album and hopefully hear how our sound has developed. I hope what people get when they listen to this record is real growth. First, the new additions to the band. After She’s Like Texas, just a few months later, we changed bass and lead guitar players. Adding James Hertless on bass and Caleb Keeter on guitar, you can listen and hear a big difference. And the emergence of the banjo — the banjo player who recorded on our first album is back; Austin Davis, he was a fraternity brother of mine at Texas Tech, and we brought him in to just attack the album with the banjo. On songs like “Flatland Farmer” and “Idalou” you hear his impact clearly. I hope that separates us from the pack.
We got a lot of Randy Rogers comparisons early, and we really look up to those guys. But most bands, in their first couple of albums, sound like those bands that they really looked up to. We didn’t steal anything from anyone, but, maybe because I’m short and chubby, or our fiddle player runs around, we got that comparison to RRB. Now we do duets, we have female harmonies, even on tour sometimes, and we have a banjo, and we love the Randy Rogers Band, but I don’t think we sound like them anymore. I feel like the writing on this album is more mature than what we have done before, and I really pushed the vocals on this to a higher level than before. When you listen to this album, it sounds like a Josh Abbott Band album.
Based on your own definition in your song, “My Texas,” have you met your Texas yet?
Yeah. Wait … there’s one thing on there I haven’t done. I put it in there because it’s my wife’s favorite thing, but when you’re married, you’re one. So it’s been done. That first line, “Climbing up Enchanted Rock,” that’s my wife’s favorite thing, and we will definitely do that together before it gets too hot.
If you had to expand that definition of meeting your Texas, what one thing would you add?
It’s definitely not complete. We could’ve done two songs and not covered it all. How do you not mention George Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning” or “Snake Farm” by Ray Wylie Hubbard or “Beer, Bait and Ammo” by Kevin Fowler? How do you not talk about the Rangerettes at Kilgore, the Cowboys, the Rangers, or BBQ in Lockhart? Texas has so many awesome things that make it Texas and give the people pride. Everyone could write their own version.
This is your first album to feature songs you didn’t write, starting with “I’ll Sing About Mine,” a song written by Adam Hood and Brian Keane. How’d that one come your way?
I loved it when Brian put it out. I thought, “Wow! I wish I had written that.” At that time, we were pushing She’s Like Texas. Then we were working on this new album and that’s when Adam Hood’s CD came out, which is one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long time. I just thought, man, that song sounds so good.
We decided we were doing an album for the rural people. ‘Rural’ … that’s a tough word to say for some reason. Anyway, the rural community — not just in Texas, but everybody; there’s small town, hardworking people all over the Southeast and the Midwest. This is an album for them. I hope people in small towns all over can relate, whether it’s someone’s dad or a college kid from a small town. So, I talked to Adam and Brian about the song because it fit what we wanted our album to say to a T. They were excited about it, and they wanted us to do it.
This is the one song I’m most nervous about on the album as far as people’s reaction. We’ve never recorded an outside song before, and to record a song by two guys that people highly respect and love their stuff is almost like setting ourselves up for a hanging by our critics. Some people will say we butchered the song. But hopefully our fans will like our version, and we give [Adam and Brian] full credit for writing it, even in our live shows. “Hey, this is a song by two of my friends, Brian Keane and Adam Hood — go check out their versions and their music on iTunes.” The tempo and rhythm are the same, but we lowered the organ and let the fiddle and banjo shine through. We hope that puts a JAB twist on it.
I’ve been told you’re one of the best businessmen in the Texas music scene. What business advice would you give other musicians starting out?
If I’m talking to a young up and comer who asks how to have some success early, there’s several things. From a business sense, treat it like a business. Take out a business loan. If you wanted to start a bakery, or a shop, or a restaurant, not normally would you have the capital to do so. You take out a loan. A restaurant or a band, whatever it is, you have a product to sell. That product registers with a particular audience or demographic. That doesn’t mean you have to pander, but you need to identify your audience for your product. I enjoy singing songs about Texas. I don’t do it to make money. I fell in love with old-school Pat Green and Cory Morrow, so I sing Texas country. Then, I identified my crowd. Record an album that you can be proud of, and pitch it, advertise it, take out the back cover of a magazine. Get a sponsor and print out CDs to give away. Send them to fraternities and sororities. When you open for Casey Donahew, give out free CDs to the first 500 people who come in. People will tell you, “But you can’t give away CDs!” Would you have sold 500 CDs as the opener? Hell no. But if you give it away, and they listen to it, and half of them like you, then you just grew your audience by 250 people.
There’s also cost benefit analysis. I sell this many songs on iTunes in Midland-Odessa compared to Lubbock or Tyler. I cross reference that with radio spins and see which stations are most effective for my fans. Twenty-five spins in one place may not be as valuable as 10 spins in another area. Then you can choose which stations and groups you’d like to be involved with when it comes to events and giveaways.
So … approach it like a business. Have a plan. Don’t bet on luck and whims. Make your own luck. Make an album you are proud of and advertise it and get it to people.
What’s the strangest object you’ve ever actually written a song on?
I was playing in Paris, Texas. I wrote a song — I can’t remember the song — but I wrote a song on the back of a broke-down golf cart that was in the back of this venue we played. The drummer was inside doing a sound check, and they weren’t ready for me yet. So as I was waiting, I had a song idea come to me. I started writing it.
I actually wrote “She’s Like Texas” in a five-hour layover in the Chicago airport. I sat in one of the corridors with my guitar writing the song. Security came up and said, “Hey, we can’t let you do that here.” I explained I wasn’t trying to get tips, so they asked me to shut my guitar case.
You tweet about sports a lot. What’s your favorite Texas sports team?
The Texans — the Houston Texans. But they keep trading away my favorite players. We definitely hurt the cohesiveness of our offensive line in this offseason. We lose Mike Brisiel to Oakland, then Eric Winston … But what do I know? I’m just a singer! But I also love the Rangers and the Mavericks.
Back to music … you talked about how you try to tell your fans to check out Brian Keane and Adam Hood. What other artists on the scene right now do you think should be getting more attention?
Everybody, right? I can’t just give you one. Whiskey Myers and Turnpike Troubadours are gonna be huge. William Clark Green has a ton of potential to be the next Hayes Carll kind of guy; what separates him is the Cajun twist — the way he sings words and his subjects have an East Texas or Louisiana feel to it. Charlie Shafter is another one, he’s brilliant; Ray Wylie Hubbard called him a “modern day Townes Van Zandt.” They’ve recorded an album together that will be out soon. And Jason Eady — how great is that album he just put out? You just listen to it and it takes you back to the songs you listened to with your grandpa. I listened to Merle Haggard growing up, and it took me back to those days. Great CD.
What about older artists? You co-wrote “Touch” with Radney Foster, and Pat Green sings on “My Texas.” Are there any other artists from Texas that you really look up to like that or would like to work with?
In addition to that Brian Keane and Adam Hood song, there’s tracks six (“FFA”) and seven (“Flatland Farmer”) on the new CD, which are both Terry Allen songs, from his 1979 album, Lubbock on Everything. And Ray Wylie Hubbard and I have talked about writing together. I think he is just cool as shit and I love going to his concerts when I can. He and I have kind of become friends. I know I probably don’t play the kind of stuff he likes, and I don’t play any kind of music that sounds as cool as his. But having him at some festivals, and getting to hang out with him and his wife, and Charlie Shafter, it’s been great. But I’ve written with Wade and Randy and Pat, and there’s just so many great songwriters in the Texas scene. Thom Shepherd, I hope he gets more and more cuts. Great guy, and if you’re around a campfire, he’s your guy. He can play any country song from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s …
Maybe I can get Jason Eady to write a song with me. That’ll get some people off my back. [Laughs]
And Matt Powell …
And Drew Kennedy and Josh Grider and Mike McClure. Maybe John Dickson will set up the Josh Abbott Songwriter Week, where I get to write with all these Red Dirt greats and more people will take my music seriously. [Laughing harder.]
You know, Guy Clark has that song “Cold Dog Soup.” You can’t say it better. Hayes Carll has that song “It’s Hard Out Here.” If you write those songs that are unique and creative and visionary, you have fewer fans, and that’s the shitty part of what we do. And that’s not a knock on anyone on either side. We just happen to write our styles for whoever appreciates them. And it’s a shame that there are so many songwriters out there who don’t get their due.
Last question. If you were stranded on a deserted island with Randy Rogers, Wade Bowen, and Pat Green, who would you kill and eat to stay alive?
Well, it’d take all three of us to kill Pat Green, but he’d be the best meal in terms of cannibalism. But Randy’s probably better marinated.