Singer-songwriter and onetime Memphian Cory Branan returns to town this week for a show at the 1884 Lounge inside Minglewood Hall. Branan, who currently resides in Nashville, is touring in support of his fourth full-length album, The No-Hit Wonder, which was released in August by the well-respected Chicago indie label Bloodshot Records.
The record is arguably Branan's best work to date, highlighting his ever-improving knack for catchy pop melodies alongside the always-present clever wordplay, which manages to come off as both darkly funny and heartfelt. Highlights include the title track, a song-slinger ode that should resonate with anyone who's ever done in-the-round or open-mic type shows, and the pining rocker "Missing You Fierce."
Branan, currently on the road with fellow troubador and Bloodshot labelmate Justin Townes Earle, spoke to the Flyer earlier this week about making his new album, moving to Nashville, visiting his hometown, and more.
Flyer: First, let's talk about The No-Hit Wonder. Where did you record it?
Branan: We started in Franklin, Tennessee, at a place called The Sound Kitchen where Paul [Ebersold, producer] had a room and finished up when he opened his studio in Berry Hilll, The Bakery.
What was it like to work with Ebersold as a producer?
It was rad. I can't say enough about the man's ear and his willingness to try anything and then pounce on what works. Paul gathered the core group of heavyweights to play on it. Him being an ol' Memphis boy, I think I got the best of both towns: Memphis spontaneity and Nashville precision.
How long did you have the songs on the record finished before going into the studio? Did you work them out on the road first?
I always go in with the tunes completely written and even pre-arranged as much as possible. Then you just listen to your players, and when they play something better, which is often the case, you stay loose enough to follow that. For instance I had written "Sour Mash" as more of a country barn-burner, but when I learned Slick Joe Fick of the Dempseys' fame was living in Nashville, I knew I had to have that doghouse bass. Then it morphed without force into the early Sun Records sound we ended up with.
How has starting a family affected your work schedule?
Still the same grind tour-wise, unfortunately. FaceTime is a lifesaver. The pull of home shows up on the new album. It's all fairly new, so I'm sure it'll forever change me and then the songs.
Even though you haven't lived here for a while, Memphis still likes to claim you. Do you still consider yourself a Memphian?
Sure, it's where I was born and where I lived when I began to write music. It's where an inordinate amount of the music and people I love come from. It'll always be home in that sense. Of course, I was raised just across the line in Mississippi and have lived in L.A., Brooklyn, Fayetteville, Austin, and now Nashville since leaving Memphis in 2002. But yeah, I say Memphis when people ask where I'm from.
Why did you decide to move to Nashville?
I was home helping out while my father was ill. And the summer after he died I found out I was going to become a dad myself, so I thought it was high time to move up to Nashville and write some songs for other people on the side, get some mailbox money. Not that that's gone how I would like. Yet.
What's your take on the competition between Memphis and Nashville?
Nashville isn't really concerned with anything but Nashville. A lot of Memphis has a huge chip on its shoulder that I love. It's something to do with Nashville commercializing its "authentic country" while Memphis' blues remains, thankfully, inherently commerce-proof. This view tends to conveniently overlook that country was always trying to have pop appeal from Patsy Cline and Buck Owens. Fortunately pop music was in a better state back then. Today you cross over and right off the cliff.
How did you get hooked up with Bloodshot Records?
I signed with Bloodshot in 2011 and released my first record with them, Mutt, in 2012. That came about through the efforts of Josh Zanger and Joe Swank, the publicist and radio guys at Bloodshot. They had been longtime fans and really championed the album to the owners Rob Miller and Nan Warshaw.
I understand you spent a fair amount of time shopping that record before eventually finding it a home with Bloodshot. What was that like? Were you ever worried that it wouldn't come out?
It took a while to find a home for Mutt. Ronny Russell, who was part of Madjack Records (Branan's former label), financed the record, and I produced it with Tim Mooney engineering in San Francisco. I knew I had something I was really proud of, so I held on to it until it found the right home. It's always hard to have something you believe in be turned down a lot, but after so many years at this you get a thick enough hide or you're done. Of course, too thick a hide, and it's hard to create, but that's another answer for a different question.
When you look back at your first two records for Madjack, how do you feel about that material?
I'm really proud of those first two records I did with Madjack. Some of those songs are still staples of my live show. And through them I worked with Jeff Powell and Kevin Cubbins at both Ardent and Easley studios, which was an education in itself. Plus, I got to record with great musicians from Jody Stevens to Susan Marshall and Kim Richardson who I may not have otherwise been able to meet outside of Memphis.
Over the years, you've accumulated a number of well-known fans in the music industry, including Chris Carrabba (Dashboard Confessional), Chuck Ragan, Lucero, and Jason Isbell. What's it like to have folks like that be such big supporters, and how have those relationships helped you along?
It's always nice to have folks you respect dig what you do. I'm sure some of the folks that have been more vocal with their support haven't hurt. Every little bit helps, though I do get a lot of Lucero fans yelling "evil streak!"
When you come through Memphis you'll be in the midst of a string of dates opening for Justin Townes Earle. How did you get connected with him?
I know Justin from same way I know most songwriters. It's a pretty small circuit out there. It's like any other dying art I imagine - you tend to meet whatever community is left out there scrapping together a living. That, or through Lucero. They're the musical equivalent of Kevin Bacon.
What's your schedule like for the rest of the year and beyond?
Just lots of touring stateside for the the rest of the year. Then the U.K. and Australia (where the record just got picked up by Universal) in late winter. I'm doing a couple splits with Chuck Ragan and Lydia Loveless, then I'll start on the next record next fall.
Will you be playing solo on November 8th?
I'll be solo like 99 percent of the time. Fiscal necessity.
Do you see it as a homecoming?
I don't know about a homecoming per say, but it's always a party.