It's March 2004 at a music-biz trade show at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. Memphis-based, Mississippi-raised singer-songwriter Cory Branan sits on stage armed with only an acoustic guitar as a sparse crowd of catnappers, laptop clickers, and networkers pay little attention. A bemused Branan turns his attention to a handful of Memphians who have tagged along to lend some support, looking down at his friend and Lucero guitarist Brian Venable and asking if there's anything in particular he wants to hear.
"Play something from the first album," Venable cracks.
The joke at the time was that it had been two and a half years since the release of Branan's heralded debut album, The Hell You Say, and work on the follow-up didn't seem to be progressing.
Well, Branan finally made it into the studio (primarily Easley-McCain) that August to begin recording what would become the terrific 12 Songs, but it took another year and a half to actually get the record released. And those two gaps put one of Memphis' most promising musical careers in limbo.
Branan, who is currently living in East Nashville despite stepping up his Memphis performance schedule in recent months, is reluctant to talk about his testy relationship with local label MADJACK, which released The Hell You Say and ends its contractual relationship with Branan by releasing 12 Songs this month. Instead, he describes his trip through the music-industry rabbit hole in oblique terms.
"I liken it to a traffic jam," Branan says. "If you're stuck in traffic, there might be a student-driver up front or some construction causing it, but if you sit there long enough, you start thinking there better be somebody dead. When it finally clears, you're happy no one's hurt. Now that it's over, I don't even care. I'm free. There were multiple reasons [for the delays], and I think everybody would give you different ones."
Because of the gaps, 12 Songs sounds more like a sister record to The Hell You Say than a new chapter for Branan. Longtime fans will recognize several songs -- such as "Tall Green Grass" and "The Prettiest Waitress in Memphis" -- as staples of Branan's live shows even before he recorded The Hell You Say.
"I could have walked right out of the studio from The Hell You Say and immediately recorded this record," Branan says. "Most of those songs were written around the same time. This record is so foreign to me, which isn't to say I'm not proud of it. I'm proud as hell of it. I just never listen to it."
And Branan should be proud of it. Coming more than four years after The Hell You Say, 12 Songs is a reminder of what a dazzling songwriter Branan is -- funny, smart, poetic but never pretentious -- and also how much more musical he is than your typical acoustic-based singer-songwriter.
Produced by veteran Memphis record-maker Jeff Powell and book-ended by rave-ups "Girl Named GO" and "She's My Rock-n-Roll," 12 Songs gives Branan a much more expansive musical palette than fans only familiar with his solo performances will recognize, deploying a long list of notable local musicians in the grand design.
But as impressive as 12 Songs is musically, the focus is still on Branan's songs, where he reestablishes that he has a way with words unmatched by any other contemporary Memphis songwriter, from perceptive couplets ("A small stack of singles from a hard double-shift will do terrible things to a smile/And the prettiest waitress in Memphis knows she's only that way for a while") to imagistic reveries ("Lazy drunken moon/Passed out in the branches/A fit of stars in my favorite piece of sky").
Hopefully, now that Branan's musical detour seems to be coming to an end, fans can start hearing more of these great songs, and more frequently.
"It was a stagnant time, with a back catalog just waiting to go," Branan says of the past few years. "I've got the next two records planned out in my mind down to the track listing."
After the rush of such high-profile moments as Branan's appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman and a full-page profile in Rolling Stone was followed by lots of waiting, Branan seems to be entering this new phase of his career with a clearer, more skeptical attitude about the music business.
"All that press stuff should never have happened anyway," Branan says. "It was just blind luck, but it was fun. I went at it wholeheartedly, goofing around. But I play folk music, basically."
As for the Rolling Stone profile, which featured a bare-chested Branan doing a "Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise" sexpot pose, the songwriter can only laugh now.
"That was retarded," Branan says. "Ninety-nine percent of the shots they took were different, but of course they went with that one. I'll never fucking live that down. I barely got to go back across the Mississippi border after that."
This time around, Branan seems to prize independence and control.
"We've got a handful of people interested in putting out my records, but I want to either do one-offs -- where I can do exactly what I want and the label has only that record to promote -- or I want to start my own label. [Alt-country singer] Gillian Welch is the model. She keeps it all self-contained and modest, puts it all on her Web site where you can download every song she's ever recorded," Branan says.
Branan has signed on with a Nashville-based manager who used to oversee Welch's tours to help guide his career.
"He's gonna hustle for me," Branan says. "I'm gonna go on a couple of small tours of the Southeast this spring, and then hopefully starting in May we can pick up some opening dates on bigger tours. And somewhere along the way record an EP and a full-length during the year, if not two full-lengths. With the slinging I've been doing in the clubs the past few years I'll have enough of a live reputation that I'll be able to put out records at a more reasonable rate. I'm feeling really good now. [Finally moving] forward is great."
12 Songs CD-Release Show
The Hi-Tone Café, Friday, March 17th
Doors open at 9 p.m.; admission $5