If you haven’t heard of Cory Branan, we can’t blame you. Neither can Cory. The self-proclaimed “No-Hit Wonder” may not have garnered the legions of fans that Jason Isbell has. But, then again, he can count him as one of his, along with Craig Finn and Steve Selvidge of The Hold Steady, who all contributed their voices to Cory’s new album.
It’s the kind of steering wheel-slapping record you should listen to on a road trip from Nashville to New Orleans. From twang to punk with Tom Waits-esque vocals and a smidgen of accordion, it’s an album that encompasses not only the roots of American music, but Cory’s too.
We sat down with the No-Hit Wonder himself to talk about why his sound has taken a different tone, growing up with MTV in Mississippi, and chocolate gravy.
This album seems more upbeat that your last one, Mutt. Where did that shift come from?
Mood-wise more than tempo probably. I’m not a naturally optimistic person, but since the last record I’ve had two kids and gotten married to a wonderful woman. I’ve had so much preposterous happiness in my life, it’s kinda messing with my worldview.
Your lyrics are very much like Drive-By Truckers. It feels like listening to an anthology of poetry or parts of a novel. Are there Southern authors that influence the way you write?
I like narrative; I like telling stories very much in songs but I like to leave some room in there for people to fill in. I’m a huge Eudora Welty fan. Barry Hannah, I love — that kind of eye for a telling detail. I don’t necessarily write my music Southern just because you don’t wash that off. It’s Southern because I’m Southern. I don’t necessarily sing about trucks and pontoon boats. Not the standard fare. The whole trappings, that to me is as much country as hot topic is to punk.
Where do the shades of punk in your music come from?
I grew up in North Mississippi, but it’s not like I grew up on a farm. I grew up in a suburb of Memphis almost. I grew up with my hoodrat friends doing hoodrat stuff, glued to MTV. There were no record stores. There was nothing there. So I got my music, like everybody does there, through church, or kin, and through radio, which was a different creature then. But I grew up a child of MTV. It was the same time I was getting George Jones and gospel music in my life that I also got Iron Maiden and Black Flag and then later on, Guns N’ Roses. It all came very piecemeal.
I think a song is a song and I’ve almost made records almost to test that thesis statement. There is a reason to me Clash fans like Johnny Cash. There’s not much difference to me between the genres to me as far as the storytelling.
What was it like getting to work with Jason Isbell and Craig Finn?
I’ve always had buddies on all my records, and Jason’s been a buddy for a few years now, and he’s great. He came in and just crushed it. He was fantastic. He’s been real supportive. I didn’t know Craig. Craig was sitting in on my records, quite literally 15 minutes after I met him. How it happened was he was recording here in Nashville when I was doing mine, and their [The Hold Steady’s] guitar player is a old friend, and he was coming over to sing on the record.
I had all these extra parts at the end of one song, and I didn’t want sing them all myself like a Bjork record or Dolly doing her own harmonies–the less of my voice, the better, you know. So Steve came in to sing, and Craig was just with him. I’m a huge fan of Craig’s. I think he’s one of the best songwriters out there, a very detail-oriented writer. I was like, you know what, it’s sort of a round at the end of this song. There’s a part if you wanted to, and he was like yeah, I’ll give it a shot, and I think their voices make the end of that song.
How do you like living in Nashville?
I love it. Going on 3 years now, good place to raise a kid. I moved to Memphis right after high school, bartended at The Peabody. I didn’t really write songs till I was around 24 or 25, around then, but I always loved Memphis. But I left Memphis in my late 20s and lived in L.A., Brooklyn, Austin, and Fayetteville. Always moved around and was trying to find a town that was like Memphis but not Memphis. I had plenty of Memphis, but I needed a town that had a rich musical past, so I need to still have my face ripped off by great music a couple times a month. Since I’ve moved here, Nashville’ really doubling down on itself and is so much more than just big hat, big boots country.
How did growing up in Mississippi influence you as a musician?
You’re obviously exposed to that church music. My father used to listen to a lot of gospel quartets, Blackwood Brothers, things like that. I always loved riding around in his big banana-yellow GMC truck and listening to whatever station would come in over the AM.
But the blues for me is almost scripture. But I love it so much that I don’t touch it too much. I just stay away from it, and love it from afar. Except maybe “Meantime Blues” on this record. It has that sort of Mississippi John Hurt pickin’ thing going on.
When you go on tour do you explore or do you stick to business?
It depends on what kind of tour. If I’m not opening for a band where I have to hustle long distances and get there, I get the rare privilege of not taking interstates.
This is Southern Living, so we have to ask what is your favorite food?
Oh that’s easy. Well, it’s not that easy. My wife, for being an L.A. girl, is a phenomenal cook – she makes a great Barbacoa. She’s really come around to making a mean batch of greens. I’m a big fan of, depending on who you ask in the South, whether they know or not, but chocolate gravy. My grandmother made the best chocolate gravy. My grandfather would put it on his eggs. I’m lucky I still have a full set of teeth.