Punk, metal, rap help shape Cory Branan’s country music
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Tracking down Cory Branan these days leads to the countryside near Oxford, Mississippi, where the singer-songwriter is mixing a batch of new songs for his next album. It’s at Tweed Recording (“out in the woods”) where he recently spent a productive eight days working with the studio’s bevy of rare, vintage equipment.
“I’m back to my sort of scattergun ways,” Branan says. “I’m going wherever the song takes me. I’m not really a mixologist like Beck where you have five or six elements in one song. I’m not really great at that. I allow myself the freedom to trust where the song wants to go.”
Branan proved to be a natural storyteller on his last two albums for Bloodshot Records: 2012’s “Mutt” and 2014’s “The No-Hit Wonder.” His rough-hewn vocals and earnest and sincere lyrics sit well with his fans. (He hopes to have the new album out early next year.)
Branan grew up in northern Mississippi, just outside Memphis, where his father worked as a jet mechanic for Fed Ex. His family was musical going back several generations, and he was exposed to the expected — bluegrass and gospel. But he also absorbed other music that spanned genres and played guitar in any band that would have him.
“I didn’t grow up in the Mississippi woods but in a suburb of Memphis,” Branan explains. “I was glued to MTV. I was listening to metal, Black Flag, NWA. I was all over the place.”
It was in high school that Branan found himself in a country band with an actual gig at Bad Bob’s Vapors, a “rough joint” in Memphis, where the band played the lunch shift for an audience of day drinkers.
“My dad couldn’t leave because I was underage,” Branan says with a laugh. “I put my long-suffering father through a lot of terrible music.”
A restless kid, Branan credits an unorthodox high school teacher, Evelyn Simms, with helping move him in the right direction (she thought his poetry showed promise).
“She was my creative writing teacher, and she was fantastic,” Branan recalls. Simms took him aside and suggested he read works that definitely weren’t on the school syllabus — works by the likes of Pablo Neruda, Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller.
“I was screwing around in high school and just phoning it in,” Branan recalls. “She turned me on to writers whose work inspired me in new ways.”
Branan took his time finding his musical home, moving from Memphis to Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Austin and ending up in Nashville, where he lives with his wife and 2-year-old son. (He also has a 4-year-old daughter from a previous relationship who lives in Tulsa with her mother.)
Having a toddler underfoot has been an eye-opening experience for the 41-year-old Branan. “Yeah, I don’t write on a schedule anymore,” he says with a knowing laugh. “Having children does lend a weight and more of an urgency to what I do. Puts it all into perspective and clears out all of the self-indulgent stuff.”
A bit of a late bloomer, Branan didn’t start singing until he was 21 and wrote his first song at 24, inspired by the music of John Prine, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. While he spent his earlier years in punk bands, making the crossover to a country-tinged style made a lot of sense to Branan.
“There’s a reason Clash fans like Johnny Cash,” Branan says. “They both tell it like it is with the least amount of bull—-. There’s an urgency to it that I’m drawn to.”
The recent batch of songs has found Branan moving in new and different directions. Seven or eight songs in, he realized a theme was developing: death. There have been a lot of deaths in his family recently and that this theme would manifest itself seemed natural. But he also felt the need to add some balance to the lineup.
The result is a tack in new directions for the singer-songwriter. Other new songs are “all over the place” addressing changes in his life as well as issues in the social-political arena. He describes a song he’s written from the point of view of a racist cop and another inspired by the antics of his rambunctious son.
“Why do a fifth record if you’re not going to stretch?” Branan says. “So I’m trying to juggle different tones. I can’t just write about beer and the nuances of the broken heart anymore.”
* Cory Branan with Brian Dunne, 8 p.m., July 28, Space, 1245 Chicago, Evanston. $15-$25. (847) 492-8860; evanstonspace.com