Everyone loves a good road story, which in some sense is what Cory Branan’s 2012 album Mutt was. Not so much in the literal sense, mind you, but in the sense of a long and adventure-filled journey and the return trip home. For Branan, it was a question of finding a home first.
Although Branan grew up a restless kid from a family of musicians and played in various punk acts, he didn’t write his first song until he was 25, and that was only because the songs of John Prine had rekindled his interest in the country and roots music he’d heard growing up in Southaven, Miss., just south of Memphis. For Branan, true country and old-school punk have something in common: They tell it like it is.
“It’s trying to tell a story with the least amount of bullshit,” says Branan. “There’s a reason why punks like Johnny Cash. There’s not much distance between what he was trying to do and what the Clash were trying to do.”
His first two albums, 2002’s The Hell You Say and 2006’s 12 Songs, received plenty of critical praise for their generally stark country/folk ballads. He sprinkled a few up-tempo numbers in there as well, like the Stax-inflected ode “Muhammad Ali” and the spunky, 99-seconds of power pop called “She’s My Rock-n-Roll.” Aside from a split LP with Jon Snodgrass, Branan didn’t release another full-length album for six years, 2012’s Mutt. For most of that time, he worked on the songs for Mutt, but he was also burdened by the task of finding a label. That period also corresponded with a nomadic time in Branan’s life.
“I left Memphis, and I lived in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Austin, and Fayetteville, Ark., kind of just trying to find a town that’s like Memphis — but not Memphis — and no luck, only to end up in Nashville with my wife,” says Branan. Today, the pair are the proud parents of a one-month-old little boy.
During that time, Branan, then in his mid-30s, turned to face his fears and demons and made a break from who he was in favor of who he wanted to be. Mutt‘s representative of that shift. The LP is aligned around ideas of failure, redemption, and acceptance. On “Bad Man,” he confesses, “It’s not love that I have for you, but it’ll have to do,” over a rising anthemic piano part worthy of Springsteen. In the midst of “The Freefall,” he cops to spending much of his time with “three-chord girls” who “everyone knows exactly how they go.” And Mutt closes with “Lily,” in which he addresses the difficulty of rediscovering life’s wonders, singing, “The best trick’s to see the magic once you’ve seen the wires.”
“It’s about what to do with the pieces after you’ve sort of disappointed yourself and made your peace with the fact your life isn’t going to be what you thought it was going to be as a kid,” Branan says.
Although Mutt was years in the making, Branan is nearly ready to release his latest as-yet-untitled disc. “This one that I’m working on now — the songs aren’t put together in a certain order like Mutt is. They were of a certain mind-set,” he says.
Branan laid down all the tracks for the forthcoming album quickly — in just three days last spring. But as a new Music City resident, Branan wasn’t prepared for the worst allergies of his life. It shut him down for two months and delayed the new album. But he expects it out this summer and to feature 11 songs, along with some bonus tracks for those who buy the vinyl. Among those are some crowd favorites including “Sour Mash.”
“A lot of the songs that people ask for at shows and know the best, they’re not even cut,” Branan chuckles. “They’re songs they’ve heard at shows, and they know of because once you’ve played it and someone records it on their shitty iPhone, it’s pretty much released.
“[The album’s] got some disparate stuff on it,” he continues. “It’s got a few left-field things on it, but in general there’s a lot more country. It’s a lot more of a roots record. There’s a little bit of rockabilly. Some rock, like the last album. And a little bit of almost ’70s Neil Diamond.”
Branan, who turns 40 this year, has more of a big-picture perspective these days. He’s found a home, a family, and a happiness he hadn’t known before. That ain’t bad for a guy who readily admits he didn’t know what he was doing just a few years ago. These days, he’s buoyed by the belief that if he remains true to his muse and writes from the heart, he’ll find an audience to sustain his career, eventually.
Branan says, “I’m taking the long road obviously, and I shoot myself in the foot all the time, but I’m making the music that I want to make, and maybe it’s a little harder and it takes a little longer, but I sleep OK at night.”