In 2006, nobody outside of Lubbock knew much about the Josh Abbott Band. The band had just gotten together earlier that year, a group of fraternity brothers and friends, and didn't record much material until 2007. But if you lived in town and went to Texas Tech University, you could find them damn near nightly at The Blue Light, a thoroughly college bar that plenty of other Texas artists have paid their dues in. But even then, rough as they were, you knew Josh Abbott Band would eventually be something special, at least in Texas.
And then they were. Josh Abbott Band quickly took their place as one of the fastest rising Texas Country acts, selling out honky-tonks and college bars across the state, earning songwriting comparisons to Steve Earle, and recording a catalog of party-driven, beer-drenched tracks. The formula was incredibly successful, but now it looks as if the Josh Abbott Band -- who headlines the Dallas Observer's St. Patrick's Day Concert this Saturday at Energy Square -- has finally grown up enough to move beyond the designation of being a "Texas Country" band.
If the past few years are any indication, Josh Abbott Band is poised to join a select group of Texas acts who have been able to transition into the mainstream. The first step in that process was signing with Atlantic's Nashville imprint in late 2012, after the release of Small Town Family Dream. Since then, Josh Abbott Band has been focused on writing, touring and, of course, recording the band's late-2014 EP, Tuesday Night.
Abbott has been extremely strategic about his foray into mainstream country music, especially when it comes to maintaining the sound and vibe that he's spent nearly 10 years cultivating. "When we were in negotiations with Atlantic, our main thing was the rights to our artistic creativity," says Abbott. "We didn't want one of those album deals where we signed over all of our creative control. I'm still writing all of our songs, and we weren't going to change how we dress or change out any members in our band."
But even as Abbott and his band have moved more into the mainstream consciousness, they haven't had to change much about the music they make. "Obviously, songs like 'My Texas' and 'Dallas Love' are always going to be popular in Texas," says Abbott. "But all along, we've written some songs, like 'Oh, Tonight' that never really lived inside that Texas Country box. You might not get every song you want on the record so that it can be more mainstream, but that's a small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things, especially when you find something that will work on a national level."
Abbott is still trying to figure out what will work on a national level -- he notes that "Hangin' Around" didn't "shoot up to No. 1 on Billboard or anything" -- but he's got some pretty great local brains to pick for advice on how to make it happen. "I talk to Jack Ingram, Pat Green and Eli Young," says Abbott. "Those are some guys that have been able to get some national success and No. 1's, which is kind of a rarity for us guys from Texas."
Abbott has a theory about why it's so hard for Texas artists to make it into the mainstream, at least where his music is concerned: "I think sometimes our music uses a little more fiddle than what the mainstream wants to hear," says Abbott. "Even though it's country music on the radio, it's very electric-driven. Our band is really driven by banjo and fiddle, and that automatically turns off some ears, especially the program managers who are being told to find something more poppy."
But Abbott also thinks that country is more welcoming to a more diverse crop of sounds than it ever has been before. "Country music is just such a melting pot of sounds right now," he says. "You hear one song on the radio and it's Bret Eldridge, who is like the country music Frank Sinatra. He's got this swag and a killer voice," he explains. "Then you flip the station and the next song is Kacey Musgraves, telling it like it is over this very simple and beautiful production. And then you've got Florida Georgia Line. I don't even know that country music knows who it is anymore, but if a song is great and catchy, it transcends."
It would be easy to throw Abbott's sound into the bro-country slush pile, but also very lazy. Sure, Abbott has plenty of tracks about pooling your money to buy beer and hitting on girls, but there's an equal amount of hat-in-hand love ballads for the ladies; Abbott has admitted as much in interviews. He's also got a well-earned reputation as a party boy, but all of that ignores the fact that he also happens to be a solid songwriter, one who is actually capable of writing music that goes beyond the generic. He's also growing up.
Even though he's still working on that radio hit, Abbott is also flexing his artistic muscles. The Josh Abbott Band recently wrapped up recording on another EP that will be released in May, and Abbott says that fans should expect a totally different sound from his band on that recording. "It's darker, sonically and lyrically," he says. "I'm looking forward to it, but it's not necessarily a full-time shift in our sound. I think it's one of those EPs that the critics will like more than the fans."
They're also planning to get back in the studio and record the final six songs needed to round out their next album, which fans can expect sometime late this year or early in 2016. Abbott hopes that this will finally be the one that makes the national country music audience take broader notice. "I think you make albums for different reasons," he says. "And this one is about the fans. It's also about getting a song on the radio."
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Before that big break happens, Abbott is taking his band to bars, rodeos and festivals across the country to make the case that he's the next Texan in line to be anointed by mainstream country, and it's finally time. The Josh Abbott Band will always belong to Texas (and on Saturday they'll be joined by an all-Texas lineup that also includes Cory Morrow), but the time has come for this homegrown band to head off to Nashville, and bring our state's characteristic sound to a broader audience.
JOSH ABBOTT BAND performs at the Dallas Observer St. Patrick's Day Concert with Cory Morrow, Tyler and the Tribe, Ray Johnston Band and Breaking Southwest after the St. Patrick's Day Parade, Saturday, at Energy Square, on the corner of Greenville and University, $15.
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