Earlier this week, Texas country singer-songwriter Josh Abbott wasn't feeling as well as he wanted to be during an interview. To be fair, the Texas Tech graduate-turned-festival headliner underwent a root canal the day before we spoke, a pain that many other artists would gladly accept before being subjected to a reporter's microphone and probing questions. But not Abbott. He was ready and more than willing; if a bit unsure of how it would all go. "I'm good. I just took some hydrocodone," he said over the phone from his Georgetown, Texas, home as he recovered from the operation. "If I say anything crazy, just know that I'm a bit loopy right now."
Thanks to his quick rise to stardom, his sorority-intensive marketing and the manner in which he has helped reignite the sometimes annoying "Texas songs" craze, Abbott is perhaps our state's most polarizing musical figure at the moment, but loopy he is not. Regardless of how one feels about Abbott's admittedly glossy approach to his recorded output, he and his band, who have been performing together since 2006, have made a substantial and well-calculated move from no-name frat-house act to legitimate big-room-fillers. Just this past April, Abbott headlined one of the nights at the state's biggest annual festival, Larry Joe Taylor's Texas Music Festival, after such formidable names such as Stoney LaRue had played before him. It was only in 2009 when Abbott's band performed in the glaring sun of the 5 p.m. slot long before the big names took the stage.
"It's interesting," Abbott says. "You walk on eggshells a bit when you go so quickly from playing the early-day opening slots and then into headlining as quickly as we have. I think it's definitely caused some tension with some other bands, because they're like, 'Who are these guys?' but we try not to worry about that too much. We put on a high-energy show, and I'm always making sure we're as entertaining as we can possibly be. A lot of bands have great music, and some other bands put on a good show, but I think we do both. I think the effort we put into our shows and our music is why we've connected with fans the way we have. I'm not necessarily the best singer or songwriter in the Texas country scene, but we've still managed to connect with the fans. Some bands do, and some bands don't. Pat Green one time said that he thinks the Texas audience appreciates the authenticity behind what he does, and I think the same applies to us."
Of course, the question of whether a song or an artist is "authentic" or not has always been, and will always be, a tricky one. The term is loaded with so many angles and possible meanings, as to render it almost useless in describing music, whether it's from a fan's perspective or that of a critic. As it happens, it's not so complicated for Abbott, even with heavy meds pumping through his system.
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To hear him explain it, his seemingly simple -- but rather popular -- songs such as "She's Like Texas," "Roadtrippin'" and "My Texas" boast authenticity because they're songs ripped from his own memory bank and personal experiences. Along the same lines, however, no one said authenticity had to be fresh, gritty or groundbreaking, and Abbott seems comfortable with that.
"Many of my songs are fun songs that represent this state," he says. "I write about the things I love doing, or things have been a part of my life. I wrote "She's Like Texas" for my wife when we broke up while we were dating. It was a classic, 'Hey, I'll write this for her and we'll get back together' type of thing, and it worked. 'My Texas' and 'Roadtrippin'' were songs I wrote about my adventures in college with my fraternity brothers. These songs are real because they're about my real life. I ask for that authenticity in a singer-songwriter, no matter what style of music it is. I can appreciate that. You and I both know there's very little of that on mainstream radio. I hear songs like Jason Aldean's "1994," then I think about all the shit that a guy like Casey Donahew or myself take from the people in our scene. We're a hundred times better than that stuff! We've got such a great scene that we've become cynical about some of our own bands, and we forget about how it's so much better than much of the stuff that's out there."
Even if his detractors cut him some slack on the authenticity front, Abbott makes himself an easy target when it comes to the aforementioned radio tunes that lean so heavily on simple, oft-used Texan imagery. Drinking Shiner, floating the Frio or catching a West Texas sunset, while great experiences; don't make for terribly unique lyrical fodder.
Freshly written songs about Texas seemed to be on their way off the radio for good as the college kids of the late 1990s grew into adulthood and even minivans. Again, and understandably, Abbott's fine with being the guy that just has to sing about his state, even if it means dodging a few critical bullets.
"Texas country is called that, at least to a point, because there are songs about Texas," explains Abbott emphatically. "It seemed like in the first half of the 2000s, people were staying away from mentioning Texas in a song, and if you had a song about Texas, everyone would say, 'Oh, God, there's another song about Texas.' A well-written song is a well-written song. You can write a crappy song about floating the river, or you can write a hooky, clever song about doing things in Texas. I like to think we accomplished that with those specific songs and some of our others, too."
While the term "Texas country" gets tossed back and forth over this conversation at least 12,000 times, Abbott acknowledges that he fits into a specific niche of the ambiguous genre that keeps him from being the hippest kid in the crowd.
"There are different types of Texas country," he explains. "The umbrella has really expanded. There's the folk guys, the blues guys, there's rock and even honky-tonk. I don't even know what you'd call guys like me, maybe a commercial style of Texas country. There's room for all of us."
While he wondered aloud about his band's pop-inflected sound, he wasn't anywhere near apologetic for it, which is refreshing in its honesty, even if, again, it opens him up to criticism from inside the Texas country scene.
"I'm never apologetic about our sound or our songs because I write what I like," Abbott says bluntly. "If we were talking about a guy that threw the word 'Texas' in every line of every song because it sells, then that would be bullshit. But for me, I love singing about the beautiful attributes of our state and its charm. Not everyone's going to appreciate that and you can't please everyone all of the time."
As the conversation rolls on, Abbott reveals the sensitive curtain that many artists are hesitant to pull back, if only for a moment before he returns to defend the successful choices he's made with his career.
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"Sometimes, I'll admit, I wish we could be more cool. I wish we could be the band that other bands want to listen to and respect. I can do the artsy singer-songwriter thing, but I love putting on a good live show and singing songs about Texas, regardless of whether that makes us cool or not, and there's no reason to apologize for it."