Josh Abbott on the Texas/Red Dirt scene and bringing banjo back to country music

Josh Abbott (due at the Grizzly Rose this Friday, June 1) got his start playing country music while attending Texas Tech in Lubbock, spending his nights watching artists like Pat Green, Cory Morrow, Roger Creager, Eli Young Band and Randy Rogers roll through the local country bar, the Blue Light. All are part of the still-growing Texas/Red Dirt scene linking Oklahoma and Texas. The styles span the spectrum blending elements of everything -- honky-tonk, C&W, Bakersfield, bluegrass, Southern and classic rock, folk, blues and jam bands. What links them mostly is a hard-touring DIY spirit as well as a sense of kinship and shared purpose that typically eludes music scenes. Their music and style inspired Abbott.

Now he's the latest link in this chain, with a third album, Small Town Family Dream, that suggests he's ready to move up the ladder. While still hewing to the twangy, Bakersfield-tinged country-rock sound of She's Like Texas, Abbott has brought the banjo more to the fore without sacrificing the rock punch. He even uses it in concert with a fiddle to create a Celtic rock vibe at one point. Like all of his albums, it's thematically linked and crisply written. As compared to the more upbeat, rah-rah She's Like Texas, Small Town Family Dream feels better grounded and less sentimental, if just as earnest.

Abbott grew up on a farm in little Idalou, Texas, ten miles outside Lubbock. While well-versed in rural redneck ways, his plain-spoken lyrics ring with the heart of a poet and give Small Town Family Dream an honest, nostalgia-less take on its subject, as opposed to the polished Nashville dream of the small town, which he assails on "I'll Sing About Mine" ("Tractors ain't sexy and workin' is hard for small town people like me/And the radio's full of rich folks singin' 'bout places they've never seen... The Small town anthems they're singing don't sound like what you see/When you talk about the Dairy Queen, pickup trucks and Springsteen/Make the place I love sound like a bad cartoon").

Westword: How do you perceive yourself within the country-music universe, and how do you approach making traditional and more modern elements?

Josh Abbott: It definitely is a balance. The first thing we wanted to do when we recorded this new album was we wanted it to sound similar to the first album because the album before that, our debut, Scapegoat, we felt like it had some good writing and some good songs, but the production and recording quality was really low. It was our first album. We didn't have much of a budget. So when we recorded She's like Texas, it obviously still wasn't like we recorded it in the best studio in New York, but it came out sounding great. And we wanted that continuity on the third album because we thought it was important to give the audience another great quality CD.

So we chose the same studio and the same producer. Pretty much had the same band on this album, changed guitar players and bass players since the last album, and that ended up being great. And, of course, the banjo -- we really decided to feature it on this album. We wanted something where it wasn't just an instrument in the background. The banjo player was my fraternity brother in college. He helped me start this whole thing. So up to now we've just used the banjo sparsely, and I thought, "Let's really showcase the banjo. Let's give it solos. Let's feature it."

Most people, when they hear you have a banjo and a fiddle, ask "Are you a bluegrass band?" And I'm like, "No, damn it. We're a country band!" I know that country music's just been murdered on the radio the last ten years, but don't you remember a banjo being in a country band? You talk about balancing the old and the new. We try to bring in the elements, so of the older, some of the more organic kind of stuff you hear and try to balance that with enough rock/contemporary stuff to make it vibe.

That Texas/Red Dirt Scene's really developed. Even though everyone plays their own distinct style of music there are a lot of shared shows and camaraderie. It's almost like its own little punk rock scene.

For sure. Don't let that fool you, though. That doesn't mean everybody loves everybody, because that's simply not the case. But, for the most part, everybody helps everybody. You need an opening gig? Come open for me. You need to break this one market -- we'll help you out. And if we sell out, we'll throw you a few hundred on the back-end. When you're an opening band, that's huge. It's funny because some of us in the scene, we get caught up in its flaws. But in the end we really do have something great down here.

We have a whole touring base built around two states, and that can venture into others such as yours. We tour with our friends. We have a good time, and we hang out. I'm thinking that's a big different between what we do and mainstream country, and even rock and roll. Every now and then you're going to find some egos. For the most part, everybody hangs out with everybody and gets along. When we all play festivals, you see us hanging out together, playing horseshoes, drinking beer. It's a very close family atmosphere.

What sparked Small Time Family Dream? It feels a little darker and more ambivalent than its predecessor.

Even when I wrote Scapegoat, I always wanted our albums to represent a theme. I've always thought our albums cannot be a collection of ten to twelve random songs like a lot of people's records. There's no theme, no message. In my opinion, there's no art when you don't do that... I wanted it to be a dark album for people going through breakups. The next album, She's Like Texas, which as you said was a bit upbeat rah-rah, it was really more of the courtship of this Texas girl. The whole album is essentially this wooing process of getting this girl.

Then on this album, I don't know if I'd call it dark, I think of it more as what it's like to be from a small town, almost a more mature version of She's Like Texas. It's almost like at the end of She's Like Texas, you married this girl, and years down the road, here's you life in small town family dream... the point of this record was to really represent that kind of stuff and say, "Hey, people from small towns have it hard, but there are some great things to it too."

Josh Abbott Band, 8 p.m. Friday, June 1, Grizzly Rose, 5450 N. Valley Highway, $12-$15, 303-295-1330.

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Chris Parker
Contact: Chris Parker