You’re from Texas, which is a perfectly good place to start a troubadour career. How did you end up here in Nashville as opposed to, say, heading to Austin?
I’ve been obsessed with the Nashville songwriter community, and how all my heroes at least went through town at some point in time. I’m obsessed with Harlan Howard and Willie Nelson and Mickey Newbury and Tom T. Hall, that whole crowd. So I kinda just wanted to try it here.
Were you hoping to find your own contemporary community when you got here, or was it more about going where the writers you revered had done their thing?
I think it was a little bit of both. I’ve come to find out that maybe Nashville’s changed a little bit since then. There is that community aspect, but we’re all kind of doing our own thing as well, just looking out for each other, but it’s not like [the documentary] Heartworn Highways where we go over to each other’s house every night and play songs and drink whiskey. That would be nice, but we’re all kind of doing our own thing.
If you had to put your finger on a particular era of songwriting that’s really inspired you, what would it be?
The inspiration probably spans a lot of times for me. I love really early country, you know. But the songwriting thing, I guess late '70s — Willie, Waylon, Guy Clark and all that stuff. But I also really love '90s country as well. I also love Jackson Browne and California country kind of stuff as well. So it kinda goes all over the place for me.
What feels right to you about positioning yourself so that you’re not current mainstream country, you’re not exactly alt-country and you’re not in the anthemic, acoustic band territory of a lot of your peers?
I don’t know. I mean, it’s just kinda something that feels true to me, and honest. Hmmm. That’s a good question. I don’t really know how to narrow that down. I can’t afford a big band, so that’s a big part of it. I can’t afford to bring a big band out on the road, so I play a lot of solo shows. I don’t know. Just the kind of songs I’ve been writing, and maybe that’ll change, and maybe it won’t.
You use some pretty dramatic language in your songs about relationships crashing and burning, far more dramatic than everyday life. What’s attractive about writing that way?
I guess I just find the other side of that language boring. Also I don’t really know if this ties in, but I love Southern Gothic literature, and that probably gets in there a little bit. I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about that. It’s just something that kinda comes out. I can’t say that it was from my parents or friends or anything. It’s probably just something that I find poetic and prettier.
Do you have favorite Southern Gothic writers?
Yeah. I like a lot. I like a lot of newer stuff. I do like Flannery O’Connor. I just read a book, but I forgot the guy’s name. I really like William Gay, who just passed away. Larry Brown I love. I named a song after one of his books: Big Bad Love. I don’t know. There’s a bunch. I just like that sort of style of writing.
As often as not, you’re playing rock clubs to twenty-somethings like yourself, aren’t you?
Yeah. I’ve actually found that the best crowds are the older crowds. I don’t play enough listening rooms and nice venues yet to really tap into that. When I say best crowds, I mean they spend money and buy merch.
Do you get a different response?
It’s definitely a different response. They tend to listen more to the lyrics. But that also might come with the venues that I’m playing to younger people. Playing a solo show in a rock club to 20 to 30 20-year-olds is, you know, they want to drink beer. They don’t want to listen to a kid telling stories or singing sad breakup songs or something like that.
The year you released your Tennessee Time EP, Justin Townes Earle was on his third album, and pretty visible by that point. He spent those first two albums differentiating himself from his dad’s serious, literate folkie thing and reaching back to earlier stuff — honky-tonk, jump blues, old school showmanship. Did you identify with what he was doing?
I liked it. I found it a lot more old-timey than what I wanted to do. I loved the Good Life record. I loved that record a lot. I guess I was more into that kind of honky-tonky thing on the EP than I am now. I’ve had Worried Man for eight months, so even now I’m writing different songs. I signed a publishing deal, so I write for other people as well. So that’s kind of changed a few things. But yeah, I found it comforting that people would go out and listen to music like that, for sure. Even with Caitlin [Rose] and that whole crowd, it’s nice to see that.
Is she singing with you on “Too Stoned To Cry”?
Yeah. She sings on that and also “Take It From Me” and “Runnin’ You out of My Mind.”
So the title track ... I’ve heard more women than men doing angry murder ballads like that in recent years. When was the last time you heard a guy sing a brand-new murder ballad?
I was listening to a lot of Ray Wylie Hubbard. So that can kind of make sense. If you want to know the story behind that song, I was in Austin. I was staying at my cousin’s house and I was writing with Texas country people during the day. One night I was like, “I want to write a song by myself.” My cousin was gone, and I was like, “OK, I need some coffee.” They didn’t have any coffee. I found crazy, crazy caffeine pills on top of the fridge. I took one and nothing happened for, like, an hour. So I took two more. Then I was just out of my mind, pacing back and forth. I didn’t even write any music to it until I was done writing it. I had to buy a pack of cigarettes to calm myself down. That song just came out in, like, 30 minutes, so that’s kinda cool.
You even sing about shooting out the woman’s ankles. It seems like that would be more in Eminem’s wheelhouse. Or maybe Miranda Lambert’s.
It’s funny. My publishers really like that song and they like the fact that I don’t actually kill her. I just shoot her ankles, which is really weird. You know, my mom doesn’t really like that song.
I doubt you wrote it for her.
No, no. And I would never do anything like that, of course, but it was just kind of an image I had in my brain. I was just so tweaked out on those stupid caffeine pills.