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Higher Learning: Josh Abbott Band Surveys the Music Scene

How they moved from Texas to the world

Posted in MusicWorld on June 17, 2016 by
Photo: C. Taylor Crothers

In 2006, Josh Abbott was just months away from earning his master’s degree at Texas Tech University when he decided to pursue music with his namesake band. The Josh Abbott Band, which he’d recently started with a couple of his fraternity brothers, was gaining momentum quickly, and Josh knew he had to give it all or nothing, so he set his studies aside.

After a few years of hitting the pavement and building an audience around Lubbock, the Josh Abbott Band caught the attention of Texas country radio with “She’s Like Texas,” followed by their biggest hit to date, “Oh, Tonight,” featuring Kacey Musgraves. The band continues to build their army of fans around the Lone Star State and beyond, now touring behind their fourth album, Front Row Seat.

We caught up with Josh when he was en route to a bachelor party weekend in Austin – true to their Texas roots, Josh and his pals prefer floating down the river over a weekend of Vegas debauchery. He shared some of the pivotal moments in the band’s career, how record labels are like dating, and who he thinks is the female savior of country music.

You left college a thesis away from your master’s degree to pursue a career in music. How’d your parents react to that?

Well, I was in grad school, so that gave me a little more room to make whatever decision I wanted to make since I was footing the bill. We put the band together for fun in 2006. We played locally and recorded a demo. There are couple of cities within a three-hour drive of Lubbock that we could go to, but it was really just a local thing. In 2008, I signed with a booking agency and we put out our first song to the Texas country radio market, and it really took off in a way that was just crazy. I knew I needed to pursue this. I didn’t know a lot about the music industry, and even looking back now, I knew even less than what I thought I knew, but something in me knew that you can’t ever buy momentum. We had a nice momentum going with our single, so I dropped out that last semester of grad school, we switched a couple of band members, and we got really serious about making this thing become a career.

I told myself that in four to five years I would reevaluate where I was – that if I’m not making good money and loving it, then I’ll probably stop and finish grad school and go get a job. Thankfully that didn’t happen. The game changed for us in 2010, when we released the She’s Like Texas album, and that song [“She’s Like Texas”] was enormous. It launched our career – all the Texas country stations started playing it, and we noticed a huge jump. Our crowds went from 500 to over 1,000 people. We followed that up with “Oh, Tonight” and that’s been the biggest song of our career to date.

So by 2012, there was no way I was going to quit music, but I still kind of wished I’d graduated with my master’s, so I enrolled that fall and graduated with my master’s in Communications Studies in December 2012. It’s framed and collecting dust in my bedroom [laughs].

Let’s talk about the new album, Front Row Seat. You had a pretty ambitious structure with that, detailing the progression of a relationship in five cinematic acts. How did that idea come to fruition?

We had talked before about how cool it would be to make an album that had a storyline from front to end. We recorded several different songs, and I realized that all of these songs were about relationships – some were about loss, others were about finding love or being in love.

So we figured out an order for the songs, and they flowed so naturally – not only lyrically with the progression of the story, but also sonically. The album opens up with a lot of energy, and it’s really reflective and rhetorical. You know, being in your first few years of college, being single, trying to figure out life, and then the album moves into these mid-tempo love ballads about dating, falling in love and immersing yourself in being in love. And of course the album takes a tragic turn right after track nine, it’s a transition to track 10 with “Born to Break Your Heart,” and the album starts to come crashing down on this emotional level. The rest of the album is about finding closure and figuring out what you’re going to do.

We’re really proud of the album; it’s an album that, unfortunately, stems from a personal experience that I went through with my ex-wife. It’s just one of those things where you have to write about it and reflect about that process. Now that we’ve put the album out, I’m looking forward to getting to the next chapter in my life and figuring out what we’re going to write about next.

You released the album through Thirty Tigers, a company in Nashville that’s known for leaving the creative reins with the artist, and you’ve also been on a major label. How is the process different when you’re making most of the artistic decisions and shouldering a lot of the responsibility for the album?

When you’re on a label, you get that security of having a radio team and a lot of power and prestige that comes with a major label in Nashville. But at the same time, they’re trying to protect their investment, and they want to make sure the songs they chose for the album – and how they’re produced – are perfect. But if you sign an artist, that’s kind of your way of saying, ‘we believe in the art you create, and now we’re going to do our job and put that out there.’ At the end of the day, we want to feel appreciated as artists.

Working independent again has been great. It’s just a different approach when you’re independent than when you’re on a label. When we were with a label, we were a band that they were still trying to build to a national level, and it was a relationship that just didn’t work out that well. I wouldn’t be surprised if we worked with a label again. It’s like trying to find the right partner – you date somebody and it doesn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean you quit dating. You have to find the one who really gets you, and gives you that trust.

Maybe when you’re at a different point in your career being on a label will make sense, and there are so many different business models nowadays.

Yeah, the world of music has completely changed on all of us. Thanks to the progression of social media and the internet – and the availability of music – you can be an independent and find a lot of success. In fact, a lot of bands signing to labels now are the ones who found some sort of success organically and independently – through YouTube channel, Spotify streams, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. I know there’s some frustration in the industry about royalties and streams and getting adequately compensated for the work we do, but we also have to remember the pros that come with the cons. I think exposure on a mass level to people all across the country – and the world – at the fingertips of their phone or computer, that allows people to buy music, T-shirts, tickets to your concerts. There’s a give and a take with it, and we have to progress.

Last fall, you hosted the fifth annual JABFest, which you’ve said fulfilled your dream of coming back to west Texas and putting on a festival of Texas music. What was it like celebrating the fifth anniversary of that?

It’s really cool, it’s something I hope we have 10, 20, 25 years of – and maybe at some point we’ll have someone else headlining it, but it will always be our legacy. It’s a lot of fun and it’s something I take a lot of pride in. What JABFest does is expose other bands on the lineup to a lot of ears that haven’t heard them. Lubbock has grown a lot over the years, but it’s still not Nashville for Austin, so it’s fun to have regional acts come in and play. And people fall in love with these bands – the bands come back to Lubbock a few months later and play a packed bar. We truly love hosting.

It sounds like there’s a lot of support between Texas bands.

There’s a real sense of camaraderie, not only within the bands, but between all the other bands who play festivals and rodeos and fairs across the country. It’s a lot of fun down here and you can make a real good living. We’re still trying to break on a national level. We’re usually called Texas country, and we’re proud of that, but we’re focused on branching out nationally. With Front Row Seat, we’re still touring behind that, and some people call that mainstream country, others call it Texas country, but we don’t really get caught up in the labels. We made a country music album that we’re proud of.

People do like to compartmentalize music and put a label on it, whether it’s Texas country or Americana.

We have strong roots in country music, but we like to be progressive with our sound. At the end of the day, you’re not going to confuse our band with southern rock or Americana. We’re country music. Chris Stapleton just swept every major awards show, but you still have PDs [program directors on radio stations] across the country saying, ‘I don’t know if that would work for my format.’

Maybe we’re entering a time in history where those labels don’t mean as much as they used to.

There’s a Texas country website that keeps track of Spotify, and our monthly streamers – or subscribers, or whatever you want to call it – are over eight million. The next artist was around two million, and that’s a huge gap. I hope that these numbers show PDs and fans that there is something bigger for our band than just being a regional band. But we’ll just keep touring and playing.

Has there been a moment in your career where you’ve felt like you’ve made it?

No, because we haven’t made it. You know who’s made it? George Strait, Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert. They’ve made it. We’re appreciative of what we’ve accomplished so far, and to our fans for supporting us, and radio stations who have taken a chance on us. That really changed our lives.

What advice would you give aspiring songwriters that you wish had been given to you early on in your career?

Some of the best advice I could give right now – and it’s something I’ve learned recently and could probably still work on – is to be slow to speak and quick to listen. I believe that’s an old proverb, but it’s so true. The other advice I would give is, I really believe in the importance of writing – we’ve always written the majority of our songs. As an artist, it’s important to be involved in the writing. The process is what separates us, as artists, from karaoke singers.

Speaking of songwriters, who are some who you admire?

Oh, there are so many. Chris Knight, Guy Clark … I respect their craft. I’m a big fan of Kacey Musgraves, I think she’s the female savior of country music. I think, 30 years from now, she’ll be iconic in a way that Dolly Parton is. I also love Shane McAnally, he’s just a phenomenal writer.

What’s something that your fans might be surprised to learn about you?

I’m very musically diverse in terms of what I listen to – recently I’ve listened to Ryan Beaver, Sturgill Simpson, Kaleo, The Wind and the Wave, Kelsea Ballerini, alt-J, Ryan Adams, Death Cab for Cutie, Jay Z, Pink Floyd, the Punch Brothers.

How did your relationship with BMI start, and how has it fostered your career along the way?

When we signed with a label, we spent more time in Nashville writing, and BMI opened their arms to me. They invited me to their awards show, and when I played shows in Nashville there would always be someone from BMI there. I realized that they really cared about us as artists. I know I’m not Kenny Chesney or Luke Bryan packing out a stadium – we’re a small fish in a big ocean – and I saw how much BMI cares for songwriters. Signing with them was a no-brainer!