It takes a lot to stand out in any major music market, but it’s especially tough to be a country artist trying to pave your way in Nashville. Cory Branan has spent nearly 15 years plugging away around Music City, building a sparkling reputation with his brand of punk-infused country. His new album and second with Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, The No-Hit Wonder, is brimming with vivid and infectious songwriting. It’s a breath of fresh country air in an otherwise stale market.
On 2012’s Mutt, Branan put forth a more down-and-out singer-songwriter feeling, combining a heavy-drinking Ryan Adams sensibility with a Tom Waits chaser. On The No-Hit Wonder, however, Branan has brightened up a bit. He got married and has a couple of kids now, so, as he told The Wall Street Journal, he is “writing a little bit more about home and the road in a different light.” There is no clearer example than the album’s opening track, “You Make Me”, a foot-stomping, rocking love song with guest Jason Isbell. Branan’s first lines are “Well there’s a songbird nesting in the head of a scarecrow, low and free, woe is me/ Now I’m as happy as a bluebird in a bottle tree/ You make me, baby, you make me.” Quite the difference between that and the lines from Mutt opener “The Corner”: “Day-drinking and dreaming of you, I let the ashtray smoke my last cigarette.”
Fans needn’t worry about entirely losing those beautiful love-lost songs Branan is great at, though. “All the Rivers in Colorado” is as “country love song” as it gets. Backed by wailing and whining lap steel guitars, Branan duets with songstress Caitlin Rose, singing, “All the rivers in Colorado couldn’t wash you off my mind/ Not that I’ll try, just a thought, though/ Might be nice to keep from crying.” It’s a wonderfully executed piece of songwriting that needs to be played on every country station out there. You can also add “The Only You” to that playlist — it’s a somewhat scathing song to an ex that has the brilliant first lines “I hear you got another boy/ I hear he looks a lot like me/ Well, I got me another girl/ And she looks like you at 23/ While she sleeps, I trace the places where your tattoos used to be.”
With help from The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and Steve Selvidge, Branan’s narrator on the driving title track also has more pep in his step than he might have had previously. Branan sings about “The No-Hit Wonder” who tours constantly, works his ass off, has adoration, but is still living for years “blood to string, hand to mouth, gig to gig, north to south.” No doubt winking to his own career, Branan still manages a twist toward the positive by adding, “Boys, it is what it is.” That becomes the difference on The No-Hit Wonder. Branan is getting accolades from all the right places, and sure he’s not more well-known, but he’s comfortable with it to an extent.
Saying “I just don’t understand how he’s not more famous” is genuine, but also kind of an insult — an arms-up “Oh well!” that doesn’t take into account Branan’s feelings about the situation. The No-Hit Wonder should be put into heavy rotation everywhere, and I’m sure Branan would love it, but he also thinks, “It is what it is.” That should be enough for you, too.
Essential Tracks: “The Only You”, “The No-Hit Wonder”, and “All the Rivers in Colorado”