Justin Moore doesn’t give a damn. He just doesn’t. Not about you or the intelligentsia, tastemakers, high’n’mightys, or anybody who’s anything much more than a good ole boy.
He’s had a handful of big country hits: the Hallmark “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” the city-boy-mocking “Bait A Hook,” the stupidly macho “Back That Thing Up,” even the who-I-am declaration “Small Town USA.” Enough to make him matter, not quite enough to break him through.
Still, he’s a fierce old-school country star who leans towards Southern rock’s aggression. For that reason, he was out opening the Hank Williams/Lynryd Skynyrd tour before his first album was out – and he’s sought by headliners ranging from neo-tradder Brad Paisley to pop-country’s Rascal Flatts for his ability to hit a crowd between the eyes with something that can only be considered rowdy Saturday night country.
With an album called Outlaws Like Me, the pint-sized redneck juker – who stands a whopping 5’ 2” if you believe the record company people – writes, plays and sings songs that don’t work good ole boy signifiers, but rather glory in how folks who live in towns of 200 or 300 people really live.
There’s a song called “Guns,” which catalogues his adventures with fire-arms from standing in a deer stand at 2 ½ with his grandfather through grown-up hunting today. There’s a song called “Run Out of Honky Tonks,” that revels in stalking every good time in every hole in the wall on any backroad he can find. And yes, there’s the title track, which Moore views as both wildly misunderstood and also the crux of his second album.
“I caught a lot of shit about that title,” he says, flatly. Not bowed up, not resentful, just a statement of fact. “And I really don’t give a shit – I don’t think I’m an outlaw… That song is about good and evil inside us. The fact that we’re both, that I’ve been the guy in church on Sunday morning, but also the guy going ape shit on Saturday night… and writing that song made me a better person.”
Moore, anything but cool, is cool for the fact that he isn’t trying. You wouldn’t guess he reveres hard country hipster Dwight Yoakam; calls him "the ultimate entertainer, songwriter, musician. He was like Elvis to me.” Or that he’d go to a Moose Lodge to see Yoakam’s longtime producer/lead guitarist play to 5 people somewhere outside Los Angeles. But, he does and he has.
“I set my band to have that… Didn’t have any fiddle, any steel. Just come out and let it rock. And be real: with rough spots. The thing I loved about the Outlaws were the imperfections. Maybe it’s ‘Good Hearted Woman,’ right on the beginning when he come in, Waylon’s off a little but – and it doesn’t matter. It probably makes you like it more.”
Growing up in a small town, his musical spectrum was small. “Waylon, Willie, Hank Jr, Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, ZZ Top, maybe the Allman Brothers,” comes the roll call. “I was in a box, but I didn’t get very out of it. Nobody did.”
Graduating as salutatorian of his high school class – “I used to love telling people I was smart cause of that, and then my wife said, ‘Justin, you were in a class of 38…’,” he says, laughing – he did what most kids do: headed off to junior college. Somehow he couldn’t get his direction set.
“I went a couple weeks, and I had a paper due,” he explains. “And I told my Dad, ‘I’m not going back…’ He said, ‘Tomorrow?” And I said, ‘At all.’
“My Dad said, ‘What’s wrong, son?’ I didn’t know. I’d always kinda known where I was going, but suddenly all my friends couldn’t wait to get out of there… and I just didn’t know.” He’d started singing and playing in bands during his senior year in high school. There was no master plan, no burning desire to be a country star, but he figured he might try that. But even then, his early adventures in the music business were laughable.
“I remember talking to my manager, and I didn’t have a clue… I’d ask things like, “What’s a record deal? What are you talking about?’ I didn’t know, but I didn’t wanna be 30 and wonder.”
An unlikely commodity – in many ways more Marty Brown than Marty Stuart, though both are decidedly country – Moore was smart enough to not try to pretend he was something he’s not.
“I didn’t come to be the next George Strait, I didn’t even know what a record deal was… I just figured I knew I could sing as well as a lot of what I heard on the radio.”
Partnering with Jeremy Stover, a young producer who’d grown up in Georgia much the same way Moore had in Arkansas, they started making records for people like them. It wasn’t sophisticated. It wasn’t smarmy. But it was country in a way that anyone from a “hick town” would get.
It wasn’t what was going on at country radio, but then neither were songs about being a skinny teen who didn’t quite fit in when Scott Borchetta released Taylor Switt. Though it seemed the antithesis of what Borchetta was doing, the label head recognized authenticity – and gave Moore a deal, the full support of his team and a shot at making it happen.
And when things actually started to happen, no one was more shocked than Moore.
“When we first got our bus, we were pullin’ a trailer – and I remember pulling up to a gig in Memphis, Kix on Beale (Street),” he remembers. “There had to be 5,000 people there. It was outside and packed. I looked at my manager, and said, ‘Who we opening for?’ He said, ‘You’re not…’ and I went, 'Yeah, really.’ You know, it didn’t seem right. But then when we got up there, that crowd knew every word, they were singing’em back to us.
“Tell you what… I’ll never forget it.”
Like a lot of young acts, there were a lot of firsts: playing the Grand Ole Opry for the first time with both grandfathers and one grandmother sitting behind the band on the pews taking from the original Opry at the Ryman, his first #1, even learning what “a bullet” meant. And like a lot of new acts coming into their own, there was the slippery slope of fame, no rules and the idea that – as Robert Earl Keen has written – “the road goes on forever, and the party never ends.”
“It was hard to grasp,” he admits. “I’m from a town of less than 300 people, and suddenly all these people knew who I was. You get this notion that you’re supposed to act a certain way.
“That’s the thing about these songs… I lived’em, good and bad. I did my first tour with Hank Jr – and I really did go out in the crowd and watch him, thinking, ‘Damn, I wanna do that!”
“That was the deal: I’d looked up to acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Jr, like everybody else. That idea of they did this, they did that… It was juvenile behavior wanting to be like that.
“But you’re out there, thinking you have something to prove: every night,. Every night, that’s their one night to party, to get wild… but we have to do it every single night. It can get out of hand trying to show those people you can party as hard as they can.
“Me and the band were playing every show like it was our last one, and that’s when I realized maybe my priorities weren’t in order. A lot of these songs were written then, and it wasn’t about playing up that I was a badass, being a badass, that was how we were living.
“And I woke up one day, wrote ‘Outlaws Like Me’ cause I realized I wasn’t being the kind of man I wanted to be.”
The man who offers early on, “I’m not afraid to stand up and tell you I’m a Christian,” pauses. Having written a song called “I Could Kick Your Ass,” he recognizes the way circumstances can be minimized for the sake of polite company. He wants to be clear about where he was before he turned around.
“I wasn’t snorting coke off some whore every night,” he declares. "I just drank too much, passed out and woke up the next day hurting.” Right up until the morning he wrote “Outlaws Like Me.” For the kid whose parents worked two jobs to help him pay his bills when he was trying to be a country singer, whose Dad passed up numerous opportunities at the post office where he worked so he wouldn’t miss one of Justin’s baseball games, whose Mom used to go out deer hunting with him when he was 7 and 8, who had one little baby daughter and another one on the way, he knew better.
That moment created the arc of his album, as well as his life. Writing songs like “Flyin’ Down A Back Road,” which recounted all the milestones he’d already enjoyed, he remembered his greatest pleasures weren’t the opening for Alan Jackson or crowds singing along, but family, home, and the stuff he did as a young man you’d never notice flying down, well, a dirt road.
“I’d started writing songs in part because nobody would give us any,” he says of the reality of making his kind of country. “I found out the more personal the songs were, the more people seemed to relate to them.
“So when it hit a little, my producer and I prided ourselves on having had success doing what we do, writing about how we live.
“We were sitting in a lake house out on Center Hill Lake, after the first album, going ‘Can you believe all the stuff we get to do? It’s nuts…’ I just started singing all the things, and ‘Flyin’ Down A Back Road’ came out.
“That’s not a cliché. It’s real for me. All of it is.”
So much so that as Moore came out of his good-time throwdown cloud, he recognized his album wasn’t quite done. On vacation at his wife’s family’s place near New Orleans, he was feeling like the record didn’t feel right.
His producer sent him a YouTube of ‘90s country star Rhett Atkins’ singing “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” which had never been a hit.
One of Moore’s Grandfathers had recently passed away. The song struck a nerve. The working class kid from Poyen, Arkansas, called up his labelhead and said, “I know we’ve got 10 songs cut, but this is the first single. I’m telling you… This is it.”
Borchetta looked, agreed.
“I was in a real emotional place. But we went in, and cut that – and it turned out pretty well. [The song went to #1.] We cut ‘’Til My Last Day,’ which is the single out now… and ‘Redneck Side,' which I cut when I was 18 years old and first to town.
“It made the record a better picture of me, where I am. Because that first album was very much who I am. If people are gonna buy tickets they can’t afford, they deserve to know who they’re coming to see… and I wanted to make sure I kept that.”
Who he is is someone urban-dwellers don’t often encounter, more than likely view in terms of clichés. Hillbilly/redneck/cracker would scratch the surface of what they think, and Moore doesn’t care much about that, either.
“Some of these songs aren’t gonna change the world, but they don’t have to,” he says of ‘Bait A Hook’ or ‘Back That Thing Up,’ songs that play to the hokey Okie stereotypes.
“They’re polarizing,” he continues. “Sixty percent of the people hate them. But that 40% who doesn’t? It all churns up a lot of passion. That passion is what makes careers last – because those people who loved it really loved it.
“Just look at Hank Jr! He hasn’t had a hit in 20 years, and he sells out everywhere he plays. That’s because the fans know him, know he knows them…”
Justin Moore doesn’t want to be the iconic country flame-thrower, but he respects the intensity and the honesty. It’s why he sings about Zebco reels – “it’s the first kind when you’re little, like 6 or so, you can actually throw and cast with” – and yes, guns.
“It makes me so mad when people start talking about taking our guns away,” he begins, not quite ratcheting up. “You know, I don’t believe the Constitution’s broke – like some people do – and that’s my right.
“Some of the best talks I’ve had with my Grandpas wouldn’t have happened any other way than sitting in a deerstand, or out with my Mom… and you know, if someone gets in our house, well… my wife’s got a gun in the nightstand. If it comes down to her and our little girls or somebody in our house, well, it’s gonna be her.”
It’s not the way for everyone. Moore doesn’t care. He’s not gonna tell you how to live, he’s just gonna keep singing the way of the world for the people just like him.
Snicker if you want, roll your eyes; he don’t give a damn.
He knows who he is, where he’s from – and where he’s going. He’s taking a lot of folks just like him along for the ride. Let’em be, and they won’t laugh (much) about the fact that you can’t even bait hook, either. Heck, sit on down, and they might just buy you a beer and tell you all about it.