Singer-songwriters tend to be
dramatic, depressing folk. More often than not, when some guy picks up a guitar and croons by his lonesome, the result is humorless and painfully un-self-aware. Sure, a relationship going sour sucks, so analyzing the subject requires a certain sort of sobriety, but too many
musicians never seem to crack a grin.
Cory Branan, quite thankfully, eschews this idea. The Southaven, Miss.-bred, Nashville-based musician spins his work with puckish panache. “Skateland South” revisits his clumsy childhood infatuation with a girl at a roller rink—a maiden to whom he swears to dedicate a high score on the Galaxia 4 machine—and “The Prettiest Waitress in Memphis” spotlights a greasy diner featuring miserable eats and an ineffably gorgeous server who’s “been reading those specials/ extra special.” He’s capable of drawing out different facets of his persona, getting cocky by slyly likening himself to Muhammad Ali or turning goofy in a track that mourns the era when Kiss removed their makeup. Branan does indulge in some songwriter clichés (such as frequently idealizing the opposite sex), but his skill as an engaging narrator makes up for that. During most songs, it’s easy to visualize him with a grin scrawled on his face.
This isn’t to say that the man is a jokester. When asked about whether his lighthearted approach intentionally juxtaposes the image of the unflinchingly serious songwriter, he delves into what makes him tick. “Well, I’m not a more lighthearted person. Maybe [my tone comes from] being Southern in general,” Branan says. “It’s a very humor-based culture. We’re not always trying to be funny with our humor. It’s a way to disarm enough to get the knife in sometimes.”
After being pressed for an example of this style from his own work, he brings up an instance from Mutt, his forthcoming record, where he references the “The Hokey Pokey” in an unusual fashion. “Absolutely everything—from touring to singing to even being in love with someone to writing the songs—feels utterly pointless and futile sometimes,” he says, “like the fuckin’ Hokey-Pokey.”
He doesn’t reveal many details about Mutt, an album that’s hovered in unreleased limbo for two or three years, but outlines its focus. “[Mutt contains] some of the happiest [material] I’ve ever written, too, but for the most part, it’s pretty heavy. A lot of, y’know, ‘What do you do with the leftover pieces once the veneer’s worn off of things?’” he says.
A good chunk of Branan’s charm also stems from knowing about his history as a musician and the company he keeps. As a 20-something, he was a “wank guitarist” in death metal and thrash acts in Mississippi, but after finding new appreciation for the authentic quality of punk rock, he slowly returned to “the truth that was always there in folk music.” When he heard John Prine at 24, his interest in solo stuff was solidified. Having not been part of a band in years, he maintains allies in the alt-country-via-punk-rock set. Hell, Lucero vocalist Ben Nichols even thought enough of Branan to endorse him in the band’s “Tears Don’t Matter Much”: “Cory Branan’s got an evil streak/ and a way with words that’ll bring you to your knees/ Oh, he can play the wildest shows, and he can sing so sweet.”
What makes Branan’s way with words so potent is that he regards himself as idiosyncratic—an idea that has materialized in his work. “The only criteria I have for any song is if someone else could have written it, I try not to record it,” he says, allowing exceptions for when he’s trying to fall into character or evoke a certain style. “I like to think that no one could have written my songs—not that they’re better than anything [else] or [function in] a separate, special way, but just in that they are mine.”
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