A mere 57 seconds into the opening track of the Josh Abbott Band's She's Like Texas, you're likely to be hooked. One intro, one verse and one chorus are pretty much all that's required to recognize something special in the Texas-based act.
The winding riffs that open "Road Trippin" have a weighty Southern-rock air about them, though the actual instrumentation-fiddler Preston Wait and guitarist Gabe Hanson breeze through the lines in unison-hints faintly at the western-swing heritage deep in their Texas roots. Bass player Daniel Almodova and drummer Edward Villanueva set a powerful, chugging rhythmic foundation that walks the line between commercial country and raw honky tonks.
And Josh Abbott-the founder, lead singer and chief songwriter for the ensemble-evinces a slight Steve Earle character: breathy, fiery, intense.
Those initial sounds set the tone for?She's Like Texas, the sophomore album from the Lonestar State's best-kept secret. The project is deceptively simple in its approach, built around honest songs about real-life emotions with strong harmonies and winsome melodic hooks.
But it's complex in its results. There's a joyfulness in the sonic foundations of "All Of A Sudden," "Brushy Creek" and "If You're Leaving (I'm Coming Too)," an ease in the de-stressing "Hot Water," a philosophical bent in the folksy "End Of A Dirt Road" and a reflective sadness in the closing ballad "Let My Tears Be Still."
There are so many emotions tied into the album that the listener is guaranteed to feel?something.
"The most important idea that I write songs with is that they're autobiographical," Abbott says. "Nearly every song I write is a true story of mine, or of someone I know."
That truthfulness breeds passion for the material. And that passion comes through in the performances, both in the recording studio and on stage. It's why the Josh Abbott Band has quickly become a Texas institution, selling out many of its shows in the region-and why its talents can't be confined for long to the Lonestar State.
Texas has its own sound within country, and acts have been able to make a living inside its borders while the rest of the U.S. looked the other way. But the walls that once separated the state's multi-genre sound from country's mainstream dropped for many of its most important acts in the last decade. After more than 15 years as a live Lonestar mainstay, Jack Ingram won the Academy of Country Music's Top New Male Vocalist award in 2008. The rough-and-tumble Randy Rogers Band claimed a pair of Top 10 country albums, Pat Green picked up a trio of Grammy nominations, and the Eli Young Band broke into country's Top 15 singles chart for the first time in 2009.
"Those guys paid their dues by playing a lot of venues where they probably got paid $500 and a case of beer," Abbott notes. "Texas music wasn't really being played on the radio very much. But now because of the hard work of all those guys, over time, it's become kind of its own genre and now all the stations in Texas and Oklahoma play it, and it's been able to create a whole new environment of music for us."
It was that very environment that bred the Josh Abbott Band in the first place. While studying communications and political science at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Abbott and his Phi Delta Theta comrades frequently partied at the Blue Light Live, a downtown club on Buddy Holly Avenue that's been a linchpin for such hard-scrabble acts as Cross Canadian Ragweed, Wade Bowen and Golden Globe nominee Ryan Bingham.
During one Blue Light visit with a couple of friends around 2004, Abbott saw the Randy Rogers Band for the first time. He would never be the same.
"It was packed," he remembers. "I watched them play and how they moved on the stage, how they sang their songs, and how they connected with the audience. I literally looked at my friend-and this is the story she tells to this day to her friends-and I said, ‘I think I can do that.' She was like, ‘What are you talkin' about ?' I said, ‘I think I can be that guy on stage, singing and writing songs that people connect with. I think that I can do that.' She was like, ‘Well, go do it.' That night or the next day, I started writing country songs."
After doing a few acoustic open-mic nights at the Blue Light, Abbott and three frat buddies formed a complete band and started playing the club, where they were greeted by a full house their first night. Word spread quickly about the Josh Abbott Band, and soon they were opening shows for the acts they were trying to emulate: Cory Morrow, Pat Green and Robert Earl Keen, among them.
Naturally, the early set lists were dominated by cover songs, but Abbott quickly realized any long-term success required that they establish their identity through original material.
"If we play a bunch of covers, we're gonna impress the crowd, but we're not gonna impress the band," he surmises. "I want other bands to be talking about us, so I just wrote a bunch of originals and we started practicing ‘em."
One song in particular, the sexually driven "Taste," motivated Josh Abbott Band fans in a way the group had not anticipated. Recorded cheaply as a demo and posted to the band's MySpace page, "Taste" has since garnered more than two million streams. When local listeners flooded Lubbock radio stations with requests, the station got a copy from Abbott and it won noon-hour listener contests for months on end.
"Being requested over George Strait," Abbott muses, "that's ridiculous!"
Abbott quit his pursuit of a masters degree to devote his time fully to the band. He'd completed his course work and needed only to finish his thesis to wrap up his education. His family and friends thought he was nuts. Abbott, however,?needed?to commit to the music.
"I took probably 15 courses and averaged around a 3.5 doing it, so it's kinda like if I don't write my thesis, it doesn't mean I didn't get an education," he reflects. "To me, the value of the education is more important than the paper of the degree.
"If I ever decide the music thing's not goin' in the right direction, I can go back to college, but when you have a song that's on the radio and it's hot, you've gotta follow up on it because you may not have that opportunity again."
The band quickly evolved. Fiddler Preston Wait-who trained at South Plains College in Levelland, where the alumni include Lee Ann Womack, Natalie Maines, songwriter-guitarist Jedd Hughes and Ricochet's Heath Wright-was hired to play on the band's first demo and soon joined the lineup permanently. When the original rhythm section dropped out, Wait brought in fellow South Plains students Daniel Almodova and Ed Villanueva, and JAB took on a more aggressive sound.
Drew Womack, formerly with Sons Of The Desert, co-produced the vocals for their first complete album,?Scapegoat, in Lubbock. A duet from that release, "Good Night For Dancing," featuring Charla Corn, gave them a second hit in the band's homestate and was one of the Top 15 songs of 2009 on the?Texas Music Chart.
For?She's Like Texas, Abbott enlisted Eli Young Band associate Erik Herbst to co-produce the album in Denton. The difference is noticeable. The songs and arrangements are more focused, the sounds have more clarity, and there's a smart cohesiveness to the project, even when it veers from its central sound: bringing in Kacey Musgraves for a duet on "Oh, Tonight"; employing Roger Creager and Trent Willmon as guests on "End Of A Dirt Road"; or ending the guitar-centric collection with a piano-based ballad, "Let My Tears Be Still." "All Of A Sudden," released in advance of the album, became a Top 10 hit on the?Texas Music Chart.
Abbott wrote the bulk of the songs in April and May 2009, shortly after he'd gone through a rocky period in a relationship. It was personally difficult, but creatively inspiring, and the feelings he encountered during that period were central to?She's Like Texas.
Appropriately, he delivers the material in a voice that's both manly and sensitive. He sings about the relationships and small-town lessons in a dusty, masculine tone, but he's deft enough to consider-and understand-a woman's viewpoint.
"In order for the female audience base to really embrace you, you have to do one of two things: you have to either flatter them or empower them," Abbott suggests. "The empowerment comes from other girls, other lead singers such as Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood who kind of make girls feel like they're stronger than the man-the if-you-can-do-it-then-I-can-do-it-too kind of songs. I go the other direction, and I try to flatter them. When women come to our shows and they hear the songs, I like to think that they feel like we're kind of makin' ‘em feel special."
Abbott doesn't just talk about his concepts; he invests in them. He financed the entire album himself, he's given away thousands of the?Brushy Creek?EPs, and he's been known to toss freebies-coozies, T-shirts, ball caps, etc.-into the crowd during his shows. He released?She's Like Texas?on his own Pretty Damn Tough label (the PDT initials mirror the acronym of his Phi Delta Theta roots), and Thirty Tigers-an indie marketing company that's helped build careers and projects for Kathy Mattea, Justin Townes Earle and James McMurtry-supported his belief by signing on.
"The way I see it, it will come back," Abbott says of his investments. "It might be in dollars, it might be in fans' loyalty, it might just be that they remember you for giving them something for nothing. You may not be able to trace the way in which that comes back, but it will."
With?She's Like Texas, it's paid off in the form of a sturdy, emotional album that sets up the do-it-yourself Josh Abbott Band as the Lonestar State's next authentic breakout. It might take years to analyze the depth of the sound, but it takes only minutes-maybe just seconds-to recognize the powerful uniqueness it adds to Texas music, and to the whole of country music.