Interview: Josh Abbott Band Reconsider Nashville for New Album, ‘The Highway Kind’
Josh Abbott knows it's cliche, but ...
"I just think it's phenomenal," the Josh Abbott Band frontman says of his group's newest album, The Highway Kind. "I think we're at our best on this record."
Abbott doesn't offer that praise lightly. "I'm very careful about the self-promotion thing. I don't want to seem narcissistic," he says of the just released album, and while he's complimentary toward each of the band's five previous releases, something about this project is ... different.
"Everyone in my circle is like, 'Dude, this record is legit,'" Abbott shares. "I mean, I've got cousins who don't -- who, you know, they support me, but they haven't necessarily loved some of my music in the past. And they love this record ... Some of my college friends who don't even listen to me -- don't even listen to country -- they listen to this record now like, 'Dude, it's by far your best record ...'"
Perhaps it has something to do with Abbott's own contentment with where he's at in life. When the Josh Abbott Band released their last album, 2017's Until My Voice Goes Out, Abbott was celebrating both the birth of his daughter Emery and his engagement to his now-wife Taylor. He was in a much better place than when the band released 2015's Front Row Seat, which reflects in part the dissolution of Abbott's first marriage, but there was still sadness in his heart following the March 2017 death of his father.
These days, though, there's no personal troubles holding him back from happiness.
"I think that when people listen to this record, they'll walk away just being like, 'Man, that dude's in a good spot,'" Abbott reflects. "It's full of love and life, and there's no sad songs."
Abbott and company -- banjo player Austin Davis, David Fralin on keys, bassist Jimmy Hartman, guitarist Caleb Keeter, drummer Edward Villanueva and fiddler and guitarist Preston Wait -- assembled at Sonic Ranch, outside El Paso, Texas, in mid-2019 to record The Highway Kind with famed producer Marshall Altman. Prior to that session, however, Abbott and his family -- which now also includes a son, Luck, born in June -- moved from Austin to Nashville for three months, so that Abbott could immerse himself in the Music City songwriting scene.
In 2014, Abbott had the same opportunity, after the Josh Abbott Band signed, briefly, to Atlantic Records. At the time, he didn't take advantage.
"I was young, hotheaded, kind of arrogant and was just refusing to embrace the Nashville thing. And so, I stayed in Texas, and I didn't write a lot with Nashville guys," Abbott recounts. "And I think it really disengaged not only my label, but, you know, the town, from wanting to invest in me as an artist.
"And as I grew a little bit wiser and older, I realized that was a mistake, because there's a lot of really great music that comes out of Nashville," he continues. "So it's all about surrounding yourself with the right people who get what you do. You know, they don't have to be from Texas to get what you do."
Troy Cartwright, Erik Dylan and Jon Randall, all out of Nashville, co-wrote The Highway Kind's title track. Jon Pardi, meanwhile, penned the raucous "24-7-365."
"There's a professionalism to this album that I wouldn't have been able to deliver if I had tried to write these songs by myself," Abbott admits. "I think immersing myself in that Nashville scene a little bit and writing with guys who have been in my corner before ... and then kind of widening that circle a little bit ... I just think it really led to ... the best collection of songs we've ever gone into the studio with."
Abbott is particularly enamored with "Settle Me Down," a "genuine love song that comes straight from the heart," for Taylor: the person who's always got his back, who's always there to pull him back to reality.
"Everyone has that person; it's not just a musician thing," Abbott notes. "I think the music is killer ... I just think that there's something very special about the song. And, to be honest, it sounds like a praise and worship song -- kinda like, if you can listen to it and you can just read the words, it could easily be cut by a Christian artist."
Looking back, Abbott is able to recognize weak spots on JAB's previous albums: For example, while he loves the horns and strings on Until My Voice Goes Out, he confesses to selecting some of its tracks because they'd sound good with that instrumentation, not because he truly loved the songs.
"Every single time you put something out, I think you learn something from that. And I think, going into this record, I was like, 'I'm only recording songs I love.' If there's a song that I'm like, 'Oh, I like that. I think it fits,' it's not making the record," Abbott says. "And I think that really was a harsh chopping block for some good songs ...
"I'm not the young dude anymore," he continues. "I really want to focus on the art and write great songs and put them out and focus on the longevity of my career, as opposed to the explosion of it."