Austin Lucas was gonna do a concept album. And he was gonna do it how he wanted, by God, no matter who or what got in his way. Turns out just about everything did. Inspired to follow up 2013’s critically acclaimed Stay Reckless in a big and different way and backed by a respected indie label, Lucas laid down the tracks about two and a half years ago.
So why is Between the Moon and the Midwest – released this coming Friday on the Last Chance label – just now seeing the light of day? It’s complicated to say the least. It would appear Karma or some other hateful trollop laid an impressive mine field in front of him, then started lobbing mortars while he zigzagged through it, just for kicks. All can be thankful for Lucas’s persistence, presented now as we are with the most authentic country vocals since – and maybe before -- Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music – and this statement itself is ironic.
The Bloomington, Indiana native and son of songwriter-producer Bob Lucas (best known for his work with Allison Krause), didn’t come by his heart-piercing, poignant tenor by mere genetic-lottery luck. His dad had him taking operatic & choral lessons at a tender age, and he spent a half-dozen years in the Indiana University Children’s Choir. His musical compass, though, would seem to be instinctive, so again, he knew where he wanted to go with this record.
He says the concept itself is based on him and some childhood friends. The songs were written during and after the end of a toxic marriage, and the crippling heartbreak pours out of them as it must’ve from him at the time. Along the way he managed to get sober – and quit cigarettes too, so he may not be human – and serve up some commentary on the state of the industry. Lyrically born of personal pain, the musical vision came from some weed brownie-induced moments of terror on Willie Nelson’s tour bus. Vocally? His pipes are on par with and at times outshine those of the neo-traditionalist troika of Stapleton/Isbell/Simpson. The year’s not yet half over, but somebody better pack a lunch if he wants to displace this as the best country album of 2016.
The second verse of the album’s opening cut, “Unbroken Hearts,” begins “Ain’t no golden Cadillacs for boys like me who open up our hearts.” Lucas, 37, would know, because he surely ain’t scared to open up. He’s an expansive guy…
It’s not a secret that some of these songs were written while you were going through a divorce/separation, but the album seems pretty thematic. Specifically, “Unbroken Hearts” laments the dearth of traditional, sad country songs – as it ushers in eight or ten of them. Did making this album serve some sort of a dual purpose, being cathartic while making a statement the music industry?
Some of it was accidental, and some of it was fate. The record is a concept album, which is why you hear the same names and some of the same melodies over and over. When I started writing this in 2011, it was right after getting off the road with Willie Nelson and Jamey Johnson. When I was told I was going on tour with Willie, I went and dug into his catalog even harder than I would normally. And of course, Red Headed Stranger is one of the greatest albums recorded in the history of mankind. And as I was listening to it over and over, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do another country concept album, with recurring themes and recurring melodies.”
I also happened to be miserable in the marriage I was in. So I took it as an opportunity to write songs that weren’t “really” about me and my wife – you know, “it’s a concept album, they’re characters” -- so she wouldn’t hear the songs and take them personally. Now, she had a lot of problems and I don’t want to talk about them…and in the end, I ended up with a lot of problems because of the mental duress I’d put myself through during our relationship. When we actually split up, it freed me up to talk about it, and I actually had a massive creative spurt, and out came Stay Reckless, my last album.
So immediately after that record was done and the album cycle had run, I began this body of work. This album’s conception was in the summer of 2011, and it’s been recorded since September 2014. This record’s been finished forever.
Yeah. You asked about the state of the music industry; I wrote the album with three characters in mind, and both of the male characters are me. Actually they’re both different sides of me. One of them is the hopeless romantic who wants to stay home and have a normal relationship, and the other one’s this reckless, pretty much failed musician who keeps on being told there’s no fucking place for him in the music industry.
So when I wrote “Unbroken Hearts,” I had a record label. They were giving me a hard time, but I had a label. So when I wrote that song, I was like “this is just a character.” When I turned that album in, there was a new president coming in. The sitting president had approved the album; it went forward and it was being pressed, with posters and CDs and all that. The new president came in, heard it, and said “I don’t hear a single, go back to the studio.”
I said, “Uh, there are about four singles on this fucking record.”
And they let me go. So the song ended up being very relevant to my personal life. Now when I sing it, every single word is my fucking life. And it’s really interesting how art became reality.
Wow. This is at New West? Wow.
Yep. New West Records said, “We don’t hear a single.” Are you fucking kidding me?
I have to ask about the song “William.” I don’t know how many songs about cuckolding I can name, but there’s not a more brutal and graphic one. Care to dive into that one a little?
Well, that song is the song that started the record. Uh, I don’t wanna go into details about what was going on. Obviously, I was not sleeping with my best friend’s wife. My best friend was not sleeping with my wife. But…I was almost positive that things were going on. I wrote that song because I had fears, and that’s just what came out. I hope my best friend wasn’t putting it to my wife…but you know, I suffer from anxiety and depression, and my mind goes to really dark places. Even if those places have no basis in reality; that’s just a thing that happens to me.
I’ve gotten better at managing my positivity. I quit drinking, I don’t do white drugs anymore…I don’t smoke. I’m a different person than I was. But especially back in 2011 when I was still partying pretty hard and didn’t realize how much my anxiety was affecting me, my brain was able to go to those kinds of places.
How has sobriety impacted your craft?
[Starts and stops a couple times as he ponders] It’s made me work harder. I’m not as lazy now. You know, I work out all the time. I ride my bike everywhere. I take an MMA class.
Yeah, it’s Thai boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu and American boxing all together. I jog. I go hiking every day with my dog. And with my writing, I’m not as lazy. There was a time when I was like “Okay! Song’s done!” I’m much better at self-editing. I’ll take songs and just hammer and hammer on them. It’s made me a little bit more verbose. A lot of that remains to be seen, though, and y’all probably won’t get a taste of that till a year after this.
There’s a psychedelic edge to a several of these cuts including the opener, with that ethereal feedback deal at the beginning. Is that Austin Lucas putting his imprint on the traditional genre?
Yeah, it is. I wanted to create these spacey soundscapes. I’ve listened to a lot of different music, and I come from – well, first I come from a traditional and bluegrass background because of my dad. He put me into opera and choir when I was a kid, so I had a classical influence. Then when I was 12 I discovered punk. Then metal and of course all different kinds of rock ‘n’ roll. Some of my favorite music was Beatles and Beach Boys records…glam stuff like T Rex and Bowie. This has all been part of my musical life.
So when I was trying to figure out how to make this record, like I said, I was on tour with Willie Nelson. And all the guys on the tour bus, they all came back from a day out on somebody’s boat, and they were high as hell on weed brownies.
And they were saying, “Austin, Austin, eat a weed brownie, c’mon, do it!” And I said, “Heh. Alright.”
I don’t smoke weed. I don’t eat it. It makes me paranoid, but I wanted to be part of the party. And then all of those fuckers went to sleep. They left me alone on the tour bus, right as it was leaving. I couldn’t even get out and smoke a cigarette. So I crawl into my bunk and of course I can’t sleep, and I just hit “random” on my iPod. And it’s just cycling through: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, T Rex, then the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. All these songs were together and it all made sense to me, because I was high.
Is that not a testament to the power of weed brownies?
I guess that it is. Because I was like, “All of this music goes together. And I can make all this music go together.” And when I went to make this record, I had it in my mind exactly what I wanted to do. But it almost got derailed, and I’ll tell you why.
We went into pre-production for this record in April of 2014. And [Sturgill Simpson’s] “Turtles All The Way Down” dropped like two weeks after we went into pre-production.
Amazing. That’s another record I was fixin’ to ask you about, but go ahead…
So, I’m sittin’ there and listening to “Turtles All the Way Down,” and I’m like, “Fuck, dude! This guy is making a fucking psychedelic country record,” which wasn’t in existence at the time I was thinking of doing it. And I’ve been a Sturgill fan for a long time. Sunday Valley…their album and one of mine were up for Country Album of the Year in 2011 from Saving Country Music. I’ve been listening to him from the moment he went solo and enjoying him.
So I’m like, “Here’s the new Stu record, cool,” and lo and behold he’s doing the same thing I was trying to do, so I almost nixed it. But then I heard the whole record. And know what? His whole album isn’t psychedelic, and it’s certainly not a concept record, so we’re not really doing the same thing. Plus my songs are story songs, and his are much more structure songs. We both exist in this same pantheon, this rich, beautiful tapestry of country music, but it’s a different approach. So I said, green light, let’s go, and you know this album would have come out in February of 2015 if I hadn’t been dropped by New West Records.
If only you’d had a single.
Yeah, if only. So, I got dropped.
Then I had to go about buying the record back. And literally everything bad that could happen to an artist’s career happened to me in one fell swoop: Parted ways with my manager. Had to find a new lawyer. Dropped by my agent. Then my label dropped me. I went from having a team to slammed right back down to the bottom with nothing.
What’s your relationship with Joey Kneiser? How crucial was his production to getting this album to go in the direction you wanted?
Absolutely massive. He’s the first producer I’ve worked with who was so involved for such a long period of time. Usually I go into the studio for three weeks, then I’m out. We started pre-production in April and finished tracking in September. He and I were in each other’s pockets throughout the process. And it’s not just him, but it’s my band.* But he definitely has that psychedelic ear, and when I was thinking about this concept, he said, “I really think we can do this. I know how to create the soundscapes, and I think we can do a really good job with this.”
And he had never done something this ambitious before; he’s produced records, but never something like this, and especially something that was going to be a leap on a major indie label. So, giving him the keys was definitely a leap of faith and I don’t think my faith was misplaced.
A question about the state of the industry as it applies to singer/songwriters like you. Music Row has been the domain of bros trying to out-douche each other with these fucking songs about trucks and dirt roads and shit. Now guys like Stapleton and Isbell are winning Grammys. Is that cause for hope for songwriters making music with actual integrity? Do you think a corner might have been turned, or is being turned?
I hope so. I think people have been getting tired of the same old/same old, and it was only a matter of time before it was gonna boil over.
You know, this has happened before, many times. You think about these eras of great country music and great music in general, and they’re brief. They’re in between periods of just awful stuff. There are thousands of artists who had hits that were huge in their time, but no one ever thinks about anymore. And that holds true for all genres of music. But pop music and country have always played off of each other.
Today, modern pop music is absolutely, horrifically vapid and un-creative and robotic. It was only a matter of time before modern “country” music took on those characteristics, and it did, in spades. And that’s why we have this bro country stuff. But I think a lot of people are turning on the radio and not liking what they’re hearing, and it’s a shock to their system, and they’re forced to go seek out other artists.
Hey, I used to work on music row. There are good writers there, and there are bad writers there. There are some good executives with good ideas, who are trying to push good ideas, but you know what? It’s all corporate music, and I don’t give a fuck about corporate music. The music I love and the artists I respect don’t have a shot of being on radio, anyway, so I’m just going to keep staying the course.
I mean, this album is as “country” as it gets. Surely there’s a way to get it slipped into the rotation of a mainstream country station or two? It’s where it would belong if some of these motherfuckers would realize you can have quality and integrity at one time.
Or, if I hadn’t been dropped by a record label with the resources to push it. I mean, I’ve got a wonderful record label right now with great distribution and they really care about me. And it’s a great roster; I’m in awesome company. But we don’t have the resources of some of the other labels, and for this record to do anything, fans are gonna have to be really loud about it.
So yes, my record might have that kind of potential, given the right treatment. Is that possible? Heck, I don’t know. Will people believe in it enough that they’re gonna bang the drum so that folks will have to start paying attention? I don’t know. It’s great that you feel strongly about it, but that doesn’t mean other people will.
I’m gonna do the album cycle like always, and get out there for the fans, and hope to pick up support. We’re fighting a very uphill battle. I hope that we can win it. If we can’t, at the end of the day, I’m just a dude who goes out and plays for good people every day, whether it’s for 15 or 150.
I know musicians who haven’t had to have a day job for 30 years, and they’re largely content, if always struggling to make a living. If you could sit down and map out how your career would go from this point forward, what would it look like, given all the industry givens?
Hmmm. You want best case or worst case?
Why don’t you give me both?
I’ve always wanted to be a theater artist. And that’s because I do so much work that’s just me and the guitar. So I’ve always been hopeful that I could just get into theaters of whatever size, just so I’d be in front of people who wanted to hear me play and they were there to listen.
When you play rock clubs, the hardest thing is getting people’s attention. It’s a real job just go get people to shut up and hear the words coming out of your mouth.
I would imagine so.
Yeah. So I wouldn’t mind playing rooms where I don’t have to work so hard. And not that I don’t “work hard,” but it’s so nice to play someplace where people are already looking at you, and you don’t have to fight them, or convince them that you’re worth paying attention to. So it would be great if I could get to where I was playing, you know, 1,000-seat theaters. I’d love it if I could play those places and do a three-night stand, so I could spend some time and not have to be someplace new every single day.
But…worst-case scenario, things stay like they are right now. I have fans all over the world. I tour all over the world. My fans are energetic and beautiful. Ten years ago a friend asked me what I wanted. I said, “I’d like it if everywhere I went, somebody knew who I was and was excited to see me. And I’d like to own my home.”
And you know, both of those things have happened. I’ve bought a house, being a fulltime musician. No matter where I go, I’ve always got fans. I may only play to five people, but those five are excited as hell they’re gettin’ to see me.
And I’ll tell you what: There are worse places to be.
Pre-Order Austin Lucas’s Between The Moon And The Midwest right here. This album is astoundingly good. When you pre-order, you’ll get “Unbroken Hearts,” the opening track, early. Here’s a clip of Austin doing a solo acoustic version in Germany. Get a feel for his vocals, if you’re on the fence about buying the record. And here’s “Kristy Rae” as well.
(*Bass - Alex Mann; Guitars - Ricky Izzo-White; Drums - Aaron Persinger; Pedal Steel - Steve Daly. And about a half-dozen harmony-singers, Lydia Loveless bearing special mention for “Wrong Side of the Dream.)
**All photos from Austin Lucas' website.