An Interview With Kevin Broughton
I had never heard, heard of, or seen Matt Woods until a late July gig at The Earl in Atlanta, when he was touring with Austin Lucas. Just how out of it was I? I texted the Boss Man a picture of their cool tour poster, and he replied, “Oh, cool. Matt had FTM’s favorite song in 2013.” Uh, derp.
But it was Woods’ across-the-board authenticity – on stage and off – that impressed me. The dude is real. July saw him fine-tuning a bunch of heavy country songs that make up the album How to Survive, released today on his own label, Lonely Ones Records. Did I mention that these are heavy songs? Just to make sure, I compared notes with the Boss Man. “If you'd rather be lied to or be sold a rosy view of life and love, you'd best steer clear of Matt Woods,” said Trailer. “His confessional lyrical style pulls back the curtain on the heartaches and struggles of real life.”
And, Bingo. While his previous two albums, The Matt Woods Manifesto and With Love From Brushy Mountain, were sprinkled with a hearty mix of story songs, murder ballads and love songs, today’s release is all about relationships. There are some aspirational love songs, but it’s weighted down with heartbreak – and reality. When you hear “To Tell the Truth,” or “Born to Lose,” there’s no question that these songs are both autobiographical and from a dark place. And it’s not insignificant that the song Woods says is truest to him – “A Good Man” – is a soul-crushing confessional; so much so that it took some coaxing for that to be divulged.
We caught up with Woods out in the west Texas town of El Paso, and talked songs for the downtrodden, dark thoughts of bodily harm to percussionists, and how being covered by Dean Ween is a dream.
One of your earlier albums is called The Matt Woods Manifesto. That strikes me as both an awesome and ballsy concept. For our readers unfamiliar with your work, what flag were you planting, and were you satisfied by the reception?
Yeah, I was definitely happy with the reception. I had spent a good many years bouncing around in rock ‘n’ roll bands. That record came out in 2011, and I guess it was sometime around ’09 that I realized I was gonna move away from the bands and start working on things under my own name. And what partly informed that was my writing, which was taking itself in a different direction. That led me to getting back to my roots, and back to my love of country music.
That’s why I did the Manifesto; it was a departure point.
Having listened to some of your work, I think I have a good idea, but who are some of the songwriters who’ve influenced you?
I’ve been influenced by a great number of people in one way or another. The easiest to name, over the life of my writing, have been Kris Kristofferson and John Fogerty. I’d also have to give a nod to Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.
You’re like the eleventy-billionth artist about whom I’ve said, “WTH isn’t this person on radio?” Without going too deeply down that rabbit hole, when did murder ballads and cheatin’ songs go the way of the dinosaur, in the minds of Nashville suits and program directors?
As far as mainstream country is concerned, I think that all started happening in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that point you could still find some music that still used what would be considered traditional country themes. But it was also sort of the birth of…party country. You know, “everything’s alright and let’s just have a good time.” That’s when things started leaning that direction.
You’ve done some really good murder ballads. How To Survive is made up – except for “The American Way” -- almost exclusively of relationship songs. Did you go at this album thematically, or did it just organically evolve that way?
It did happen organically, but there’s a certain theme. We were going for a more intimate deal, and it’s a more introspective album as it turned out. Any time I go into the studio to record an album, there are always more songs than can fit on it. So you’re trying to take the best ones and make them fit together into one thing, instead of just a collection of songs on a piece of wax. And I try to keep that in mind and pair songs together that complement one another.
Some noteworthy artists have addressed the disenchanted/disenfranchised, hard to re-adjust veteran. Isbell did it a couple times, McMurtry hit a chord with “Can’t Make it Here” a dozen years ago. Steve Earle did it with “Johnny Come Lately” in 1988. Describe your approach to “The American Way,” because that song hasn’t been secret, and the video’s been out there a while. Obviously there was some deep meaning for you.
Yeah, we released that video on the Fourth of July. I started working on that song in the summer of 2015. For me, it’s just the state of the union. It reflects parts of my childhood in rural East Tennessee in the 80s and 90s, and how things just sorta stay the same, you know? I wanted it to be a snapshot of how things are for blue collar people; folks who are just trying to live.
The album hits all the bases: love songs of the aspirational, affirming or cheatin’ type, and even a heart-stomping I don’t love you song, “To Tell the Truth.” They’re all pretty sad & heavily laden with minor chords. I assume this was purposeful?
Yeah, I uh, I feel pretty comfortable working in a minor key, and I’d say I definitely do that more often than not. I think there’s something about the minor keys that definitely ring a little truer…well, maybe “truer” isn’t the right word. Maybe “profound.” I think songs in minor keys strike people more profoundly. And as such, maybe, I think they can give folks something a little more concrete to hold onto.
There are plenty of good traditional songs with the 1-4-5 progression, but I think it’s the sad ones, the ones in minor keys, that people keep going back to.
And you definitely lean toward the sadder stuff here; granted I’m new to your body of work, but it seems like there’s even more of an emphasis on How to Survive.
I don’t know, I always tend to lean toward the more downtrodden, darker side. Even on a lot of my story songs…well, there are more story songs on my last two records, and some of them do come at you with an upbeat feel. But these are definitely from the darker side of things.
Is this album serious empathy across the board, or autobiographical? Maybe a little of both?
It’s fair to say it’s a little bit of both. It’s certainly a little autobiographical. And it’s a good bit more introspective and personal than the last two were.
Is there one song that’s more autobiographical than any other on the album?
Oh, man. Ha. That’s a difficult question. (Lengthy pause.)
You’re free to take a pass, and that’s fine. But I mean, I can see several candidates. It ain’t like you just made all this stuff up…
(Laughing) Yeah. I know…there’s certainly some real shit in it. And some of it has to do with stuff I promised myself I wasn’t gonna talk about in the course of promoting this record, so…
Okay, that’s cool. And as we move away from this question I’d just observe that there are several songs…well, “Fireflies” is certainly inspirational and aspirational. I’m guessing there were some songs that were hard to write. Looking at “To Tell The Truth,” I don’t think that song was written in a vacuum. Is that fair?
Yeah. That’s fair. That one’s got pieces of me in it, but they’ve all got pieces of me in them…
Okay. We can move on…
…man, this is hard to talk about, hard to say. But I’d say the most telling one on the album is “A Good Man.”
Structurally, you place your bridges as points of emphasis, often in different spots. Do you have any kind of guiding philosophy in that regard?
My guiding philosophy, I guess, is just to be efficient. I don’t tie myself into any formulaic songwriting. You know a lot of folks are all about verse/chorus; verse/chorus; bridge/chorus; out. With me sometimes they fall that way, sometimes they don’t; I try not to be superfluous…I try not to fill the time if it doesn’t need to be filled, you know? If I’ve set up what I needed to with one verse and it’s time to get to that poignant/conflict part of the song maybe I’ll go ahead with the bridge right there. It just depends on what the song calls for. But yeah, I look at the bridge as really being the heart of the song.
I’d like to switch gears for a minute and ask you about the inspiration for some of your songs. You made a couple references at the Atlanta gig in July; for instance, I believe “Bed Sheets” is something of a send-up of one Conway Twitty. Expand on that a little.
Sure. I think “Bed Sheets” is really the only sexy-time song on this album (laughs). And there was actually a point as I was finishing it up where I was like, “Man, can I say this? (Laughing) Am I going too far?”
But I’ve always been a fan of Conway’s, and that was what I thought: “Well, shit, here’s a man who had no qualms about taking a song into the bedroom.” And I was coming to terms with the fact that I’m probably the same age as he was when he was on Hee-Haw when I was watching as a kid, you know what I mean? I told this story in Atlanta. I remember watching Conway, sweatin’ under those stage lights with one of those skinny 1970s microphones, singin’ bedroom songs. (Laughing) And I was old enough to realize, “Well, shit. Maybe I need to do some of that,” you know?
Back to the Manifesto, was writing “Port St. Lucie” a reasonable alternative to doing bodily harm to a former drummer? Am I remembering that correctly?
Yeah, man. One of those bands I was in, we were on the road and had van trouble in Port St. Lucie. You know…being in a band, it’s good and it’s frustrating all at the same time. You start bands with your buddies and…you see how far and how much you can damage that relationship (Laughing), how much you guys can just damned hate each other.
Out of boredom?
No, not out of boredom. You know, when you’re young, it takes you a while to figure out that everybody has their own set of priorities and interests and quirks…eating habits and drinking habits and everything else. And trying to get all that to work together is sometimes a struggle, especially if you’re in a band with a bunch of dudes.
And not to ruin the illusion, but rock ‘n’ roll ain’t that glamorous and there’s not much money in it. You go for a stretch of time of sleeping on couches covered in cat hair and not making any money, and something’s gotta give. We had that van stuck in Port St. Lucie with no shows to play, and it was about as hot as it could get in Florida in August. And I just realized, “Man I gotta get out of this situation before I kill this damn drummer. (Laughs) And I’m sure he had his own thoughts on the situation, you know.
I’m glad we got a nice song out of it, instead of tire-tool justice in Southwest Florida. You produced this album. Was that the first time producing your own work, or anybody else’s?
No, I’ve produced all of my albums. And recently I got to produce an album for my buddy Jeff Shepherd and his band the Jailhouse poets. We got them into the studio in Knoxville and it was really cool to be able to work with them. I really enjoy it, and just like being in the studio and want to be able to do some more of that in the future.
I see Jeff sang backup on “Bound to Lose.”
Yeah, he actually wrote that song with me. Jeff and I were on tour together in the Spring of 2015. We were on our way to Florida, and damned if it didn’t snow all over Mississippi. (Laughing)
You recently pulled up stakes from your native East Tennessee & moved to Nashville; I think you and Chelle Rose might have passed each other? Was that a move for convenience’s sake?
Yeah, Chelle and I apparently traded spots. Not really convenience, man. I’m from East Tennessee, I love it there, and I’ve spent the last 22 years in Knoxville. But for the last five, I’ve pretty much been on the road about ten months out of the year. Circumstances came about that enabled me to sell my house, and once I had done that I didn’t see the need to just start over in East Tennessee. So I just took advantage of that; Nashville’s a happening town and there’s a lot going on there. And it’s at least as well positioned for touring as Knoxville is.
Word has it you’ll be touring with a full band this fall. How long has it been since you did one of those?
I’ve been doing some band touring about twice a year. I try to take a band out on the road during the spring and fall, and the last one was in May. I had some of the same dudes with me I’ll be taking out this fall, and this one will be fairly extensive; it’ll be about six weeks covering the eastern U.S.
Have you ever been in a joint and heard someone cover one of your songs?
I have. I did just get word from a friend of mine who was at Adam Lee’s and Josh Morningstar’s show in Detroit last night that Josh played one of my songs. And something that really tickled me, I don’t know if you’re a Ween fan, but I met Dean Ween in Pennsylvania and he let me know through social media that he had covered one of my shows at his standing gig. So I’ve been covered by Dean Ween!
The one person in the Outlaw Country/Alt.Country scene you’d love to work with one day?
(Pauses) Man. I’d love to sit down and write songs with Jamey Johnson. I think he writes really sharp songs.
An artist you’d recommend to all your fans?
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Sam Lewis; he’s pretty fantastic. He was living in Knoxville when I met him, and at that point he would have been in his really early 20s. He was writing really sharp songs and performing them really well. I guess he’s been in Nashville six or eight years and starting to get the recognition he deserves.
You said in an interview, with Riki Rachtman of all people, that you didn’t really like the term “outlaw country.” How would you describe your music?
Aw, man. I guess I’d call it Southern…American…songwriting? (Laughs) How about “Appalachian heartbreak music?” Let’s go with that.
I love this! I’m learning new terms all the time, and they’re all so fluid. Describe touring with Austin Lucas.
Fantastic. Touring with Austin was fantastic. We had been trying to get something together for years, and we were finally able to make it work last summer. He’s just immensely talented, and so kind and thoughtful. I had a great time with him, and running around with Sally the dog was great, too.
The ubiquitous Sally. Top five albums of all time regardless of genre?
Alright. I’m glad you hit me with this earlier, because that’s a moving target. I got it down to seven, so I’ll give you the five.
Tell you what, then, let’s make it top seven.
Guns ‘n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction. Randy Travis, Storms of Life. Kris Kristofferson, The Silver Tongued Devil And I. Any Creedence Clearwater Revival album. (Laughs) If I only get one, I’d go with Chronicle, a greatest hits record with about 20 songs on it. Pearl Jam’s 10.
As I was thinking through that list, there are a couple on there I haven’t listened to in a while, but there are a couple others I can’t imagine being without: Two Cow Garage’s Sweet Saint Me, and Glossary’s Better Angels of Our Nature.
Why is How To Survive your best work?
I think the simple answer to that is I’ve been able to apply everything I’ve learned thus far (in my career) and apply it to this album. I think if you release a record and you don’t think it’s the best one you’ve ever done, then you’re not doing your job. With How to Survive, I think because of its introspective nature, there’s something in there that just about everybody can relate to.
Writing love songs is not something I typically do a lot of, but there’s some of that mixed in with all the heartbreak. What it lacks in story songs and murder ballads, I think it more than makes up for with truth and emotion. At least I hope that’s how people perceive it.