Singer Branan mixes genres in his ‘mutt music’
“It’s what Harold Bloom in literary criticism called the anxiety of influence. You do everything you can to fill up the little pinky toe print of the footprint that came before you. Big footsteps. I felt it keenly.” Cory Branan
Cory Branan grew up in Southhaven, Miss., a suburb of one of America’s great music cities, Memphis, Tenn.
“It’s right at the state line,” the touring Branan said on his way to Denver, Colo. “My father was a jet mechanic for FedEx there in Memphis. He didn’t want to quite commit to Tennessee, but he moved us pretty far north, into one of the last towns in Mississippi.”
Branan, whose wide-ranging and rootsy label debut for Chicago’s Bloodshot Records appeared in May, played in rock and metal bands as a teen. He didn’t write a song until he was 24.
“I got a late start but it went pretty fast after that,” he said. “So I started there in Memphis.”
Being a musician from Memphis — the city whose Sun Studios launched Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas and more, whose Stax and Hi labels issued classics by Otis Redding, Booker T and the MG’s, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and Al Green — can be intimidating.
“It’s what Harold Bloom in literary criticism called the anxiety of influence,” Branan said.
“You do everything you can to fill up the little pinky toe print of the footprint that came before you. Big footsteps. I felt it keenly.”
Yet the burden is also an honor.
“It’s a privilege to be from a wellspring,” Branan said. “There’s nowhere I’ve lived after leaving Memphis that I can sit in a club or a café for more than 30 minutes and not hear someone doing a Memphis song. Some Al Green, soul, blues, something that ties me home. It’s pervasive music.”
Memphis also was home to the never famous but nonetheless influential Memphis pop-rock band Big Star, which featured the late singer-songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell.
“Some of my favorite bands that aren’t from Memphis are linked to Memphis through their love of Big Star,” Branan said.
Branan chose to deal with his many influences with an open-minded, open-hearted embrace. When a song he writes tells him it wants to take a certain turn, he lets it go there.
“I don’t play a genre of music, so I just started calling it ‘mutt music,’ ” he said. “Yeah, that comes from being from a wellspring of roots-based music but also living in the suburbs and being a kid growing up on MTV with a skateboard. I mean I wasn’t on a farm playing a banjo. I was just a little suburb rat.”
Branan’s early influences included punk band Black Flag, metal band Iron Maiden and gangsta rapper Eazy-E. It was all a natural spurt of youthful rebellion.
“I went for anything that wasn’t blues or gospel or country,” he said. “But then you find your way back, the long way back. Eventually, I realized there’s not a lot of difference between punk rock and country. They both try to get immediacy and honesty but they’re taking different routes to do it. It’s no surprise to me that so many punk fans are Johnny Cash fans.”
Branan identifies with such contemporary artists as Beck, whose breakthrough hit, “Loser,” fused country blues and hip-hop.
“There’s not as much a rub with Beck’s stuff because he throws a lot of pop-based things in there,” Branan said. “People aren’t as purist with pop, but when you do it with punk and folk music and country, purists want it to be only the one thing. But to me it’s all the same. This is America. We’re not supposed to have such hard lines between things.”
After living in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Austin and Memphis again, Branan moved to Nashville.
It’s three hours from his family in northern Mississippi and a central base from which to tour.
“And being from Memphis, I’ve always needed a music town,” he said. “Nashville’s definitely a music town.”