Justin Moore relaxes into a leather chair in a cramped recording studio ringed with microphones and audio gear, occasionally pressing a plastic soda bottle to his lips to spit. He happily discusses the past, present and future of his beloved Arkansas Razorbacks football team, including their mostly winning — but scandal-ridden — run under coach Bobby Petrino and the subsequent adjustments the team needs to make if it wants a chance at beating the perpetually dominant University of Alabama in the coming seasons.
Likewise, Moore's fourth studio album Kinda Don’t Care represents something of a shift in strategy, arriving after an extended period of silence where he had no singles on the radio. 2013's Off the Beaten Path was the type of release fans have come to expect from Moore by now: Southern-rock jams like his Number Two hit "Point at You" — where he gets to play the bad boy — mixing it up with raw, steel-drenched ballads like the Miranda Lambert duet "Old Habits" and sincere rural odes like "Dirt Road Kid." Despite the album's promising start, its third single, "This Kind of Town," failed to make it inside the Top 40 and Moore took time to regroup and find the right songs for his next project.
"I really just took a deep breath for the first time in my career, because I've always gone single after single after album after album," he says, acknowledging the often breakneck pace and constant demands heaped on a recording artist trying to build a career. "I had reservations about doing it, and it was scary in some sense to take a step away from putting new music out to radio because you always think, 'Well, if I go away, will I ever be able to come back?'"
Kinda Don't Care attempts to answer that question a number of different ways, but it's also an effort to elevate Moore to the type of elite status he dreams about for his Razorbacks. To date, he's scored seven Top 10 hits — including the Rolling Stones-indebted breakup tune "You Look Like I Need a Drink," Kinda Don't Care's lead single. It's a plenty respectable track record and hard as hell to achieve in the competitive bloodsport that is the entertainment business, but what's a guy supposed to do? Stop and say, "That's good enough?" Not at all, particularly when he'd like to scramble fans' senses with mind-altering live production and roll with a touring apparatus of so many semi-trucks that Kenny Chesney might get jealous.
There's only one problem: Moore can't get to that place by releasing the same albums he's done in the past. Guys like Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton who are currently at the very top of the heap haven't had much use for sticking exclusively to the traditional approaches Moore has favored on his albums, a fact reflected in the sleek, pop-friendly sounds currently occupying the bulk of playlist spots on radio. Moore's response on Kinda Don't Care was to offer some of the Telecaster-driven twang that's been his bread and butter, along with several of the most pop-leaning productions of his career to date.
"Let's just be honest, it's harder to get country music played on country radio," he says. "I didn't try to go chase something down. I wanted to create something that was still me that wasn't compromising what I really enjoy about country music but something that sounds modern. I was kind of nervous about that, because I don't ever want to contradict myself from a music standpoint. I don't want to disappoint my hardcore fan base that allowed me to have the opportunity to be sitting here right now making a fourth album, but I have to continue to grow and evolve, otherwise I'm not gonna be around."
That much is apparent from Kinda Don't Care's second track, "Put Me in a Box." Moore's cyclical melody about a deadly love is underpinned by buzzing synth noises, a ticking drum loop and thunderclap snare hits. That's all before the drums kick in, bringing it back to country rock — but country-rock as Coldplay might play it. (He says it's the favorite of his two older daughters, while the 2-year old has not yet weighed in). These production tricks pop up elsewhere, on the breakup road song "Hell on a Highway" and with the digitally chopped-up acoustic guitar figure and handclaps of "Got It Good."
"Even two or three years ago [I was] vehemently and adamantly against any loops and tracks," he admits. "Anything that wasn't a real instrument, I was not gonna have it on my album. But nowadays, there's not much of it out there that don't have it."
So it's a little jolting at first, but then, there is his voice — that finely-honed yowl of twang that curls extravagantly around his syllables, drawing them out to wavering multiples of themselves. That part of Moore's sound is immutable, no matter how many drum loops and synth pads he may find himself competing with. Still, Moore wrestled with that idea through the process of recording Kinda Don't Care: Was he pushing it too far?
"My producer pulls me aside and goes, 'Dude, have you ever thought about the fact that if you sing it, it sounds country? If you sing it, it's you. Don't worry about all this,'" he recalls. "I thought, you know what, you're right. I have passion for this music. It's a little different than what we've done, but I love it."
"At times in our industry, some of us are guilty of thinking we can dupe the fans"
But even historically speaking, Moore has never been one to record something just because it was the safe choice. "All American Way" from his self-titled debut and "Guns" from Outlaws Like Me took firm stances on complex and divisive issues in a way that probably turned off as many people as they found knowing allies. While the cutting-edge production seems to carry the most potential for controversy on Kinda Don't Care, Moore does manage to squeeze off a few rounds at political correctness on the snarling "More Middle Fingers," a duet with tour mate Brantley Gilbert. Together, they put all of the following on blast: the IRS, politicians, Wall Street, bosses, asshole drivers in BMWs, haters of Jesus and Jack or Charlie Daniels.
"I'm gonna be who I'm gonna be and be who I am," he says. "I think that's one thing people respect about me. I'm not gonna go out there and say anything that's disrespectful to somebody who has a different opinion than me. That's kind of where I'm going with it, is hey, we can disagree and shake hands and have a beer together. I'm saying — whether it be politics or whether it be religion or whatever it is —I'm not telling you I'm right, I'm telling you that's my opinion. And if you can't respect the fact that I have an educated opinion on the subject, then I can't respect you."
That self-awareness is key to Moore's present musical shapeshifting as well. He comfortably flits between these moody, slower numbers and rowdy rockers as easily as changing shirts, pouring on some perfectly agitated outlaw boogie in the title track, as if the country-pop explosion of the Nineties was just a dream. He even jokes that the irreverent Kinda Don't Care title is akin to the attitude he had to adopt for trying out all these new sounds on the album, saying it "sounds nonchalant, like I truly don't care about the music or something." But in truth, these changes are evidence of the exact opposite: an artist who cares about his career has to make changes and take risks. Moore trusts his fans to understand where he's coming from.
"It's just being genuine, being who you are," he says. "At times in our industry, some of us are guilty of thinking we can dupe the fans. And they're a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and they can cut through the crap instantly. I've had this same conversation as it pertains to the fact that there's so many different styles of country music and people ask me if I have issues with this or that. I believe this answers both questions: if you're genuine in what you do and that's what you are, then people are gonna dig it. Or if they don't, they can at least respect you for doing it."
In other words, sometimes an artist has to go in and shake things up the way a new coach would with a college football program, trying to elevate it to that next level and remind all the fans why they loved it in the beginning. In Moore's case, he's ready to get back on the field with a new album and new songs he can play for fans.
"It kind of feels like we're starting the second half of our career," he says, "like we're kicking off a third quarter."