"If people don't hate you, you're doing something wrong," says Tyler Farr in his gruff, almost mumbling voice. He's seated in a corner booth at a restaurant outside Nashville, a glass of brown liquor and a separate glass of Coke, no ice, in front of him. He never mixes his whiskey and sodas.
His music, however, beginning with his breakout hit "Redneck Crazy," has certainly stirred up country music fans. Some herald Farr and his boisterous style as the second coming of Hank Williams Jr., while others malign him as loutish and overly brazen. Those in the latter camp likely came to that conclusion solely via "Redneck Crazy," with its aggressive lyrics about driving onto a cheating girlfriend's lawn and throwing beer cans at her window. As the Garden City, Missouri, native points out, they were empties.
"[Carrie Underwood] keyed a guy’s truck," he says, citing "Before He Cheats." "I didn't even do that. I threw empty beer cans. Empty, not frozen. But keying a truck, that's okay."
The reality of "Redneck Crazy," though, is that the song, written by Josh Kear, Mark Irwin and Chris Tompkins, was a lark. Farr admits that after two failed singles, including the personal ballad "Hello Goodbye," which he co-wrote, he was looking to make a statement. "I was kind of in a point of devastation. 'Hello Goodbye' I thought was the best written song and best country song on the album. But it didn't do nothing. I was mad, and I was like, 'I guess the only thing to do now is to stir things up.' I saw 'Redneck Crazy' and I was like, 'That oughta do it.'"
Arriving atop the wave of bro-country releases, the song was all testosterone and muscled its way to Number One on the Mediabase Country Singles chart.
"It was my first breakthrough hit into country music and now I have to sing it the rest of my life," says Farr, taking a sip of whiskey and a sip of Coke. "I don't hate the song, I love the song. I think it's different, it's unique, and I'll stand by that until the day that I die."
Even so, "Redneck Crazy" would stand out like a hillbilly at a dinner party if it were included on Farr's superb new album Suffer in Peace, released this week via Columbia Nashville. For all his manly bravado — Farr delights in sharing a video on his iPhone of him calling in a doomed turkey for a friend that morning — the 31-year-old singer and avowed Bocephus disciple has released the feeling-man's country album. While Suffer in Peace opens with the infectious, Hank Jr.-like anthem "C.O.U.N.T.R.Y." — and its unfortunate reference to "truck nuts" — the bulk of the album does what few contemporary country releases do today: explore the human condition. Especially in its title track.
"Suffer in Peace," written by Aaron Barker and Phil O'Donnell, is the sort of hurting song at which country music used to excel. After his woman up and leaves him, the character in the lyrics retreats — in his mind, anyway — to a cabin in the hills, where he loses himself in the wilderness to grieve in solitude.
"The trend right now is up-tempo happy-go-lucky songs. That's not what I do," says Farr, who has ambitions not for hits, but for a legacy. "I want to be known as a stylist. I want to become a known voice in country music. That's what I moved here for. I didn't move here to be mediocre."
And "Suffer in Peace" is a bold bid for such notoriety. Even if it may not end up a radio staple.
"I cut it knowing that it probably wasn't going to be a single. Radio's probably not going to play it, but it's a great song and a very well-written song. It represents me and what we're doing on this album," he says.
This summer, Farr will play festivals around the country, as well as continuing to tour with his friend Jason Aldean (he was a groomsman at Aldean's recent wedding to American Idol alum Brittany Kerr). The pair team up for the Suffer in Peace duet "Damn Good Friends." While it might echo the sentiment of Tracy Lawrence's 2006 hit "Find Out Who Your Friends Are," Farr's song does so with a little more grit. "I'm a realist," he says. When he drives off the road after avoiding a deer in the first verse, he immediately worries about the cops showing up and smelling the booze on his breath.
"It's not driving drunk," he clarifies. "Shit, I mean we all were in high school, we all drove. I drove with a pony keg in the bed in my truck with a damn hose through the sliding [window]. Today is so censored, and you wonder why kids turned out pansies. Because everybody’s a winner. He got sixth place? Tell him to run faster. You have to learn from your mistakes — nowadays you're not allowed to make mistakes to learn from."
The world is changing, Farr says, and he allows that he'll just have to accept that. But when it comes to country music, he swears he'll do his damnedest to keep it connected to its roots. In other words, don't expect any T-Pain remixes of his current hit, "A Guy Walks into a Bar."
"No, not going to happen. I love T-Pain — good job, buddy — but not going to do it. I have got to stick to my guns. I'm passionate about country music. It's what I love, it's my livelihood. I've fought about it and I'd fight anybody who wants to fight me about it," says Farr.
Much of the singer's affection for country's past comes from his exposure at a young age to George Jones. Farr's stepfather Dwayne Phillips toured as lead guitar player in the Possum's band and often brought his stepson to the gigs. Farr says on the day the country legend died in 2013, he got drunk before his concert that night and covered six Jones songs in his set.
His only regret is not appreciating him more when he was in his company. A photo on Farr's Instagram shows a fresh-faced kid with his arm around Jones. "I'm wearing a damn Puka shell necklace like an idiot. That was while I was into punk rock — Blink-182, Green Day, Jimmy Eat World. My stepdad is like, 'You want to go out with George Jones and me?' And I’m like, 'Yeah, sure, whatever.' But it changed my life forever."
Lunch arrives, but Farr is too far on a roll to dig into his grouper and deviled eggs. He reminisces about his mother sewing him baggy MC Hammer pants so he could try to mimic the Nineties rapper's "Can't Touch This" dance moves in front of the television, and talks about how he once believed Michael Jackson to be an alien, because no human could ever possibly move like that. Farr's first concert experience was a Jackson show, but he says don't look for even a hip swivel from him onstage. "I'm not going to shake my ass because it's too big to shake," he deadpans.
Instead, Farr's concert performance is all about the vocals. He took classical voice lessons since the age of 13 ("My mom made me do it; you don't sign up for that shit when you’re in seventh grade"), and it's paid off. During Sony's Country Radio Seminar showcase in February, he stood out from some of his more middle-of-the-road labelmates with an impassioned, spine-tingling delivery of "Hello Goodbye." Ironically, the very song the audience of radio programmers was applauding was the same one they refused to spin a few years earlier.
But Farr didn't seem to mind. As he reiterates, hits don't concern him.
"I don't care about the hits. I got a farm, which is also my house, and it's paid off. My truck is paid off, the same one I drove since 2003. I drove it here. I don't need too much," he says, swirling his whiskey.
"My goal is when I'm done, after they kick me out of Nashville, people can say that was Tyler Farr. He may sound like Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade when he talked, but when he sang, he had his own tone. That's Tyler Farr."