For Lanco, the five-piece country outfit who took a jangling small-town epic called “Greatest Love Story” to Number One late in 2017, a single word in the song’s first verse solidified their go-your-own-way spirit and laid out a path for their buzzworthy debut album Hallelujah Nights.
That word? It was “car” – as opposed to “truck” – from the line “But you were sneaking out your window every night riding shotgun in my car.”
“I had so many songwriters in Nashville tell me that I needed to change that lyric,” says bandleader Brandon Lancaster. “They were like ‘You gotta pick her up in a truck,’ and that was a defining moment for us.”
Formed in 2012 by Lancaster, drummer Tripp Howell, guitarist Eric Steedly, bassist Chandler Baldwin and multi-instrumentalist Jared Hampton, Lanco – the shortened version of “Lancaster & Company” – knew “Greatest Love Story” had promise. But 2012 was the beginning of the so-called bro-country movement, and as the song’s sole writer, Lancaster didn’t bother following Music City’s conventional hit-making rules.
The song features three choruses, all of which are different, along with extra phrases tacked on the end of each verse and an unorthodox structure – plus that “car” line. So when Lanco started attracting industry attention, more than a few power players advised Lancaster to make some lyrical changes.
“My response was ‘I had a truck for a week in high school and took it right back because I couldn’t afford the gas,'” he says, sipping a beer and laughing with the band in their PR firm’s downtown Nashville offices. “Like, why does it have to be a truck? People drive cars, and most importantly, I drove a car. It’s a weird mind frame to be in like ‘We should say this because it would be more quote-unquote country.’ I grew up in Smyrna, Tennessee, I have a fine idea of what country is, and you don’t get to define it for me. I like my version just fine, and I’ll stand by it.”
Lancaster did stand by it, and he was vindicated by the track going Platinum before Lanco’s debut album even came out – the first time in history that a country band has done so. But he and the band also took that mindset into creating Hallelujah Nights, where their fiercely individual character continues to shine.
The new LP was guided by producer Jay Joyce, a proud rule breaker who’s made a career out of pulling raw, flesh-and-blood performances from artists like Eric Church, Little Big Town and Brothers Osborne. He’s done the same with Lanco on Hallelujah Nights, bringing the then-unknown band to his East Nashville studio and insisting they play all their own parts – an unusual move in a city renowned for its professional session players, and almost unheard of for a new act.
“I’m gonna be honest,” Steedly says. “When we first went in [Joyce’s studio] I was just so floored that we were even in there, I didn’t know what to expect. I kind of thought, ‘Sure, he likes [the music] and he wants to work with us, but we’re probably not gonna touch this thing.’ I mean, what right do I have to walk into a studio in Nashville being some kid straight out of college from Kentucky?”
“…who had to take time off of work to be there,” Baldwin chimes in, setting off a cascade of laughs.
“But no, that was Jay’s thing,” Steedly continues. “We were gonna cut each song whether it took two hours or 10, and it was an intense process, but what makes our music special is that you can actually hear us in it.”
What emerged from those sessions are 11 songs, all of which were written or co-written by Lancaster, hinting at a disregard for the usual way of doing things in country music and a reverence for classic country storytelling.
Sonically, it’s a mixed bag, with the anthemic roots-rock of “Greatest Love Story” standing alongside flourishes of backroad pop on “We Do” and “Stars Up.” Meanwhile, quirky standout “Trouble Maker” fuses the sly strut of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” and Little Big Town’s “Pontoon.”
“Middle of the Night,” which channels Alabama and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, also highlights the freedom the five players were given to follow their instincts instead of a playbook.
“We were really pushing ourselves sonically, and then we got to the end and it was like ‘OK, let’s turn this into a shuffle,” Lancaster explains. “And not only that, we sped up the tempo, which you’re not supposed to do.”
Each song comes with a distinct sound, which can feel a bit disjointed at first blush, but closer listens reveal the human connection and deliberation that truly makes Hallelujah Nights stand out among its modern peers. There’s an actual song cycle, with the end of one track bleeding into the next. It’s possible to discern that each story is happening in the same town to the same characters.
Hallelujah Nights kicks off with the foot-stomping new single “Born to Love You,” which colors in the setting of “Greatest Love Story” with red pine trees and white church steeples. Previous release “Long Live Tonight” describes a local lovers’ hideaway with a tiny dance floor, and the rest set their romance in motion. In steering clear of the overused images of truck tailgates and cutoff jeans, Lancaster packs each track with his vibrant – and overlapping – memories.
In “Pick You Up,” Lancaster references his vehicle again, using it as a way to talk about regret and loneliness on both sides of a falling out. “I’ve still got this ’04 V6,” he sings.
“[That is] the car I had when I started dating my wife, and that can also be the car you take down to the river in ‘Middle of the Night,’ which is the same as in ‘Greatest Love Story,’ that whole thing,” says Lancaster. “You’re just continuing to paint a consistent picture of who these characters are – who ultimately are us.”
Finally, the album closes with the 6-minute opus of a title tack, a tribute to coming of age, once-in-a-lifetime moments and building a life-affirming love – the same relationship that informs the album from the opening bars of “Born to Love You.”
With an engaging narrative, a sound of their own making and uniquely transparent view of songwriting, Lanco’s approach on Hallelujah Nights may not be conventional, but it’s certainly a slice of real storytelling and a snapshot of their imperfect, ever-evolving musical abilities. Given the wild success of “Greatest Love Story,” they’ve already proven the approach can work.
“You don’t want to be different for being different’s sake, because that feels cheap,” Lancaster says. “But it’s like ‘Do we like it? Does it give us that feeling inside we’ve all been chasing since we learned how to play instruments?’ If it’s giving us that feeling, let’s do it.”