The Josh Abbott Band — the latest generation of Texas country torchbearers making inroads into the mainstream with songs like “Oh, Tonight” and “Hangin’ Around” — have just announced their ambitious fourth full-length album, Front Row Seat, out November 6th. “Ambitious” not only for its confidently twangy sound at a time of remixes and pop influence, but because it goes out on a limb in a way country hasn’t seen in decades.
“Every album we’ve put out to date, we’ve tried to approach with a theme,” Abbott told Rolling Stone Country during an exclusive interview. “Something that’s consistent.”
But for Front Row Seat, consistency gives way to a legit story arc, making the project a true concept album in the vein of Willie Nelson’s masterful Phases and Stages. Getting deeply personal, Abbott tells the complete story of his relationship with his now ex-wife, beginning to end.
“‘Front Row Seat’ really was representative of what we we’re doing here,” Abbott explained about the album’s title track. “That’s a song by Ruston Kelly, and it’s all about having a front row seat, having this access to someone’s life. Anybody that is married, you have a front row seat to her life and she has one to yours. We’re kind of giving the fans a front row seat, not only to our band but to my story.”
Abbott’s story is one that, unfortunately, many can relate to. It goes like this: Meet a girl in college, fall in love, get married, spiral into divorce and try to deal with the aftermath. In keeping with the theatrical feel of the concept, they broke the album up into five acts — just like a dramatic play — with three songs per act.
Act one is “exposition,” where the story’s main characters are introduced over three songs about being young, carefree and single. Act two is “incitation,” where the plot begins to thicken. Three songs here describe the wild passion of falling in love. The third act is “intimacy,” where true love really blossoms and the climax of happiness is reached. In act four, “disillusion,” things begin to fall apart and by act five, “denouement,” the characters are left to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives.
Abbott said he didn’t plan this structure, but as the band started recording, it was clear a real story could be told. But that meant Abbott would have to relive some of the most painful moments of his life.
“It was hard,” he admitted. “When you get in the studio and start singing, you feel all those emotions again and it kind of took me back to a darker place. But now I feel like putting the album out is almost a sense of closure for me.”
Produced by Dwight Baker, Front Row Seat leaves the core of the band’s sound intact, and even pumps up the fiddle and banjo. Piano and steel guitar were added in select spots, along with a bit of accordion and some harmony singers, and the whole thing was thickened and fattened for more power (and drama). Then, as things get heavier at the end, Baker and the band started pushing boundaries, showing a more mature musical outlook and just a tiny hint of non-country experimentation.
One of those darker songs is the album’s first single, “Amnesia.” Co-written by Abbott with two of Nashville’s hit-making powerhouses, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, the song is all about Abbott wishing he could forget the love that went wrong. Featuring a “weird and trippy” intro, the song feels conflicted and dark in a way the band hadn’t tried before.
“You feel all those emotions again and it took me back to a darker place.”
“‘Amnesia’ is such a different song for us and it really is a way for us to come out of the gate and get some attention, let people see how we’ve matured,” he said. “It’s so different from what we’ve done before, but it’s still us. I was debating on its darkness, but I was just like, ‘You know what, this album is mature. Let’s put a mature song out first.'”
Meanwhile, longtime fans will find plenty to love, too. Back in the happy times near the beginning of the album, “Live It While You Got It” tells a true-story anthem of young love about skinny-dipping in the Texas Tech fountains. And “Wasn’t That Drunk” (co-written by Neil Medley, Emily Weisband and Matt McGinn) brings in guest vocalist Carly Pearce for a red-hot duet just as Abbott’s love story is taking off.
“The minute I got it, I listened to it like six times in a row and I thought ‘This is it, this is a smash. We just gotta get the right girl on it,'” he said.
With lyrics about a drunken kiss that was a long time in the making, Abbott says the song was originally on hold for Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town.
“It sounds like our band,” he explained. “But it’s got just enough pop elements to make radio happy, and it’s got just enough touch — fiddle and all that — to make our fans happy.”
But because of the emotions involved — regret, guilt, sadness and disbelief — the songs about Abbott’s breakup are the most powerful, and listeners will have a hard time missing that.
“I fully believe they’re some of the best songs I’ve written,” Abbott said. “They’re just so real and emotional and raw, and I needed to record them now while I’m feeling it, because if I waited three of four years to do it they wouldn’t be the same.”
As he was recording “Ghosts,” part of the album’s pained fifth act, Abbott couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“When you’re in that moment and you’re reliving the emotions of why you wrote a song, it can be real for you again,” he admitted. “I just broke down, there’s really no other way to put it. I just started crying and by the third chorus I could barely sing. The producer was just like, ‘That’s the take. You’re gonna want to change it, but don’t. Live with that because people are going to hear that and feel it.'”
With Front Row Seat, Abbott and his band have made it almost impossible for listeners not to feel where he’s coming from. It might be an ambitious concept and a new chapter in what the band does, but Abbott says they’ll never stray from the solid foundation of their Texas country roots: true stories, a twangy sound and a realness that breeds fans who are more like friends.
“We’re not branching away from it, but you’re really starting to see us mature in it,” he said. “It’s by far the best lyrically and sonically we’ve ever recorded, and I don’t even think it can be argued.”