Justin Moore Sings Country Songs About Small Towns, American Values - Rolling Stone
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Justin Moore Is Country Music’s Sleeper Hitmaker. He’s Also the Genre’s Biggest Fan

He won’t move to Nashville, never performs without his hat, and, with a few exceptions, has recorded only the most country of songs. It’s earned the Arkansas native a passionate fan base and a string of Number One hits

Justin Moore

Cody Villalobos*

Not too long ago, Justin Moore and the Nineties country songwriter David Lee Murphy were sitting around Moore’s Florida beach house talking about trucks. After years trying to write hit songs on the road and during the requisite morning sessions in Nashville writing rooms, Moore had returned to the way he’d developed material earlier in his career, a method he much prefers: hanging out with songwriters at the beach for casual, days-long retreats.

“Not to sound artsy-fartsy, but it’s a little more organic,” Moore, the kind of homespun guy who’s fond of phrases like “artsy-fartsy,” says of these Florida writing excursions. “Song ideas just pop up from conversations. You’re just BS-ing with your buddies.”

On this particular day, Moore and Murphy started BS-ing about the “age-old debate,” as Moore puts it: Chevy vs. Ford. The conversation resulted in “Everybody Get Along,” a new Justin Moore song whose title should look familiar to anyone who’s listened to country radio over the past five years, when anodyne, nominally political songs about bridging divides (Tyler Hubbard and Tim McGraw’s “Undivided’) and laying aside differences (Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins”) have emerged as an entire country subgenre unto itself.

Moore tends to preface conversations of anything remotely political or sensitive with some aw-shucks disclaimer. “I’m just an idiot hillbilly from Arkansas,” he says. “But in my opinion, it’s all about a lack of communication and being willing to listen to the other side.”

He is keenly aware, however, that there’s a meaningful difference between every other “let’s get along” country song and “Everybody Get Along,” the tale of two NASCAR-loving, camo-wearing hunters who tend to disagree on petty particulars.

“The irony of the song,” Moore says, “the funny part about it to me, is that the song’s about two guys who are exactly like.”

Moore knows how to write a song about the narcissism of small differences between two such characters because he sees no difference between those characters and himself. Nor does he see much difference between the guy who’s performing and the fans who are listening. “I would say, predominantly, that my audience is me.”

That “I’m just like you” viewpoint is one of Moore’s primary talking points, and the more he talks about it, the more convincing he sounds. “If I weren’t fortunate enough to have this job and be the guy on stage, I would be the guy in the third row watching the guy on the stage,” he says. “One of the most kind things people tell me, in the supermarket or whatever, and it’s something I’m very proud of, because it’s a goal of mine, is just, ‘Man, you seem normal.’ Hell, I am normal. What did you think, I was going to be some kind of weirdo?”

Since his self-titled 2009 debut, Justin Moore has carved out a reliable, enduring mid-level of mainstream country success by positioning himself as a stylistic throwback in the midst of the cultural, sonic, and industry-wide changes the genre has gone through in the past decade. He’s done this by mostly adhering to a consistent sound that sticks to tried-and-true country topics (small towns, beer, the armed forces), remaining dogmatically loyal to the country radio ecosystem (“It all boils down to relationships,” he says), and largely avoiding any notions of pop crossover. Moore’s middle-of-the-road formula is apparent in today’s stars like Luke Combs, whose everyman image takes a page out of Moore’s playbook, and Jon Pardi, who works within the same Nineties-influenced structure as Moore.

He does this yet again on his latest record Straight Outta the Country. Despite its corny title, the project is a sturdy collection of heartland country-rock and throwback ballads in the vein of his 2019 album Late Nights and Longnecks. One song, “Consecutive Days Alive,” written and recorded before the pandemic, takes on unexpected poignancy in light of the last year of global mourning and loss. Another, the downcast ballad “You Keep Getting Me Drunk,” sounds like a future Number One for an artist who’s already amassed nine such designations.

As country artists increasingly release 25-track streaming blockbusters, Moore has taken the opposite approach: putting out a slew of short records (his latest has seven new songs) in quick succession. In fact, “Everybody Get Along,” that most quintessential of Justin Moore songs, is not even on his new album. (He expects it’ll appear on yet another upcoming album, which he recently said is on the way soon).

Moore hasn’t changed his presentation much either. As country shifted from hat acts like Toby Keith and Tim McGraw to baseball cap guys like Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett and then back again with Chris Stapleton, Moore’s kept his cowboy hat the entire time. So much so, he says, that early in his career, he missed out on national TV spots by refusing to perform without it (“They were like, ‘Take the hat off.’ I said, ‘Huh?’ That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.”) At bro-country’s peak, Moore and longtime producer Jeremy Stover did what they had to do: they threw some token drum loops, talk-rapping, and a fully cringeworthy song about asses onto 2013’s Off the Beaten Path. (“You’ve gotta bend on a few things,” says Stover.) Apart from that, they’ve never really strayed from their straightforward approach.

“The thing about Justin is that he’s authentically country, and he’s authentically a country music fan,” says Kelly Archer, who’s written several songs for Moore over the years. “I’m not saying that to put any kind of fundamentalist spin on country, because I like all areas of the genre, but he happens to fill a slot that’s not filled by that many.”

Justin Moore

Cody Villalobos*

Part of Moore’s reliable appeal has to do with him catering to the subset of country fans drawn to his sonic and cultural conservatism. Some of them are less interested in the stadium theatrics of Luke Bryan or the beach party escapism of Kenny Chesney than they are in what Stover describes, in Music Row corporate speak, as “lifestyle songs.” From his debut album on, Moore has consistently communicated his country bona fides in community and faith-based singles like “Small Town USA,” “The Ones Who Didn’t Make It Back Home,” and most recently, “We Didn’t Have Much,” all of which feel less cynical and more authentic coming from Moore than some of his peers.

Driving home that notion is the fact that, since 2012, Moore has lived in his native Arkansas, proudly removed from Nashville, where he lived for the first decade of his career. He seems uninterested at this point in ever becoming much more famous than he already is, which he already feels is plenty famous. “Everybody’s priorities are different, and as far as my priorities, music’s about third on the list: It’s God, my family, and then music’s down there a little bit,” he says. “It’s not a knock against Nashville, but I just wasn’t happy there.”

When Jeremy Stover told the songwriter Kelly Archer that Moore wanted to record her song “Somebody Else Will,” Archer was shocked. The song’s demo, sung by co-writer Adam Hambrick in Hambrick’s contemporary R&B-influenced vocal style, sounded to Archer like nothing Moore would sing. That made her all the more impressed when she heard his rendition — more muscular, full of murky bravado. It went on to become Moore’s seventh Number One hit on country radio.

“When Jeremy told us he was cutting that song, I was like, ‘OK, interesting. Not something I even would have pitched to him,” Archer says. “Sometimes artists will find a writer they like and then sort of mimic the vocal from the demo. Justin just doesn’t do that. He changed the song and he made it completely his own.”

Moore would be the last one to cite his capabilities as a singer as one of the keys to his durability, but his collaborators are convinced he’s of the most under-appreciated vocalists in the genre. “I’m not going to say he’s underrated,” says Stover. “I’m just saying that the recognition for the way he projects songs, I think it’s overlooked sometimes.”

“It takes me back to the singers I loved growing up: the Ronnie Dunns, Hank Jr.’s, those type of dynamic singers that attacked songs,” Stover continues. “They don’t sit back and wait for the song to come to them. That’s how Justin is.”

Moore is also, as Archer says, “a good judge of a well-written song.” When Stover shows him a demo, Moore never begins by asking who wrote the song. He just wants to hear it.

The indie singer-songwriter Izaak Opatz was so impressed by Moore’s 2015 hit “You Look Like I Need a Drink” that he recorded his own version of the song on his recent album of country covers. “I mean, this guy is getting broken up [in the song], and it’s like, ‘Who cares,’” says Opatz. “But the song has a real humility to it that’s really attractive. And then there’s the title: It’s so dumb and so smart at the same time.”

With just a few exceptions (his debut album and Late Nights and Longnecks among them), Moore is uninterested in writing his own songs. He and Stover speak like company men who see their job as effectively communicating and delivering what they know their audience wants. Moore credits his longevity to his relationships with country radio (he even has a song, “Country Radio,” dedicated to the format), the support of his record label (Valory, an imprint of Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine), the quality of his close-knit team, and his music, in that order.

Part of that, of course, means staying far away from difficult conversations about the genre and industry. Asked for his thoughts on the conversations and reckonings that have sprouted up in country music in the wake of Morgan Wallen’s use of a racial slur earlier this year, Moore politely declines to comment.

“I don’t make a habit of dodging questions,” he says, “but there’s just no way.”

He’s more comfortable speaking about his past partnership with the NRA (In 2011 Moore released the theme song for NRA Country, “This is NRA Country”), which he talks about firmly in the past tense and views exclusively as an extension of his fervent belief in the Second Amendment. “I’m not opposed to, you know, educating people more on how to be respectful and responsible with [firearms], obviously,” he says. “And I believe steps need to be taken to where they don’t need to be in the hands of people that don’t need them, obviously. But if you’re a responsible gun owner such as myself, I believe it would be unconstitutional to not be able to own them.”

Moore shares plenty of his cultural politics throughout his catalog. In his hit “Bait a Hook,” the narrator pokes fun at the lack of rural masculinity in his ex’s city-slicker love interest (“You’re the one that’s gonna be sorry when you’re headin’ to get tofu,” he ad libs in the outro), and in “More Middle Fingers,” he and labelmate Brantley Gilbert mouth off on everything from Wall Street corruption to hippie atheists.

At their best, Moore’s songs — “Point at You,” “Lettin’ the Night Roll,” “You Keep Getting Me Drunk” — are expertly crafted gems that make the case that country music tropes aren’t always all that bad. At their worst, they can fall victim to the format’s lowest common denominators, like the subtle race-baiting of “Guns” (“Why don’t you go bust some boys that’s sellin’ crack?”) or the ham-fisted tractor erotica of “Back That Thing Up” (“Throw it in reverse/let daddy load it up”).

“We all have songs where we go, ‘Eh, I don’t know why I cut that,’ but, thankfully, for me, that number is very slim,” says Moore, who doesn’t spend much time reflecting on past missteps. Nor does he spend any time stewing, like he once did, about why he’s almost never been nominated for or invited to perform at the major country award shows. It’s all out of his control, and Justin Moore has learned to be OK with that.

“It’s why I never really concern myself ever with critics or whatever,” he says, riffing on the subjectivity of art. “Because I like it, and I am a country music fan.”

In This Article: Justin Moore

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