Josh Abbott was in the second week of recording sessions for his band’s new LP, Until My Voice Goes Out, when he got the phone call. It was February 9th and his 62-year-old father, David, had had a stroke. Abbott, whose fiancée was pregnant with his first child, rushed back from Austin to be by his father’s side in the hospital, where he stayed for the next three weeks while his band recorded the rest of the album without him.
Finally, on the last day of February, Abbott flew back to Austin to lay down his vocals, recording every track in one furious late-night session. “My voice was tired. I’d been sleeping in the hospital in a recliner next to my dad pretty much every night,” Abbott says, his voice choking up over the phone from a tour stop in New York City. Midway through the session, his producer, Dwight Baker, suggested he call it a night – but Abbott refused. “By that time, we’d decided to call the album Until My Voice Goes Out. And you know what? So what if every single note or harmony isn’t perfect. It’s real.” (Listen to the album below.)
Equipped with the album, Abbott returned to the hospital. By March 2nd, his father requested that his family take him off life support. But Abbott, whose last release, 2015’s concept album Front Row Seat, had been a harrowing account of his divorce from his ex-wife, wanted to make sure David had a chance to hear the title track, a sunny song about fresh beginnings and falling in love again.
“It was the last song he heard on this earth. And he smiled and he was really happy because he was really sad about the Front Row Seat album, to see his son singing such sad, dark songs and knowing that it came from a place of hurt,” Abbott says, his voice quivering. “Even if it was my fault for the divorce, it just hurt him.” He pauses, apologizing as he takes deep breaths and speaks through sobs. “It was almost like he knew I was going to be okay.” His father died that same day.
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When the members of Josh Abbott Band first set to work on Until My Voice Goes Out, the group’s fifth full-length since they formed 10 years ago while attending Texas Tech in Lubbock, they wanted it to be a lighthearted counterpoint to its predecessor, which debuted at Number One on Billboard‘s Independent Albums chart. They turned to older material like She’s Like Texas, their breakthrough album from 2010, for inspiration. “I feel like these songs, as sequels to that album, are more mature. I hope people see growth,” Abbott says.
Songs like “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” and “The Night Is Ours” cover familiar enough territory, like drinking nights gone awry and road trips, with plenty of the banjo and pedal steel that’s a hallmark of Josh Abbott Band’s Red Dirt sound. But others, namely “I’m Your Only Flaw,” show a decidedly more vulnerable side of Abbott. In fact, a lyric from that song, which he’d written for his fiancée, would be the inspiration for his daughter’s name, Emery, who was born in May.
The most noticeable development on Until My Voice Goes Out is the addition of horn and string arrangements, courtesy of Tony Bennett and Sting collaborator Rob Mathes. “Horns are actually a very traditional country sound, but for some reason they went away for a while,” says Abbott, pointing out that Bob Wills, a fiddler, drew heavily on horns. “To my knowledge, I don’t remember the last Texas country artist who put strings and horns on an album. Just like I don’t know who the last Texas country artist was who made a concept album.”
Abbott had wanted to avoid recording “just another Texas country song,” yet the album’s lead single, “Texas Country, Tennessee Whiskey,” puts Lone Star State pride front and center. Michael Haney and Josh Hoge had written the hook with Abbott in mind, and the funky, brassy song – the most prominent use of Mathes’ horn arrangements – proves to be the album’s most ambitious experiment. “I thought the band did a good job of making that play out different than honky-tonk,” Abbott says. “The truth is, I love Texas country. That’s what we are, that’s our staple. I finally came to the point where I was like, yes, we sing songs about Texas, and if somebody has a problem with that they can kiss my ass.”
Come June, with the album already mastered, Abbott put on the brakes and headed back to the studio. He wanted to include a tribute to his father, and he knew the song that it needed to be. The week before his father’s stroke, songwriters Rodney Clawson and Jaren Johnston offered Abbott a song called “Ain’t My Daddy’s Town.” Fearing he couldn’t relate to a song about losing a father, he declined. Little did he know that that very same day David had gone home from work early, suffering from symptoms that were a precursor to the stroke that killed him. That night, feeling better, he took Abbott’s mother out for an early Valentine’s Day date – the last date his parents would ever go on together.
Back in Austin, Abbott, accompanied by guitarist Caleb Keeter and fiddler Preston Wait, cut “Ain’t My Daddy’s Town,” which closes out the album, in one take. “The three of us went in the room, we each had a mic in front of us, and there was no click track,” Abbott remembers. “What I really love about that song is it truly captures three minutes of real time in this universe, from front to end.”
With Until My Voice Goes Out available Friday, August 18th, via the band’s label Pretty Damn Tough Records, Abbott can still see the funny side of the heartache that went into making the band’s last two records. “I love this record. I don’t know that I will ever record something that means more,” he says. “But I’m not gonna lie: I really hope the next record can just be a normal damn record!”