Josh Abbott, the frontman of one of the most successful Texas country acts ever, had every reason to feel like a badass last year. His outfit, the Josh Abbott Band, had just signed a major label deal with Atlantic Records, a feat almost made harder by their initial success in Texas.
“Trying to make it work on a national level was more difficult,” Abbot said. Suddenly, the band was flying across the country to play for smaller crowds and radio programmers in hopes of getting their music on the radio.
“If we play for a radio DJ in Oklahoma or Texas, they’re pumped to have us — but in a state where they haven’t heard of us, some of them are just looking at their wrists, checking the time,” Abbot says. “It’s a reality check and a shot to the pride.”
The band released the Tuesday Night EP in 2014 to a ho-hum reception and modest airplay for lead single “Hangin’ Around” — a response Abbott somewhat expected. “It was for college kids mostly, so it wasn’t meant to be too deep,” he says. But it was evident the EP completely ignored the elephant in the room: Abbott’s very recent and very public struggle with alcohol, infidelity and divorce.
“In April I called my A&R guys and told them, ‘Guys, I’ve got these songs I wrote in the divorce process and I have to record them now while I can sing with emotion,” he says. They agreed, and he took the songs to Austin producer Dwight Baker.
While the label loved the songs, they still wanted a single. More than 300 songs were pitched to the band and they only liked 4. “Talk about grueling,” Abbot says. “We’d hear some of the cheesiest bro-country songs and after 30 seconds be like, ‘No…no…we still have our standards!’”
It became clear that Atlantic and Abbott were not after the same thing. “They wanted home runs and grand slams, not doubles and triples.”
Atlantic dropped the band but agreed to give them the rights to the songs they previously recorded.
The band was once again on their own, back to the independent status they rode to regional stardom. It was a place where Abbott was just getting used to in his personal life as well.
“After the divorce, I spent the year trying to figure out what it means to be on my own again,” he says. “I’m not over it.”
But Abbott was no longer pretending his personal life wasn’t affecting his music. Friends and fellow artists did what they could to support Abbott. He’d play them new songs he’d written and in turn, they’d play him songs they heard that might strike a chord with him. It often ended in tears.
It also inspired Abbott to pursue an extremely ambitious (and rarely successful) path for the band’s third release: a concept album. That album — Front Row Seat (Nov. 6) — chronicles five stages of love, from meeting to falling to failing.
The first single, “Amnesia”, is a perfect example of how the band’s sound evolves throughout the record. Written with hit-maker and fellow Texan Shane McAnally (as well as Josh Osborne), the song takes place in Act Five and adopts a strikingly dark tone for a band most people usually cranked up at parties.
The song has fans and radio excited, which is ironic considering it wasn’t meant to be a single. “I told Shane, ‘I know I’m supposed to write a hit, but I really just want to write a good song,’” Abbot says. “We started talking about weird stuff and he said he always wanted to write a song called Amnesia, but a lot of people wouldn’t write it because it doesn’t sound like a radio single. I was like, ‘Dude I’ll write it.’”
Now radio stations across the country are calling the band about playing it.
“We want to become more respected,” Abbot says. “Part of that is being true to who you are and exploring new sounds.”
Sometimes it’s unintentional, like in the song “Ghosts”, in which Abbott cries during the last chorus. Producer Dwight Baker refused to change it, investing in sincerity over perfection.
That’s where Front Row Seat excels. It doesn’t worry about expectations. The word “Texas” isn’t even in any of the lyrics. While there are familiar sounds and happy songs (particularly in the first three acts), Abbott isn’t trying to be cool. He isn’t even trying to convince anybody he’s the hero. But he’s telling a story — one everybody can relate to on some level.
“I don’t think a lot of Texas country artists have given people deep music,” Abbot says. “People crave that and we haven’t given it.”
As Front Row Seat progresses, the band’s sound morphs chronologically. By Acts Four and Five, an entirely new Josh Abbott Band has taken over. They’re still the same six musicians as before — They’re just better.
“We spent years trying to get better at what we do,” Abbot says. “It’s a new sound, but our fans will stick with us and if we lose a few we can’t sweat it.”
That attitude was partially the reason the band didn’t work out on Atlantic and prominently the reason Front Row Seat has a chance of being the best country concept album in a long time.
“Whether reactions are good or bad, I’m at peace with it,” Abbot says. “We’re putting out a record that I’m really proud of.”
The Josh Abbott Band will release their new album, Front Row Seat, on Nov. 6.