It’s possible to spend half an hour on the phone with a current hit-maker, and end the conversation feeling like he or she hasn’t said anything that would indicate there’s a human being on the other end of the line with a brain, a personality and a perspective. Chances are, the music made by such a performer leaves a similarly blank impression. That’s very much not how it is with Justin Moore, 28 year-old self-identified outlaw songwriter and hard country singer from an itty bitty Arkansas town. Through two albums and several charting singles, he hasn’t so much aimed to write and record likeable songs as to get his audience feeling a gut-level identification with where he’s coming from.
You seem to have put a lot into establishing a sense of your personality as a songwriter and performer right out of the gate, and been successful with it, too.
Well, thank you. We’ve been very blessed, I’m telling you. It’s been a fun few years here. You’re right, though. I mean, it’s important. And we’ve always kind of had the mindset of people obviously want to know what you sound like on the radio and look like on TV and all that good stuff. But before they spend money on tickets to concerts and albums and all that stuff, I think people want to know who you are as a person and invest in you as an individual. So I’ve tried to make it a point to do that with my music. I think that’s been a big factor in us having the success that we’ve had.
There’s been a pattern with the kinds of songs you’re written and recorded, and even some you’ve released as singles, starting with “Back That Thing Up” and “Small Town USA” and on to a lot of the songs on Outlaws Like Me, from “Redneck Side” to “Bait a Hook.” There’s a sense that you’re often talking about who you are or the kind of people you identify with. So I wondered why that was important to you and why you gravitate toward those kinds of songs.
I think it’s important for people to know that you’re this or you’re that, regardless of what it is. If you’re pop-country, if you’re rock-country, if you’re traditional country. Whatever it is, you have to be that as an individual and as an artist, because people see through the crap. If you’re faking it, they know. These fans are bright individuals. I’ve always tried to be open and honest about who I am, from something as general as I play traditional country music to something as specific as I like to hunt and fish. Like I said, it’s been a big part of our success. I’ve always been of the opinion that I’d rather be polarizing. I’d rather 50 percent of the people hate me for hunting and fishing and all that stuff and 40 percent of the people love me, than have 90 percent of the fans out there go, ‘Yeah, that’s okay. Whatever.’ So that’s kind of the path we’ve taken.
What were some of the first signs you saw that people were responding to songs like that?
Well, take “Back That Thing” up, for instance. It wasn’t the kind of song that was gonna change the world [laughs], you know? But to me it was fun. And for that type of song, I thought it was as well-written as it could have been. That was the only song on that album I didn’t write. I got a kick out of it, and I knew people that grew up like I did would get a kick out of it as well. You were just asking what was the first I kind of saw people reacting: That song went to 38 or something like that. But if you’d ask my fans, they’d probably think it went to number one. They don’t have a clue where it went on the chart. And we’ve played four or five hundred shows over the past few years. We never play a show without doing that song. To answer your question, that was the first time I’ve seen people react to something that as far as radio goes, it wasn’t even a hit record. To the fans it was, and still is.
There are a million different ways to convey a point-of-view in a song. You often do it by setting a scene, describing actions, images, references, whether it’s skinny dipping in “Redneck Side” or splurging on beer and Bocephus tickets in “Beer Time” or hunting, fishing and back roads in “Flyin’ Down a Back Road” and so on. Why do you gravitate toward those kinds of images as your way of getting your point across in your songs?
You know, I think you kind of touched on it when you said ‘setting a scene’. You have to set a scene as a songwriter. I mean, you gotta put people right there. One of my favorite songwriters in country music history is Alan Jackson. He didn’t say things [laughs], grammar-wise he didn’t say ‘em correctly. He just said ‘em the way that you would speak it if you were having a conversation with somebody. I always admired that, and I try to do that kind of stuff. Somebody else I admire is Hank Jr. as a songwriter. So I’ve tried to steal some of their ideas [laughs] and the way they go about things. Instead of saying ‘’beer, I specifically say what type of beer, or what type of fishing rod. Some people love to write using a lot of metaphors, buy I prefer to write with a lot of color, and by color I mean all that stuff that I just mentioned: What kind of beer? What kind of truck? Not just a truck, but which kind. I think that also goes hand in hand with what I was saying earlier, when I play something about a Chevy truck, I drive a Chevy truck. I think it goes hand in hand with people, again, knowing who I am as a person.
So you feel like that is an effective way of communicating with your fans.
Yeah, I think so. I mean, like I said, our success over the past few years has proven that to be the case.
Since you give your fans a clearly defined sense of who you are, do you feel like you have a pretty clearly defined sense of who they are too?
I think so. I mean, the more you do it, the more you go out and play… The best way to find out what your fans are going through, who they are is to be out playing in front of them and meet ‘em at meet-and-greets and that kind of stuff. I think it’s definitely helped me as a songwriter, playing as many shows on the road, seeing as many different places as I have over the past few years. I think it’s definitely helped.
Does it skew more toward guys?
You know, I think early on in our career our fan base was probably more guys than girls. But I think that’s kinda shifted over the last couple of years. I think “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away” helped with that. I think, as funny as it sounds, “Bait a Hook” helped with that. I didn’t really understand that. Somebody at my record label goes, ‘Well, if you think about it, it’s kind of a love song.’ I go, ‘Well, I guess it kinda is.’ [laughs] That song helped a lot with that too. It’s hard to imagine, but that may be. And then also my new single “‘Til My Last Day.” I think that’s gonna help even more so. That’s our first really traditional, I guess you’d call love song. We’re looking forward to that being a big record for us and seeing kinda how that helps out in that department too.
You tour all over the country. You even did a press day in a fishing boat in New York City. There’s a line in one of your songs about people in Iowa knowing all the words. Have you found that there’s an equal response no matter where you are to those kinds of songs?
Obviously you have your handful of markets where it’s a different level than everywhere else. But the last couple of years for sure have just been pretty awesome everywhere. I think that’s attributed to the songs we’ve had, and radio being good to us and playing our records pretty much all over the country, and us just being out here playing all the time. It’s been pretty good all over the country, thankfully. It definitely beats just having one region where you do well. We’ve been very fortunate that, like I said, radio’s played our records. We’ve had a few hits songs now. It’s been a lot of fun, and surprising to see. I grew up in a small town in Arkansas. I can’t believe I get to do this. We go somewhere where I go, ‘Oh god, there won’t be anybody here.’ And we show up and the place is packed. And you’re going, ‘How did this happen?’ But it’s been cool to see that, and a bit surprising.
In a lot of those places, your experience of growing up in a town of three hundred people must be unique. A lot of people don’t have that experience anymore, because over generations, they’ve had to move where the work is. Do you think, for some people, they’re making a connection that’s more about placing themselves there in their imagination? It’s not their reality; it’s more of a fantasy or aspiration?
Yeah, I learned with “Small Town USA.” I didn’t want to put that song out, but my record label did. I loved the song but my opinion was that not enough people would be able to relate to it. I thought, ‘Only this type of person will relate to this, and I don’t know how many of them there are.’ And I found out with that song that there’s a lot of people that grew up like I did, and if they didn’t… You was talking about New York City. New York City, for instance, is obviously one of the biggest cities in the world. But if you live in New York City, you do all your shopping on these three or four blocks, and you go to the gym at the same place, and you see the same faces. Which is hard to believe in New York City, but you see the same faces on a daily basis. Not to sound cheesy, but it’s their own little small town, that little section. When you grew up in the South like I did, the perception is that the only country people in the world come from the South. It’s a misconception. I’ve learned through traveling there’s country and there’s rednecks everywhere. We played our own show last night in Redding, California, and it was sold out, just hillbillies everywhere. So it’s been cool to find that out. And I think, like I said just using “Small Town” as an example, that kind of helped me figure that out.
It’s funny to hear you mention that “Bait a Hook” surprised you by bringing in female listeners. It’s a memorable song with a memorable video. How do you feel like people took it? Did they take it the way you intended it? Did they see humor in it?
I think it was right in line with what I expected. There were people who took offense to some of the lines in it, about a Prius or being green or whatever. I kind of expected that, and I really don’t care. [laughs] That’s fine. I’m one of these guys that I have strong opinions and I respect people that have their own opinions, even if they’re not in line with mine. As far as people that think and are the way I am, I think they took it for the humor in it and thought it was funny. You know, that song came from, I wrote it with Rhett Akins and my producer, Jeremy Stover. Rhett came in one morning and said, ‘I’ve got this friend that is talking to a pro quarterback, starting quarterback for this team, and she will not go out with him.’ He’s like, ‘Why would you not go out with him? He’s won two Superbowls. He’s done this and that.’ She goes, ‘I don’t care what he’s done. He can’t bait a hook.’ We were just like, ‘We have to write that!’ We found it to be funny, and it was a real-life situation. It was a fun song to write. The video was a lot of fun. I have my buddy Carl Edwards in it. It was a big song for us. It wasn’t the highest-charting song we’ve ever had. Kind of like I was talking about earlier, it’s polarizing. It sold a whole lot of records for us, and a whole lot of concert tickets.
I felt like one aspect of humor in it was the way that you play with exaggeration. You’re kind of caricaturing two different kinds of people.
There’s a line in the song that mentions “that sushi stuff”. You’ve lived in Nashville. There are so many sushi restaurants in Nashville. So it’s not like you’re really unfamiliar with California rolls.
It was exaggeration on purpose on both sides of the equation.
You’re exactly right. It was more extreme than real life on both ends of the spectrum, as far as the singer’s role and the opposition. Like I said, it was fun to write, and a lot of it was probably because of what you just mentioned.
You used the word “polarizing.” During County Radio Seminar I read a poll that said that for casual country listeners, ‘twang’ is actually a pejorative terms. It’s a polarizing thing for casual country fans. In a lot of your songs, you lay it right out there what you like and what you don’t, what you identify with and what you don’t, and then draw a line in the sand daring somebody to disagree. “If You Don’t Like My Twang,” for instance. Is that something your really see your fans respond to?
Yeah, I think it’s because I try to think of myself as a student of country music and artists that I look up to, older artists. To me, in order to have longevity and last in this business, I feel like you have to be something. Because if you’re not, you’re living on your next hit. Whereas I feel like if I didn’t have another hit record, I could still go play shows the rest of my life and people would show up. I mean, you take Hank Jr., for instance. He ain’t had a hit song in twenty years, but he could sell out anywhere in the country that he wanted to, twenty thousand tickets. It’s because he is something. He’s about something. So that’s just who I am as an individual. I kind of touched on it a couple times. I am country. I hunt. I fish. I dip. I like to drink beer. I’m exactly like my fans. I just have a really kick-ass job. I say this on stage every night: ‘If I wasn’t playing wherever I am that night, I’d have bought a ticket and I’d be at that concert that night.’ I still go to concerts as a fan. I think that’s been a big part of, like I said, my success as a songwriter and as an artist.
There’s a way of approaching things where you’re aiming for crossover, and there’s a way of approaching things where you’re not aiming for crossover.
Right. You know what I realized? I’m probably not ever gonna be that artist that has five or six number ones in a row. But I want to keep putting out songs and writing songs that matter to my fans, regardless of where it goes on the chart or whatever. “Bait a Hook” went to 14, 15 something like that. But you couldn’t tell my fans that. They don’t have a clue, and they honestly don’t care. We play that song really late in the set, and other than “Small Town USA,” it probably gets the biggest reaction to any song that we do.
Your two biggest songs at radio so far have been “Small Town USA” and “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away.” It sounds like there are difference between what might go number one for you on country radio and what might become a fan favorite.
Right. Yeah, I mean you look at a song like “I Could Kick You Ass.” We wrote that as a joke. It was funny. That song’s never been a single, obviously won’t ever be a single. But we play that song second to last every night, and it’s huge for us. I think those kinds of songs are important for what I do. I think not every artist could or would do songs like that, but for me, that’s a huge song in my career. I mean, it sold a lot of albums. It’s one reason people come to see me. I think those songs are important for me, regardless where they go. Like I knew “Bait a Hook” wouldn’t go number one, because I knew there’d be places that wouldn’t play it. But I just looked at it and said, ‘What’s best for my career, for what I’m trying to accomplish?’ And putting out that song at that time was important. I feel like on the other hand, putting out songs that can be number one records, I think those are important as well. For me personally, I have to find a balance between the two.
You were talking about still being a fan yourself. As a listener, do you find a song more believable if it has the kind of images we’re talking about, even getting as specific as naming a brand?
You know what? I don’t think so necessarily. Every songwriter’s different. I’m a fan of a lot of different kinds of songwriters. One of my favorite songwriters now in country is Miranda [Lambert]. We’re good buddies, but we don’t write songs alike at all. They’re really opposite of each other. But I’m a huge fan of her and I think she’s brilliant. I don’t’ think it necessarily has to be people that do it the way I do it. And you know, songwriters, you can’t even enjoy music because you’re critiquing it so much. Sometimes I go, ‘Man I wish I didn’t even write songs,’ because I’ll turn on the radio [and hear a song] and I’ll go, ‘Man, I wouldn’t have done that.’ Had I not been a songwriter, I’d probably turn it up and love it. I’m over-analyzing it. To answer your initial question, people don’t have to do it the way I do it for me to enjoy it or like it. I just enjoy what I consider good music. She’s just one example of that who’s different than me.
Do you remember the first country song you ever heard that took that kind of approach to painting a picture of redneck identity through specifics? Do you remember the first one that really grabbed you?
The first song I loved, and it wasn’t necessarily redneck or anything like that, but it was stating ‘I am this’ was—Dwight Yoakam is my favorite artist of all time—“Honky Tonk Man.” I was singing that when I was two or three years old, and always loved that. But as far as redneck songs, Hank Jr.’s “Country State of Mind.” I still love that song. Hank did what I try to do better than anybody, ever, in my opinion. So anything he wrote I love.
You reference him more than any other artist in your songs.
Somebody gave me crap about that in an interview or something. It was when the new album came out. I referenced him in “Beer Time.” I said, ‘Well, I really did that. I saved my money to buy Hank Jr. tickets, and it was in the top row, it seemed like, of the arena. I really did that. So to you it may come across as cliché and crappy writing, but to me it’s real.’ Really, honestly, that’s all I care about is if I like it and I’m proud of it as a songwriter and an artist, and if my fans like it. And they do.
In a couple of interviews, you brought up the idea that singing ballads isn’t you.
It’s obvious I don’t write a lot or record a lot of ballads. It’s just not me. There are people out there who do that really, really well, and I admire them for doing that. I personally can’t pull it off, I don’t feel like, as well as some of the other types of stuff that I do. Just like anything else you do in life, whether it’s a sport or a job, I think it’s important to identify what your strengths and your weaknesses are, and play to your strengths. I feel like we’ve done that fairly well.
You’re dipping your toe into a little bit of romance in “‘Til My Last Day”. And “Bed of My Chevy” is a combination of that and working in those tangible specifics.
Right. [laughs] I feel like we have to do just enough to get by. You take “Bed of My Chevy,” for instance. I can’t go out there and sing ‘You’re as pretty as the moon and the stars’ kind of stuff, you know? Other people can pull it off. I can’t and don’t wanna try. I can do love songs that to me are still manly, if that makes sense. “Bed of My Chevy” is an example of that. “‘Til My Last Day” is kinda like that. I was listening to a ZZ Top album, whichever one of them had “Rough Boy” on it, and I was on a plane listening to “Rough Boy”. I was like, ‘Man, I could do something like that.’ And that’s kind of where that song came from. I enjoy that song. It’s been surprising to me. It’s one of the funnest songs that I’ve ever played live, which is kind of surprising. I didn’t necessarily do that kind of stuff. My wife said, ‘Why don’t you put that out as a single?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ She goes, ‘You’re an idiot if you don’t.’ She picked “Small Town” and “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away.” So she’s two for two. Hopefully she can go three for three here.
Mentioning ZZ Top made me think of that rock energy that’s right alongside the hard country flavor in a lot of your songs. Why do you like having that behind you?
Well, I grew up on old-school country, obviously, but I loved southern rock. I think the first album in particular [Justin Moore] was a pretty good mixture of the two, with songs like “Like There’s No Tomorrow” and “Only Place I Call Home,” some of those songs. The second album [Outlaws Like Me] is a little more traditional country weighted. I grew up on the stuff and I love that. I love southern rock as much as I love country. Now, I didn’t deviate much past that. I’m not one of these artists who I listened to everything and I’ve always liked this and that and that. There’s nothing wrong with people who are like that, because most people are. But I personally just, I liked good old country and I liked southern rock, and that was pretty much as far as I got. So we tried to incorporate both of those into my music. And I think because that’s what I’ve always listened to, subconsciously it just happens without me thinking about doing it.