My first encounter with Cory Branan‘s music was through browsing the Bloodshot Records catalog — the label that signed the Old 97s and Neko Case can do no wrong. Branan had just released his third album, Mutt, and I wound up listening to “Survivor Blues” on heavy, heavy rotation. The song is a combo punch to the heart and gut. It encapsulates Branan’s potent cocktail of fierceness and finesse — a touch of grit in his voice, rawness and urgency in delivery, and vulnerability beneath.
And then there are the artful turns of phrase, taking well-worn tropes of worn-down folks and injecting them with fresh doses of wryness and wisdom, as when the damsel asks about the getaway car: It’s parked out back, it’s pointed out of state // It’s a recent acquisition, we should probably ditch the plates // And it won’t get you far enough to ever lose track, but yeah it’s plenty car enough for never comin’ back.
It’s a song about Memphis — Branan was born just outside, in Southaven, Mississippi — and he describes it as his “‘Born to Run,’ but where the guy and the girl have significant pasts to run away from.”
You could call his music punk or call it country, but you’d be better off forgetting the categories and just giving Cory Branan a listen. What draws legions of devoted fans to his shows is his knack for storytelling, his ability to croon off-mic about heartache one moment, and in the next, tear into verses about life’s unkind ironies.
Branan fingerpicks like the finest of folkies and shreds with punkified abandon. And on Thursday night at Gypsy Sally’s, he had the D.C. audience singing all the choruses and raising their drinks to the opening notes of each song.
Branan’s latest album, The No-Hit Wonder, kicks off with the gloriously infectious, revved-up, rocked-out honky-tonk energy of “You Make Me.”
A saloon piano swaggers brazenly into the mix and Jason Isbell (formerly of the Drive-By Truckers) harmonizes during the refrains. You may have never seen a songbird nesting in the head of a scarecrow, but you’re totally convinced you gon’ cakewalk on thru it to the jubilee.
Branan is as charming a performer as he is a gifted musician (that is to say, very much so). When he stopped by the bar for a pre-show drink, he remarked on my battered and Bloodshot-sticker-adorned notebook, then pulled out his phone to show me pics of his kids and his new pup, Admiral (the Instagram commentary on the latter is pretty awesome — there are comparisons to Ewoks, Furbys, and Gremlins).
Throughout the show, Branan delivered a steady string of quips between songs older and newer. The self-deprecating humor you sense in the album title also comes out in person (“It’s tough being both a perfectionist and a slacker”), along with hints of his musical influences: “We all like to pretend we fell out of our mothers’ wombs listening to Fugazi and John Prine. But of course you listened to John Cougar Mellencamp. And you did it un-ironically.”
The No-Hit Wonder should be on your fall playlist — Branan’s beautiful voice comes across as brash and bruised at just the right moments, and the album is rounded out by contributions of pals from The Hold Steady as well as the aforementioned Jason Isbell (who, in addition to vocals on the opening track, joins in on “The Highway Home”). These songs may be grounded in the autobiography of the itinerant musician and the years of living hand to mouth, years just getting gig to gig — but the stories are universal and relatable. For all the times you’ve squared your shoulders and said “it is what it is,” you should give this record a spin and know that these roots — musical, metaphorical, and however tangled — hold us to earth.