The first time I saw Cory Branan — solo at the Hi-Tone in its former location on Poplar — he performed an act of serious musical hypnotism. The crowd was quiet (for a Hi-Tone crowd), quiet enough that I could pick out every finger-plucked note. His lyrics ambled, getting there but not always taking the most obvious route. He had a country twang and a folky, John Prine-inflected delivery, but he played an electric guitar, a Gibson SG, if I remember correctly.
There has always been a little rock-and-roll in Branan's country, a little folk in his poetry. He's a musical amalgamation, and he's set to play an intimate Memphis set this Saturday at Studio688 as part of the Folk All Y'all series.
Folk All Y'all concerts aim to match idiosyncratic musical acts with intimate, interesting venues to create a unique concert experience. And Branan is tailor-made for the musical experiment. His songs breathe with an authenticity that suggests something in possession of a life of its own. He speaks slowly and quietly, but when he sings, his lyrics don't always conform to meter. That's not to suggest he's sloppy or out of time, rather that he's counting his own time. Or that he knows the value of losing track of time every once in a while. "Keep up," his songs seem to say.
Branan, a native of Southaven, spent a handful of years in Nashville, but the singer/songwriter has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Memphis, where he cut his teeth in metal and country bands and where he now lives with his wife Rebecca and son Clemens. (He also has a daughter, Jane, "from a different mama.") The Branan family moved back to Memphis in February, and since then, the singer says he's been enjoying home life.
"I'm kind of a hermit. My wife jokes that I went out five times in the five years we lived in Nashville," says Branan. "When I'm off the road, I just wanna be home."
The singer has been adapting to family life, learning how to write whenever he can steal the time. After the Folk All Y'all gig, Branan heads out in July in support of California punks Face to Face, who are releasing a record of acoustic versions of old material. In October, he's set to play the second annual MEMPHO Fest with his full band. And then there are the plans for the new record.
"I've never been able to write on the road," Branan says. He says he would collapse into a bed after a tour, still feeling the ground moving underneath him. But things are a little different now for Branan. "Now, when I come off the road, I just wanna look at the wife and kid." So the blond songsmith has been teaching himself to write on the road.
Branan has a dozen new songs in the works for the follow-up to Adios, which was released in April 2017 on Bloodshot Records — and named one of the Memphis albums of the year by the Flyer. In contrast to Adios, one of the more polished of Branan's five studio albums, the new material suggests a raw approach.
"I'm thinking about more of a 1970s-type songwriter record, where you can hear the room, and everybody's doing it live," Branan says, referencing Jackson Browne and "even Gordon Lightfoot" before hitting on his ideal example. "For me, it's some of those Kinks records in the 1970s. You can hear 'em hitting their teeth on the microphone. It's just so ragged and glorious." If anyone can produce the Southern Muswell Hilbillies, it's Branan, who says he plans to play some of the new material during his set this Saturday.
The singer says he plans to hunker down in late autumn or winter to record the new album. Branan's already envisioning how the process will go. "That's always been my choice: overqualified, underprepared musicians," Branan says of his recording style. "Don't give 'em too much of a heads-up about what's gonna happen. Just surround yourself with the best people and do it fast and try to catch a little lightning in a bottle."
Cory Branan at Folk All Y'all, Saturday, June 30th at 7:30 p.m., at Studio688 (688 S. Cox). $20.