The past few years haven’t all been roses for Texas country artist Josh Abbott. After nearly nine years on the road, Abbott’s personal life quickly fell into shambles. In February of 2014, Abbott laid himself bare on Twitter, admitting to fans that he struggled with alcohol abuse and had been unfaithful to his wife. In the aftermath of the highly publicized break-up, Abbott got sober and started writing.
The result, Front Row Seat, is Abbott’s fourth studio release with the Josh Abbott Band. The group found its roots in Lubbock, Texas, where Abbott and his original bandmates were attending Texas Tech University, and made a career of touring Texas’ honky-tonks and college towns, playing crowd-friendly tracks like “Road Trippin’” and “She’s Like Texas.”
With his fourth effort, though, Abbott matured as both an artist and human being by leaps and bounds. On Front Row Seat, love songs about Texas and odes to chilled Coors Light are replaced with wrenching tracks about Abbott’s divorce and the emotional fallout. Paste sat down with Abbott to discuss the album, writing about his infidelity, and how Front Row Seat fits into his otherwise light-hearted aesthetic.
: You had originally planned to release some of the tracks on Front Row Seat as a shorter EP. What made you decide to record a full-length album?
Josh Abbott: When we signed with Atlantic and Warner, I basically bought them out. I wrote some songs about my divorce process that are really pretty personal to me, and I needed to be able to record them while I could. I knew that the vibe they were looking for in terms of what we should release nationally was more upbeat and in line with what we’ve done before. I decided that I needed to get these songs out and sing them while I still meant them.
They gave me a really small budget and we went into the studio with Dwight Baker and recorded the EP, which included “Ghost,” “This Isn’t Easy,” “Autumn,” and “Anonymity.” We recorded those songs and they sounded amazing, but the record label wanted us to be a lot more commercial in our approach.
We just didn’t think we would be that band that would get a huge national hit because we don’t sound like what’s on the radio, and we are probably more commercial than Texas country. We’re not even close to being as poppy as what is on national country music today. I think for that reason, the label just kind of dropped us. Not going to lie, my feelings were hurt that night, but I got over it. [Fellow Texas country artist] William Clark Green was at my house when I heard the news, and he said this was the best thing that happened to me because I could make the music I wanted.
: After you find out that you’re dropped from the label, what happened?
Abbott: We went from there and decided to make a full album utilizing these songs. I started looking at them, and it was obvious that they were the back-end of a love story. We had other more great songs about being young and in love, so why not make a concept album that chronologically places the songs in order to tell a story?
We avoided songs that didn’t fit, songs that used specific names of people because we wanted this to be more of a “you and me and I” record. We start the record with this character being single, then meeting someone and being deeply in love. Then, the process of trying to walk away and figure it all out again.This story we’re telling is a “front-row seat” to kind of what happened with me.
I don’t want to misrepresent anything because this whole album is not a 100 percent mirror of what happened in my life. You find love, and you lose it. Some people lose it for different reasons, but regardless of that, everyone suffers heartbreak. Anyone who has been through divorce knows that. The album is a front-row seat to that narrative. We’re giving fans a ticket to this storyline, and the cinematic feel we decided to keep with that—the album is broken up into acts.
: That’s a pretty big departure from your past records, which have always been a lot more about Texas and partying and girls than about heartbreak.
Abbott: Music is subjective, and everyone likes what they like. When I was in college, Pat Green and Cory Morrow made me want to pick up a guitar. It wasn’t Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. As I have matured as an artist, it’s those singer/songwriters that influence me now. As a 22-year-old kid in a frat in college, I wasn’t the deepest thinker. I loved that I could go to a Pat Green concert and I could get drunk and sing along and there were girls there. It was a great concept. It is still a great concept.
: The Texas country scene has always been very independent from anything that goes on in Nashville. Why do you think that is still true?
Abbott: What Texas has in Texas country is so amazing and unique. It should be embraced more often by people who tend to roll their eyes at it. There’s something special about our culture, but without Texas country guys like Pat [Green] and the party bands, it wouldn’t have opened up the same roads and avenues that are now able to service the Americana guys.
We still have some of that in our sound, but we did try to grow up a lot on this album. The lyrics show a tremendous amount of growth chronologically, and sonically, the shift happens at the middle of the record. This character has changed, and so does the sound. We started the album back around the time when I was in college, so naturally we started with that old-school Josh Abbott Band sound.
: Do you feel like there have to be at least a few of those party-boy songs on each album to keep your fans happy?
Abbott: No, I can do whatever the hell I want to do. I can write party songs and songs about Texas all day long. I don’t believe it to be pandering, I love writing songs about Texas. We just felt like it was time for us to make an album that was something the critics would appreciate more than the normal fans. Up to now, everything we’ve put out is that the fans love it, but critics say there’s not a lot of depth here. We wanted to grow up on this. There was no pressure, though. If anything, I think this step to mature our music is a risk; there will be fans who like our old stuff better. I’m so in love with the music and trying out different styles and genres that I’m very content in making music that I’m super happy with. As long as we’re happy in recording it and putting it out.
: Do you think your fans are going to go along with that?
Abbott: I don’t know, and again, I don’t really care. I can’t spend my time worrying about this stuff. You can’t make everybody happy. If I spend my time thinking that I had better write some really weird, progressive songs with these deep lyrics that you have to really think about, critics will just love us—I’m not going to do that. I’m going to write and record what I want to write and record. I hope that critics do see us growing up on this album, and I think that we have some stuff lined up in the future to show that we have grown up. If anything, we do want to be a country band that critics really enjoy our artistic approach and style.
: “Amnesia” feels like a particularly personal track. Can you talk about the frame of mind you were in when you were writing the song?
Abbott: What’s funny about that song is that I wrote it about two months before my ex-wife and I separated. When I wrote the song, I think I was drawing on the idea that if I ever lost her, I didn’t know what I would do. We had originally recorded it a different way, a year and a half ago on a demo. When we went back into the studio and we weren’t on a label anymore, we knew that we wanted to re-record that song, and it took on a whole new life. I was able to look at those lyrics and sing it and produce it in a way that was so personal again.
It’s so unfortunate that so many artists’ best albums are their divorce albums. To me, “Amnesia” is an animal all of its own because when we went into the studio, and me creating the intro to that song is very different for country music. It just is. I think that there’s a lot of new stuff going on in that song. I think it’s the coolest song we’ve ever recorded.
: “Ghost” is a pretty wrenching track, definitely a departure from songs about Texas. It feels like you really laid yourself bare on some of these tracks. Was that difficult?
Abbott: “Ghost” is the first song that I wrote after Amanda left, and it’s still really hard on me. I’m still not over it. “This Isn’t Easy” is my attempt to represent her side more, and I think that might not be fair on her end. How could I ever know the hurt she went through? She’s such a beautiful soul, and she did not deserve what happened. We actually met up recently and talked about the record.
: How does she feel about the album?
Abbott: She’s coming to terms with it. I think at first she was upset and shocked that it would be so personal. But I think she wishes she had more of a voice on the record, so I thought maybe we could collaborate in the future and tell that story.
: It’s definitely a complicated story. Do you think you were fair to yourself, even though you were unfaithful to your wife?
Abbott: I feel like I’ve taken ownership of what I did in a way that is almost unprecedented. How many country singers have cheated on their wives and gotten divorced over it? I feel like I was pretty transparent about the process, probably more than I should have been. It was really hard on her and I in very different ways, and I think she’s learned that it’s okay if I hurt too. It’s not a competition. It doesn’t mean that one hurts more than the other; this was just a really sad, unfortunate thing. She’s going to hurt in her way, and I’m going to hurt in mine. But she’s in love with someone now, and we’re able to be friends and visit with each other. I still think the record is going to be hard on her, but I think she’s cool with it. She supports it because she knows that I didn’t blast her for leaving. I was trying to be honest, so we’ll see what happens.
: Was it intimidating to put pen to paper and admit that you were unfaithful? Or was it harder to talk about the emotional fallout and the divorce?
Abbott: The subject matter that really intimidated me was the actual act of cheating. I wrote some songs about it, and the guilt that lies with it, but I just couldn’t put them on the record. It’s just too soon. When I started looking at it, not everyone’s relationship ends because of that. I think that would also be a very polarizing kind of song, and I think that the record does enough. There’s enough tears. I don’t have to go there.
It might be something that goes on the next album. I might be ready emotionally to release a song that is a lot more personal about cheating. If I had put that on this record, it would have stuck out like a sore thumb and it would have been the focus of this album, and I didn’t want it to be. I tried to be fair in my approach, as fair as I could be. I didn’t want everyone to feel sorry for me; I wanted to demonstrate the sadness of this situation. The story of going to college, getting married, getting divorced, and trying to figure out my place in life. It’s hard to put yourself on blast like that.
: Is it hard to perform these songs out on the road? Writing alone is a lot different than standing in front of a crowd of people with your soul on your sleeve.
Abbott: Maybe. If I’m in my feels—that’s the word the kids use these days—there might be a couple nights where it is hard for me. But for the most part, when I’m on stage, my job is to perform and entertain. It’s not my job to get up there and be upset and not give the best performance that I can. I think here and there, you will see me get emotional. I will choke up if I think about something that makes me sad. We’ll be able to perform these songs and really put on a show. “Amnesia,” for me, it’s almost great to be able to sing those songs with that passion, and be able to really vent it out. It’s cathartic, it really is.
: Is this the album that finally brings mainstream success for the Josh Abbott Band?
Abbott: I think we’ve crossed the line into no man’s land. This album is clearly not just a Texas country record. It has those influences and tones, particularly in the first section. Some of the songs are very Texas country in their approach, but other songs have rock and alternative influence. There’s enough that our Texas country fans will be happy and we’ll have some mainstream success, but it will always be that common Josh Abbott Band land where it’s not mainstream enough to be No. 1, and not hardcore enough to be beer-drinking, Texas country music.