THE GUITAR STRUMMING abruptly commences leading to a prominent drum crash. It’s the opening salvo to Josh Abbott Band’s most recent release Front Row Seat. The album highlights the maturation process the Texas country music staple is currently experiencing. Front Row Seat as an album, when heard holistically, tells a story. It’s a story of love and loss. The album is structured in a way that’s a bit antiquated today. In a world where people spend $.99 for a single at the iTunes store instead of $12.99 on a compact disc at their local Tower Records, the idea of creating an album that fully encompasses a saga in which a listener must hear the entire work to appreciate is a bit like the author developing a website devoted to the written word in a world where people are, without exaggeration, risking their lives to capture Pikachu. It’s definitely something that’s needed, even if the majority of people may never recognize the art.
To me Josh Abbott Band stands above its peers for at least three things. The first is its incredible use of melody and instruments, particularly the use of the fiddle by Preston Wait. The instrument is haunting on those songs that require it, beautiful when needed, and always helps push the music to the next level.
The other two concern the band’s front man and leader Josh Abbott. Abbott has a stunning voice, one with an incredible amount of range. He is also an extraordinary songwriter. His capacity as a troubadour poet is firmly tested on Front Row Seat. It’s a test the Texas native passes.
The album is a chronicle of his falling in and out of love with his ex-wife. Yet Abbott writes the album in such a way that we can all be affected by it through our own experiences. The vast majority of us have, at one point or another, suffered through a whirlwind romance that ends in a hurricane of heartbreak.
The album cover of Front Row Seat features a lone empty chair on a dark stage that’s illuminated by stage lights. It’s as if the chair is waiting for you to sit down and witness the film of your life. The album is broken up into five “acts.” The acts chronicle a relationship that begins with innocence and passion and ends with the dualistic wish to forget all of the pain yet relive every moment so that maybe the outcome might end differently.
Act I: Exposition
The opening song of Act I “While I’m Young” is a boot-stomping examination of a young man trying to breathe in every moment. “No promises, no regrets…I’m having fun while I’m young,” sings Abbott. Worries, serious decisions, and commitments can wait. At least for tonight, maturity remains a few miles down the road of life.
“I’ve Been Known” is about discovery. It’s that exciting moment in a relationship when you begin to understand who the person is you’ve recently begun seeing. Maybe, you also begin to discover that when you’re away from your new lover that you now suddenly miss being with that person. It’s also a promise from Abbott that he may have to leave because he has a date with another smoky barroom in another nameless town, but he will remain faithful because “you’re the best high I’ve ever known.”
“She said to take a left/we’ve got a story to write/and it ain’t pennies that are going in the fountain tonight.” “Live It While You Got It” is Abbott singing about those moments in a relationship that you will never forget. It’s those moments that leave you breathless at the occurrence, yet haunt you when a relationship begins to crumble.
Act II: Incitation
“Kiss You Good” and “If It Makes You Feel Good” both highlight that time when you begin to realize that a relationship is different than anything you’ve ever experienced. It’s when you begin to understand that it is something that will, for better or worse, change your life. “Wasn’t That Drunk,” a duet with Carly Pearce, is a ballad of lasting temptation.
Act III: Intimacy
Act III is that time when you look into the eyes of your partner and, with complete sincerity, can’t understand why he or she would ever be with you. “Crazy Things” is the kind of intense affection that makes those that don’t have it and must witness it sickeningly jealous.
In “Front Row Seat” you can almost see a nervous man roasting in a jet black tuxedo watching a stunning woman in white walk towards the altar. It’s a beautiful song that would be fitting for any first dance: “and the thing that I see when you open up to me/how’d a fool like me get so lucky to get a front row seat.” “Kisses We Steal” is a honeymoon that feels as if it might never end.
Act IV: Dissolution
Act IV is the realization that a distance has grown between, whether that distance is literal or figurative. “Born to Break Your Heart” is Josh Abbott’s testimony that the distance is a division in the relationship that he caused. “This Isn’t Easy (Her Song)” is how you have to create distance if only to protect your heart, no matter how painful constructing this wall of isolation may be. Meanwhile “Ghosts” is a stunning examination of Josh Abbott’s vocal range. The song is haunting. Belts Abbott, “Goodbye is the hardest part/I was supposed to hold your heart/Like the grains of sand through my hands, it fell apart.”
Act V: Denouement
The final act begins with Abbott reciting, among other things, the definition of amnesia in “Intro: A Loss of Memory.” This weaves into “Amnesia,” a lament of lucidity and a prayer for forgetfulness. “Autumn” is a hastily packed suitcase, tear-smeared makeup, and a taxicab waiting out front. The album concludes with “Anonymity.” The song is played acoustic by Josh Abbott, which augments the feeling of isolation present in every chord strum.
I wanted to break down each individual act of Front Row Seat because I’m attempting to highlight the fact that this album is so much different than anything that is currently being produced in the genre of country music today. Let’s be honest, what Josh Abbott has created here, with the help of the incredible team that surrounds him, is art. That is a far cry from what we are seeing in modern day, Nashville-specific country music.
Recently I took a road trip into eastern Oklahoma, and on the shores of Lake Eufaula I was stunned to hear the above song not once, not twice, but three different times on three different radio stations consecutively. The song “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day” by country music superstar Luke Bryan is catchy. It’s fun. It’s something you might see sung on redneck carpool karaoke. It’s certainly a tune you could blare out of your truck while driving from point A to point B. What the song lacks is true emotion, and I think this is one of the major reasons people who truly appreciate traditional country music are so incensed by much of the music that appears on the radio today. The song is as deprived of heart as the Tin Man appeared to be when he took a stroll towards Oz. That’s not to say the song is completely false. I lived a few years in a one stoplight town in the middle of central Texas. I’m not a country boy, but some of my best friends are. They hunt, they fish, and I’ve been told they love (although I’ve never witnessed the latter act firsthand because…well…that would be gross). However, they certainly do not do these things every day. I mean, they do work for a living!
I’ve also written a column on this website chronicling the rise of country boy Earl Dibbles Jr. The difference between Granger Smith’s alter ego and much of the music Nashville is pumping out these days to country music radio stations across America is that Earl Dibbles Jr. is meant to be a caricature. That was Smith’s intention when he developed the character. When one of the genre’s most recognizable faces (Bryan) genuinely, and without parody, whittles an entire lifestyle down to huntin’, fishin’, and lovin’ every day, you begin to see there is a problem.
What Nashville has done is latch on to theme that has proven popular, the stereotypical country boy lifestyle, while pumping out music that rarely deviates from this theme. It’s not unlike network reality television. When American Idol does well, we quickly see America’s Got Talent and The Voice. It’s great for profit, but not great for the genre.
Let’s remember, country music is a genre that produced “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Lost Highway” “The Dance,” “The Chair,” “Whiskey River,” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” I suppose it also produced “Rhinestone Cowboy,” so there was that. For all its faults (what do you get when you play a country song backwards? Your dog back, your wife back, your truck back, etc.) country music has traditionally been known as a genre that tells stories. The stories may disproportionately concern the nursing of bourbon, bruises, or a broken heart, but they are stories that make you think and make you feel. They bring you back to a period in your life, regardless of if you have ever stood atop a John Deere tractor or not.
This is what Josh Abbott Band has done with Front Row Seat. It has recorded a tale of the untamed blaze of passion burned into ashes of desperation. The album is the band’s fourth full-length release. The band’s conception occurred at the Blue Light in Lubbock, Texas circa 2004, when Josh Abbott, while attending a Randy Rogers concert, decided he might fancy the itinerate lifestyle of a traveling troubadour. He was soon joined by his Texas Tech fraternity brother Austin Davis, drummer Edward Villanueva, and fiddle player Preston Wait. The band recorded its first demo in 2007, and the rest is honky-tonk history. According to Abbott, the band is driving to develop a more robust national presence. If Front Row Seat is any indication, Josh Abbott Band is heading in the right direction.
Josh Abbott Band Essential Playlist
“Miss You Again” (Scapegoat): This song came off of Abbott’s first full-length release in 2008, Scapegoat. There is a certain edge to this song that would come to define the band.
“Hangin’ Around” (Tuesday Night EP): Whatever she’s doing, he’s doing. I think we all been there.
“She Don’t Break” (Tuesday Night EP): In a genre that has done a pretty effective job recently of objectifying women, (those country boys sure do love them Daisy Dukes and bikini tops!) Josh Abbott has a pretty refreshing tendency to create strong female characters.
“Road Trippin” (She’s Like Texas): You can feel the koozie separating your fingers from a cold beer. Get ready to sip some Boone’s Farm Wine. This ain’t no nine to five song. Baby, it’s the freaking weekend.
“All of a Sudden” (She’s Like Texas): Breakups don’t just mean goodbye to a lover. They also mean goodbye to a whole way of life.
“She’s Like Texas” (She’s Like Texas): Texas country artists all have a notable reverence to the state in which they were incubated. Josh Abbott’s no different. “She’s Like Texas” compares a woman to the bluebonnet state.
“Oh, Tonight” (feat. Kacey Musgraves) (She’s Like Texas): Josh Abbott has had some notable duets. Maybe the most recognizable so far has been with Texas native and Nashville Star alum Kacey Musgraves.
“I’ll Sing About Mine” (Small Town Family Dream): This song was written by talented songwriter and musician Adam Hood who co-wrote it with Brian Keane. The chorus to this song pretty much sums up a large portion of the article you just read, that country music is full of people singing about a lifestyle they’ve never really lived: “Because tractors ain’t sexy and working is hard/For small town people like me/and the radio’s full of rich folks singing /‘bout places they’ve never seen”
“She Will Be Free” (Small Town Family Dream): If you have a quarter of an hour to spare, it’s definitely worth watching the music video to “She Will Be Free.” Although it is heavy. The video is dedicated to helping raise awareness about the silent epidemic of human sex trafficking. It’s an amazing gesture coming from a country music band. I told you Josh Abbott Band was different. I wouldn’t lie to you!
“Touch” (Small Town Family Dream): “Touch” is another Josh Abbott music video that deserves a view. The band takes music videos to a whole different level, using a simple song to exude something so much more. In “Touch,” it showcases the emotions that the loved ones of deployed soldiers must endure. “Touch” is the band’s most recognizable song, and there is a reason why. It’s beautiful, with the band’s talent and Abbott’s vocal range on full display.
“If It Makes You Feel Good” (Front Row Seat): “It’s all about you baby, tonight/I’m game for anything that crosses your mind.” I have a pretty good feeling that all accounts of skinny-dipping in the history of the mankind began with that statement.
“Front Row Seat” (Front Row Seat): If your wedding involves cowboy hats, boots, and blue jeans, you might want to put this song on the playlist. Hey, even if it doesn’t, take a listen. You may soon be adding a special request to your DJ.
“Ghosts” (Front Row Seat): “When you feel dead inside you only see ghosts/Little memories refusing to let go.” This song is literally haunting. The imagery is mind-blowing. “I daydream of demons who give me the reasons to fall/It’s so much easier to numb the pain then just deal with it all/and I can stay a prisoner behind these walls/Thinking that the creaking is your footsteps down the hall” Josh Abbott Band, out!