There are some country albums you play for your friends who think they don’t like country music to convince them that they really do and just don’t realize it yet. Justin Moore’s “Late Nights and Longnecks” is not one of those albums. Nor is it one for the country intelligentsia, probably — it’s easy to imagine the CMAs completely overlooking it, and it won’t likely be a major contender in the year-end Nashville Scene country critics’ poll unless they suddenly add a category for “best concept album about alcohol.”
So how is it that something this deeply uncool feels this deeply refreshing? What “Late Nights and Longnecks” lacks in wheel-reinvention, it really, really makes up for in tire-torching fun and a generally elevated level of redneck poetry. It’s far from the kind of album that presents itself as a songwriters’ showcase, which is part of why there’s so much delight in realizing just how much clever craftsmanship has been squeezed in among the rowdy tropes that populate the record. If you’ve lost faith that anyone in Nashville still writes ‘em like they used to — and there’s good reason for agnosticism there — his latest stands as proof that a few still do, and they apparently all came over to Moore’s place for some rum and rhyme abuse.
Moore has made a big deal in the advance publicity and interviews for the album about how he wanted to make a return to traditional country after veering off it for his previous effort. But, mind you, by “traditional,” he doesn’t really mean Hank and Haggard, the way a lot of us would take the connotation. He means the country of, like, well, 10 years ago, when he first came on the scene with a debut album — or maybe he’d stretch his traditionalism as far back as the ‘90s, but the point is clear: Moore was one of the very last “hat acts” —or big ole belt buckle wearers — to be ushered in as a star before the industry passed its new mandatory ballcap laws. His music is filled with screaming electric guitars, so it’s not as if anyone’s going to mistake him for a George Jones tribute act. But he’s not wrong if he’s feeling a little last-of-breed these days.
Whatever the opposite of stretching yourself is, then, that’s what Moore is aiming for — and his adherence to core themes and sounds makes this his best album, with no small assist from a core team of co-writers that includes Casey Beathard, Jeremy Stover and Paul DiGiovanni, any of whom might have been saving up some of their better lines for a semi-throwback occasion like this. There’s a specificity to a lot of the writing that makes the extremely familiar subjects not feel particularly tired. Leadoff single “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home” may be the umpteenth tribute to a fallen member of the military (with country’s umpteen making up for the approximately zero odes to soldiers in indie-rock), but lines like “Traffic stopped for them Cadillac lights/ Johnny sold beer half-price that night” put you in the middle of the memorial in a way most other songs along these lines haven’t. When Moore remembers corporal punishment being administered on a brother, it’s not just any rod not being spared on the spoiled child, but “a whip(ping) with a Zebco rod.” To conjure the image of drunkenness, the name “Cooter Brown” will be invoked, regardless of whether that means everything below and nothing above the Mason-Dixon line. It’s the little details that mean a lot — and not just in the modern Music Row way of writing random lists of things that make people feel happy.
Speaking of drunkenness: “Late Nights and Longnecks” is every AA counselor’s nightmare, boiled down into a 10-song album. Moore does come down on both sides of the eternal country drinking debate — “Right now Jim Beam is the only thing gonna fix me” versus “I woke up cussing Jack Daniels today” — but mostly, of course, he’s pretty pro-. The opening track, “Why We Drink,” goes both wry in earnest in coming up with reasons to get twisted: “’Cause it’s Friday/ ‘Cause it’s Monday / …’Cause we’re a little messed up, but it’s cheaper than a danged old shrink.” It’s a mama-versus-daddy thing, too: “She was red-letter heaven / He was Old No. 7,” Moore sings in “Jesus and Jack Daniels,” a conundrum in which the artist of course ultimately decides that both alliterative choices are compatible. Well, maybe there’s still a slight bit of tension between the sacred and the profane in his world: “I killed that guilt with some getting to church on time,” he sings, “but I couldn’t make it through the sermon again without packing a little calm-down in my lip.”
Even if you wish that country as a genre was a little more conscious of the 12-steppers in its midst, you have to laugh — don’t you? — at the sheer number of drinking-related titles here: after “Why We Drink” and “Jesus and Jack Daniels,” there’s “Airport Bar,” “Never Gonna Drink Again” (a lie, btw), “On the Rocks” and “Someday I Gotta Quit.” Rest assured that if you have this on in the car and get pulled over, you might fail the Breathalyzer based just on a contact buzz.
But unlike some of his tailgate-happy contemporaries, Moore at least occasionally allows for a back-and-forth causation between depression and that high. Far and away its best song is “Airport Bar,” in which Moore either breaks up with his girl at Gate 23 or decides not to get on a plane to meet her — the inference isn’t clear — but ends up drowning his nonrefundable ticket sorrows at the nearest lounge. With his airplane mode turned on even though he never took off, Moore sings, “I’m gone as hell but I ain’t gone too far / It ain’t no window seat but baby, I’m alright with that / ‘Cause I’m gettin’ somewhere on 2-for-1s in a high-back chair.” It’s like Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane,” except it’s “Drunk Not on a Plane,” and played for a pained smirk instead of laughs.
Happily, the belligerence that crept into a couple of past Moore albums is absent here. (There’s toxic masculinity, maybe, but the toxicity is kept to the actual liquor.) If there are things to regret, besides sobriety, maybe it’s how, in “That’s My Boy,” a song about a son’s future, he can only think of his offspring following exactly in his rough-and-ready footsteps, without much allowance that maybe the kid will want to be a brain surgeon or turn out to be, you know, really into musical theater. On the other hand, when Moore imagines the boy growing up to be “a blue-chip straight-off-the-blocker/ Jacked-up old truck, Kenwood rocker / Fist-sized dent in a football locker” … well, hell, that’s some lyricism worthy of musical theater.
Moore earns some rights to his claims of traditionalism not just with the themes, but with the fact that, alongside all the Stonesier-style rocking, pedal steel king Paul Franklin is given some good leeway to fill in the cracks. The album has two songs in a row that end with soloing codas, including “Small Town Street Cred,” where Franklin is pitted against two electric guitars and a Dobro player in a face-off. These instrumental segments only last for a minute or so, but that’s a minute longer than any other country star has recently devoted to kicking out the jams on a record.
For anyone who hasn’t heard him, Moore sounds a little bit like an equally barrel-chested Blake Shelton, although their being on opposite ends of the stature scale makes you cock your ear, hearing such similar voices coming out of such different guys. They share an ability to effortlessly apply that vocal bravado to funny stuff and the hard stuff. Shelton, of course, lost the Stetson along the way and Moore has not. And as much as Shelton has tried to hold onto his redneck cred in all his years spent living part-time in L.A., it’s hard to imagine him now singing a song like “Good Times Don’t,” in which Moore talks about changing times and expresses surprise that “Chevy got away from a square body” and there are “a lot more brands than Wrangler jeans.”
Not to worry: In Moore’s world, Wranglers will inherit the earth, and so will the aggressively adroit lyricism of country’s not-so-distant past.