“I mean, we weren’t, like, huffing jars of shit or anything.”
That’s the disclaimer issued by electro-country singer Daughn Gibson roughly six minutes into our conversation, when asked what, exactly, teenagers do for a good time in his hometown of Nazareth, Pennsylvania. If he sounds a little defensive, it’s understandable. Gibson spent his adolescence combing the bins at Double Decker Records for rare punk singles and bashing out brutal basement anthems with a rotating cast of friends. To put it another way: He may have grown up in a rural part of the state, but he’s quick to clarify that “country” doesn’t mean backwoods. “We had it pretty good as far as we were concerned,” he says. “We played music and stuff, so, there was always something to do. We had, like, probably six or seven different bands that we would practice for. I feel pretty fortunate that we had the outlet to avoid the small town pitfalls of being just, you know, completely bored.”
So it’s no surprise that the music on his debut, All Hell, also straddles two worlds. His delivery — a rich, robust baritone that has all the rattle and boom of Johnny Cash and early Elvis Presley — is as oaky as aTennessee forest. But the music that surrounds it is gauzy as ghosts — eerie synth-based songs that could be mistaken for James Blake bedroom demos were it not for Gibson’s fireside croon.
After a brief stint living in Philadelphia, Gibson is back in western Pennsylvania. His tastes have adjusted accordingly. “I have a shotgun and this nine millimeter,” he says. “So sometimes I’ll just set up a watermelon in the backyard and blast on it. The guys I go shooting with in town have full arsenals. So I can bring my 9mm, but these dudes are bringing AKs, and they’re bringing AR-15s. The 2nd Amendment is my stance when I have to get in a political debate, but really, guns are just fun.”
Given his ability to effortlessly straddle seemingly opposing universes, eMusic’s J. Edward Keyes decided to talk with Gibson about his 10 favorite country songs.
So, before we get started, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your first encounter with country music.
It was probably back in 2001. I was driving a truck at the time, and was kind of just surfing the dial, and in certain parts of the country you just weren’t getting anything. You’d get like, Phil Collins. And so at first I just started listening to [country music] ironically, because we’re taught to hate that kind of music if you grow up in the Northeast. It’s like, “Don’t listen to that shit. Come on.”
New York doesn’t even have a country station.
Exactly. But if you grow up musically rebellious, you kind of just buck that notion. As it turns out, there’s just a wealth of great [country] songs, with great lyrics. And pretty soon, you start to find other people in your little circle who like it, too. Like, I’ll never forget, Pissed Jeans opened one of their earliest shows in Allentown with a Toby Keith song. I forget the name of the song, but it basically starts out very patriotic, and I was like, “Oh my God!” I don’t think anybody else in the room knew what they were doing, but I was like, “Motherfuckers are playing Toby Keith! I can’t believe this!”
I’m also someone who grew up with new wave and punk rock and indie rock. Why do you think people with that music background are so resistant to country music?
You know, maybe it’s a political thing? Things on the country side of the aisle tend to lean, obviously, more conservative: “This is the way it ought to be, and every other way is stupid.” I guess for people that came up the way we did, it’s hard to look past that.
I guess that’s where alt-country came from. It was like the acceptable version of country music. Anybody I know who is into indie rock and cares about country, it’s usually like Wilco or Uncle Tupelo or Ryan Adams or stuff like that.
Yeah, I mean, certainly not to diminish any of those groups, they’re all great in their own way, but to me, I don’t know anything about Wilco or Uncle Tupelo or really any alt-country. Maybe because it seems inauthentic to me? I mean, I kind of want there to be a shitty view of the world [in the songs]. “So, yeah, cool, you play country music and you agree with me.” It’s kind of like, so what? I have to think too much, and I don’t really want to think [when it comes to] this kind of music.
Alison Krauss, “Ghost in This House”
As much as I love lyrics, I think the first love is melody and rhythm. I'll never forget the first time I heard this song: She hits a note and it's just the perfect frequency. I mean, I think about that note right now and I get a chill, like it gets right behind my eyes and pushes tears out of me. I think it's the line, "I just keep the lights down." She hits this thing, dude, and that's what really plowed into me first. Then afterwards, the lyrics sink in, and it's like, "This song is too much." It's something I can't even listen to that much because it's too intense. She really gets at the feeling of almost being intoxicated when you break up with somebody. It's intoxicating not in a full and vibrant way, but in a hollow and shell-like way. Without reading the lyrics, I didn't know if she had a lover who had died – because it's such a sad song. It's like, "Oh, you're really just broken up about breaking up with someone." But you come to realize when she sings, "There's another ghost here," that there's probably someone who she picked up somewhere who is also going through the same thing and he's a "ghost," too, and they're sharing this house.
Emmylou Harris, “Boulder to Birmingham”
She and Alison Krauss [are] cut from the same cloth. I grew up listening to this song; that's something my parents had. They weren't country people, but Emmylou Harris was always kind of on the periphery of, you know, "real country," or whatever. So Piece of the Sky, that record was acceptable in my household, and was on every Sunday morning. And I never said, "I can't believe you're listening to country music!" Even through my teens, it wasn't necessarily a "country" song, until you kind of understand who Emmylou Harris is and go, "Oh, she's a country artist."
Tom T. Hall, “Faster Horses”
I was touring in Texas, and Texas has the best country radio stations, bar none. I was just driving through the night and this song came on, and I was like, "I wish we had recorded that so I could play it over and over again." It's so good. In the song, he's a poet, and he's looking for the truth – he's this guy who thinks that life is made up of so many wondrous things. And just he gets shot down by the cowboy, who's like, "Nope, stop idealizing everything. Life is just about these four things: faster horses, younger women, older whiskey and more money." He just had a knack for getting those little things that make people go, "Aw, yeah." Tom T. Hall is the king of that. And as he gets older, you can tell in his lyrics, he cares less and less for the melody, he almost just wants to get the story out.
Waylon Jennings, “Waymore’s Blues”
These lyrics don't seem as cohesive. They're brilliant in their own stanza, but there's something he says that doesn't have anything to do with the previous stanza. I mean, every line is memorable as hell, but I don't think it means anything. I don't know who Waymore is, but I like that he's like, "I got my name painted on my shirt, I'm not an ordinary dude, I don't have to work." He's just riffing, that's it. I think Waylon Jennings, to me, I mean, I don't look up to many people, but he's my man. I idealize him. And I really think he is an outlaw, so to speak, because he came from this kind of Buddy Holly, love of Texas rock thing and just kind of found this path of bucking the system. Every song was a "fuck you," but yet still maintained this kind of rhinestone Nashville thing. I think the guy's brilliant. There's a YouTube video of him talking to uh, I think Jessie Colter – I'm pretty sure she was his mistress or significant other or whatever – and he's so damned charming. It's like a talk show, and she's, you know, hosting it and talking to him, and he's like "Yeah, whatever, here's this song." And he's so charming and you can see Jessie Colter just like, melting in front of him. Every time I watch it, my wife is just like "Oh Waylon, I love you" [laughs]. I'm like, "Calm down girl, calm down. He's dead." I think if my wife had her way, she would resurrect him and go Splitsville on me with Waylon.
Kenny Chesney, “A Lot of Things Different”
You know, I don't know if I like Kenny Chesney [laughs]. Here's the thing with this genre: Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, they're all varying degrees of countryness, if you will, but they're also contemporary enough so that regular Joes who aren't countrified can enjoy them. Kenny Chesney, from what I've seen of him, he is the ultimate spectacle of new-millennium country. Stadiums, tight jeans pulled up so his bubble butt sticks out, and runs around the stage with a headset mike. I suppose it's the new era – or the continuing era – of country music as it is now. For the time period when I was listening to country music on the radio, I didn't know who the artists were, and I didn't want to know. I didn't Google them or anything; I was just, "Oh, this song's great." This song was one of the first country songs I had heard, and it's kind of like that Alison Krauss song, like, "Oh my God. Oh my God, man." I just listened to it again when I knew we were going to talk about it and, you know, I cried like a baby. I can't hear it. And then I watch him on stage, and he sings and cries on stage in front of stadiums. So I kind of go, "You know what, dude, you're all right, man." He sings this song, and he just stands there in a baseball hat and cries. Pretty unbelievable. I don't know if Toby Keith would do that and I don't know if Rascal Flatts would do that. I give him props for that.
George Jones, “Her Name Is”
I hope that George wrote this song on his own, but I kind of doubt it. I was struck by this one only because of that guitar chord [he uses in place of the girl's name]. It's funny and great and kind of just totally a bizarre song. I was just talking to a good buddy of mine; it's odd because he is in a very similar situation. He's been seeing a married woman over the past five years, and they kind of have developed this very friendly, almost, dare I say "soulmate-like" relationship, where they're best friends but it can't be more. The situation for her is that her husband is just good enough. We'll talk about it, and I say, "Hey man, you kind of have a good thing going on here, but your biggest problem is that you feel more – you want to go to the next level." And he's like, "No, I realize that and I can't. I have to stay complacent here." That's kind of heartbreaking. So for that guy, and for George Jones, more power to you.
Alabama, “Mountain Music”
Alabama, they have this four-on-the-floor kick drum in a lot of their songs. And my first misshapen memory of hearing Alabama was, "I don't like this, because it sounds like dance music." It sounded like, I don't want to say techno, but it had that umph, umph, umph, house beat. And, honest to God, that was the first thing, like, "Man, I just can't get into Alabama man, they're doing stuff that's too dancey for me." But over time, you know, you get over stuff. I think my favorite memory of this song, I was living in Philadelphia a couple years ago, and the Mummers do this thing on Broad Street and then they go down Two Street on New Year's Day, you know, whenever the sun goes down. So I lived right where the Mummers Parade begins. They kind of gather their troops, and this one group – I don't know, maybe the Molly Walkers, some such brigade – they stopped, they had a pick-up truck, and there were dudes in the back with you know, violins and stuff, and they had a PA with them. And the song that they started playing was this Alabama song. And I thought, "This is mind-blowing to me, how silly this is." We're in South Philly, the Mummer tradition is generally of Celtic origin, and these dudes are playing "Mountain Music" by Alabama. And I thought, "You know what? When the Irish and the Scotts came over here, some of them went to Boston, some of them went to the mountains, and some of them went to South Philly."
Dwight Yoakam, “Turn it On, Turn it Up, Turn Me Loose”
When you're 18 years old and you hear the name "Dwight Yoakam," or you hear the name "Conway Twitty," without even hearing the songs, you just go, "Oh God, get me out of here." So I didn't really discover him until recently. I mean, I'm talking like the past couple years. I don't know what he's up to these days, I don't know if he's had a healthy career or not, but this song is, I think, as country as country gets. It's great lyrics, it's danceable, you can see him up there performing it. Even the lyrics – you go to this club, and you got this memory with you and you want to shake it, so you just turn it up man, and hopefully there's somebody else here who wants to turn it up too, and we can erase this memory through sex.
The Kendalls, “Thank God for the Radio” and John Conlee, “Common Man”
The last two songs came from Comcast. Comcast has all these music channels, Music Choice they call it. They have a Classic Country channel, and sometimes I would just turn the TV on and listen to Music Choice Classic Country. Believe it or not, these selections are pretty ridiculous, pretty B-side obscure country tunes. Like The Kendalls' "Thank God for the Radio," I heard that and you know, it made sense to me. How many times are you driving, and you're like, "Oh my goodness, the radio is my only partner right now." And then, John Conlee, which is turning out to be one of my favorite artists of all time, the guy is just like a sweet uncle. Every song he does is just, you know, very tender. He's a very good guy, and "Common Man" is kind of like the quintessential country song. And the hook in that is when he says, "I'm a common man/ and I have a common van." I'm just thinking like, "Okay it's probably 1979, and, you know, there's a guy who has a dragon painted on the side of his van, and a guy with a minibar in back." And John Conlee is saying, "You know, my van is very common." And it's funny because nowadays, nobody has a fucking van, at all.
You know, I'm a big fan of vans. I've had many vans in my life. And if somebody mentions a van, I am in there like swimwear, dude. I know exactly what he's talking about. If I have one regret in life: I had a Dodge Ram van, and I was moving to Philly and I couldn't bring this goddamn thing with me. So a friend of mine had a shotgun, and we decided to make a friendly trade of a van for a shotgun. I thought, "Well, I think John Conlee would be proud of that."