When Justin Moore found himself homesick and missing his mother's Southern cooking after moving to Nashville several years ago to pursue his musical dream, he was inspired to write "Small Town USA," an ode to the spirit and simplicity of small-town life. "A lot of people called it prison when I was growin' up/But these are my roots and this is what I love," sings Justin about Poyen, Ark.
Justin knew he had to record the song because it succinctly captured the upbringing that shaped him both as an artist and as a man, but he wasn't sure if the autobiographical song would speak to those from different backgrounds. "Thank God I was wrong," he says.
The fast-rising song has become a Top 15 hit and established Justin as one of 2009's break-out country artists, garnering attention from People, The Washington Post and Billboard. The singer-songwriter landed coveted spots on tours with Trace Adkins, Hank Williams Jr. and Lynyrd Skynyrd and opened for Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney and ZZ Top. "Moore's take on the (small-town) theme is clearly resonating with country music fans," states The Washington Post. During this time of corporate greed and economic uncertainty, his music is a timely reminder of what's truly important in life.
Justin's self-titled debut describes the basic but unbendable truths of a place where your word is your bond, elders are respected and bullies are put in their place. In this world, men are the same on Sunday morning as they are on Saturday night, a notion that's ideal whether you live on a dirt road or city block.
"I've learned that everybody is proud of where they are from, and it doesn't matter what size it is," Justin says. "With the way our economy is right now, it's evolved into a state of mind. Everybody is struggling and feeling like they're walking in quicksand. At the end of the day, they have a place to come home to and food on the table."
Of course, finding common ground is nothing new for Justin, who stakes his claim at the crossroads between traditional country and Southern rock music. Influenced by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, John Anderson and Vern Gosdin, as well as Charlie Daniels, Hank Jr. and the Marshall Tucker Band, Justin has created a music that defies boundaries and definition with its edge, attitude and instrumentation.
"I grew up on old-school country and I also played in a Southern rock band," says Justin, who wrote nine of the 10 songs on his debut project. "If Alabama and Lynyrd Skynyrd made one band, this is the way it would be. Lyrically it's pretty old-school country and melodically it's a little more Southern rock edge."
"Backwoods", "How I Got to Be This Way," "The Only Place That I Call Home" and "Good Ole American Way" extol the virtues of a simple life, while "Like There's No Tomorrow" is a sap-free love song with a Southern rock kick. Live show favorites include the tongue-in-cheek (and politically incorrect) "Back That Thing Up," his first single, and "I Could Kick Your Ass," which received 15,000 downloads months before the album's release.
"Grandpa," his favorite song that he's written, is a poignant tribute to his personal heroes. "I got to play it on the Grand Ole Opry right after I found out that one of my grandfathers had cancer. They were both watching backstage when I made my debut and sang that song."
Justin was raised an only child on a 20-acre farm that was part of the 100 acres owned by his extended family. His father was the town's postmaster and his mother worked at a bank until she took over daily operations of the family's barbecue restaurant. He helped his grandparents feed cattle and bush hog the fields and was just a toddler when he first joined his grandfather in a deer stand. The sign proclaiming the town's population of 272 sits in his grandparents' front yard.
"The only things that really mattered were sports on Friday night, God and family, and that's about it. It's a good way to grow up. I'm still scared of my mom and dad, and my grandpas are my heroes."
By age three, he was strumming a toy guitar and singing "I'm a Honky Tonk Man" for his parents, and three years later he was performing in public. "It started in church, basically because my mom and dad made me. If you grew up in a town of 300 people, there aren't a lot of people who can sing on-key, so I pretty much got all of the leads in church plays." He won a Poyen High School talent contest at age eight and began performing solo to tracks at any local festival that would have him while in high school. "When I was a senior, I made a tape for my parents to have when I went to college," he says. "One day my dad said, 'What do you think about doing this as a job?' I was like, 'I never thought about it.'"
This talk inspired him to join his uncle's Southern rock band and make trips to Nashville to learn how the industry operated. When Justin was 17, his father played that tape over the phone for a few folks on Music Row, which helped Justin land a management deal. The class salutatorian turned down several baseball scholarships and instead enrolled in a nearby community college. But in less than two weeks, he knew that Nashville was where he needed to be and stopped attending classes.
With his parent's support, he moved to Nashville in 2002 and soon began looking for songs at publishing companies to help him land a record deal. "Obviously I wasn't getting any of their good stuff, so I thought, 'I'll just write it myself since I can't find anything.' I started writing songs and that really made me an artist, as opposed to just being able to sing on key," says Justin, who soon signed a publishing deal with Big Picture Music, which is run by Keith Stegall, who produces Alan Jackson.
A pivotal moment occurred when he met young producer Jeremy Stover, who quickly became Justin's producer and chief collaborator. Jeremy, who eventually produced Jack Ingram and Danielle Peck, introduced Justin to respected industry executive Scott Borchetta, who was preparing to launch Big Machine Records and, ultimately, The Valory Music Co. "We met and he told me he would give me a record deal if I could be patient with him," Justin says. "At the time I was 19 or 20 and I thought, 'I'll get a record on the radio in a year from now and here we go.' Four or five years later, here we are.
"I thought, 'If Scott Borchetta wants to work with me, I'll wait as long as it takes. I'm going to continue writing songs and developing as an artist more.' You only get one shot at this, and I wanted to take my shot with Scott. When he started The Valory Music Co., it happened to be the right time and place for both of us. I don't think I could have handled this as a 20 year old. Things happen when they are supposed to."