Thanks to such newer acts as Luke Combs, Midland and Riley Green, much has been made in the last year about the resurgence of ’90s-indebted country music.
In the midst of that chatter, Justin Moore has quietly assembled an album that leans as heavily on that era as any of his previous releases, making what arguably stands as his most cohesive work to date. Late Nights and Longnecks, released July 26, has its share of Southern-rock sonics, but the bulk of it belongs in honky-tonks: steel-tinged tracks ladled with word play, Moore’s Arkansas-bred enunciations and the classic country themes of family, God and alcohol. It even drops a casual reference to John Anderson’s chart-topping 1993 single “Money in the Bank,” while the album’s title feels massively similar to Mark Chesnutt’s sophomore release, 1992’s Longnecks & Short Stories.
That was not intentional. Late Nights and Longnecks actually derives its name from the title of a self-penned song Moore wrote back in the day and has repeatedly planned to put on an album. It didn’t make this album either, but it still links appropriately to his country education.
“When I wrote this song, it didn’t even cross my mind, but now when I look back on it, the first tape I ever bought with my own money was Longnecks and Short Stories, Mark Chesnutt,” notes Moore. “I still have it — now I have it on my phone, obviously — but it’s funny how it comes full circle like that sometimes.”
With Late Nights, Moore’s own music cycles back to its starting point. With his last project, 2016’s Kinda Don’t Care, he broadened his sound, incorporating more pop, classic rock and light R&B influences. It became his third straight title to hit No. 1 on Top Country Albums and yielded two singles that topped Country Airplay, “You Look Like I Need a Drink” and “Somebody Else Will.” But after that experimental sidestep, he felt a strong desire to — as an old adage might suggest — dance with the sound that brung him.
“We set out to make a super, super-country record,” he says. “We made that decision before it started trending back that that was kind of a popular thing in country music, which is the feel that I get now, that it’s becoming cool again. So hopefully the timing is perfect.”
Timing has been key, for certain. The first single, the military-themed “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home,” was right for seasonal celebrations at the end of May, providing a platform for performances on PBS’ National Memorial Day Concert and at the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C. The album’s original April release date was pushed back to align more closely with the single’s peak exposure (it’s at No. 5 on the Country Airplay chart dated Aug. 3), and it comes as Moore observes the 10th anniversary of his first major successes. “Small Town USA,” which is grounded in the same traditional country themes that dot the new album, became his first No. 1 single in October 2009, months after he delivered it during his debut at the Grand Ole Opry.
“I was nervous — really, really nervous,” remembers Moore of that first appearance on the WSM-AM Nashville show. “I was telling somebody backstage — Charlie Daniels, I believe — I said, ‘Man, I’m so nervous. I never get nervous to play music.’ He goes, ‘You’re nervous because you care. If you weren’t nervous, you wouldn’t be here.’ ”
Moore put a new spin on some old roots in creating Late Nights and Longnecks. When he first connected with producer Jeremy Stover (Drake White, Jack Ingram) in 2002, they frequently rented a hotel room or a house in the Florida panhandle to write songs. Moore has since bought his own place a block or two from the shoreline (“That’s pretty expensive property,” he says. “I told my wife we can walk 200 or 300 yards to save about half a million dollars”), and he retreated to the house on several writing trips to hammer out all but two of the new songs with a small group of trusted co-writers, primarily Stover, Casey Beathard (“Mr. Misunderstood,” “The Boys of Fall”), Paul DiGiovanni (“How Not To”) and Chase McGill (“Break Up in the End,” “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset”).
Moore co-wrote the entire album for the first time in his career, and the material finds new ways to explore the themes that have resided at the heart of his music. One title in particular, “Small Town Street Cred,” practically announces that intent, but a good many also cast the lead character at a crossroads, vividly tugged in opposite directions. “Jesus and Jack Daniels” vacillates between rebellion and religion, “Airport Bar” captures a prolonged hesitation between departure and reconciliation, and “Why We Drink” simply embraces culture’s contradictions.
“We all deal with the angel on one side of your shoulder and the devil on the other,” says Moore. “Honestly, for me, it’s kind of who I am. I feel like I’m a good husband and a good dad, and I love the Lord and do right and most of the times make the right decisions. But I know there’s times I don’t. I’m not perfect for sure, and I think that’s something that a lot of people can relate to.”
As Moore lofts Late Nights into the world, his return to his roots isn’t the only way his past is coming back around. The song that inspired the Chesnutt-like album title is already being considered for Moore’s next project.
“We almost have another album done, too, so we’re tossing around the idea of doing Late Nights and Longnecks and this being part A, and maybe putting part B out next year, or something like that,” says Moore. “We haven’t really got that all squared away yet, but it may not be the only Late Nights and Longnecks album, in which case I will once again say that absolutely the song ‘Late Nights and Longnecks’ will be on it.”