Justin Moore’s new album features a song title that almost demands a dare: Does the artist have what it takes to earn his own “Small Town Street Cred”?
Granted, Moore already meets the most important requirement: He, his wife and four children live in Poyen (pronounced “POH-en”), the tiny central Arkansas town where he was raised. But PEOPLE still decided to put him to the test during a phone interview on Tuesday just after he’d returned home from a month on the road. You can decide if he’s truly living the small-town life, according to his responses to the last time he …
… Drove a tractor: “The day before I left. I was on it for about four days straight, bush-hogging my whole property, which is a good 50, 60 acres.”
… Took a back road: “Yesterday. We’ve got to take one to get to our house.”
… Sipped whiskey: “Last night.”
… Ate grits: “Probably a week ago.”
… Went to Walmart? “I try to avoid it. You go in there to pick up two or three items, and it takes you about two hours because you run into 15 people you know, and in the South, we talk to each other for 15, 30 minutes. It ain’t just, ‘Oh, hey, good to see you. Take care.’”
… Skinned a buck? “Deer season this past year.”
… Got on a four-wheeler? “Every day I’m home — going and checking deer feeders and that kind of stuff.”
… Sat on his porch? “I’m actually on it right now.”
… Listened to Hank or Merle? “Oh, that’s about every day.”
… Went to Sunday church? “The last time I was home on Sunday. If we’re here, we go every Sunday.”
“What’s funny about this,” Moore tells PEOPLE, chuckling at himself, “is it’s probably gonna read like I’m making all this up, but I promise you, I’m not.”
And so who better to put out one of the most quintessentially country albums of the year? Since bursting onto the scene a dozen years ago, Moore has held down among the twangiest stakes in country’s big tent, and he considers his latest, Late Nights and Longnecks, his “most country” yet.
“I think our music from the git-go has been rooted in traditional country,” says the 35-year-old artist. “But this one, we made a concerted effort, and I feel like we’ve accomplished it, from the songwriting aspect to the way that we recorded the album, where we recorded it, the musicians we used, the instrumentation — kind of all of the above.”
And with artists such as Florida Georgia Line and Jake Owen, among others, showing their country roots more in their new music, there couldn’t be a better time for Moore to be asserting himself — though he points out he started working on the album two years ago.
“When I made this decision … I was bucking the trend,” he says. “But by the time the album actually comes out, it kind of feels like we’re swinging a little bit more back to traditional-sounding stuff.”
The 10 tracks on the album are all Moore co-writes, the result of several week-long sessions when the artist holed up with some of his favorite songwriters at his Florida Panhandle vacation home. “We locked ourselves in the house, threw the keys in the drawer, drank beer and wrote songs,” Moore says.
Perhaps not surprisingly, six of the 10 songs feature alcohol-marinated themes. (When this is pointed out to Moore, he just laughs: “Country music!”) The songs range from the saint-and-sinner confessional “Jesus and Jack Daniel's” to the booze-soaked heartbreak of “On the Rocks” to the party-hearty “Why We Drink,” an irresistibly catchy tune that’s his just-released single.
His mother, Moore reveals, actually inspired “Why We Drink” during dinner out one night with his parents and his wife, Kate.
“I ordered a drink and then I ordered a few more throughout the dinner,” he recalls. “And my tolerance is a little different than my parents’ because I do what I do for a living obviously — not that that’s something to brag about, but it just is what it is. And my mom says, ‘Why do you drink so much?’”
Moore says he’d never really thought about it “because it’s never affected my life in a negative way.” But when he put the question to songwriters Casey Beathard, David Lee Murphy and Jeremy Stover, the four men were able to come up with multitudinous reasons, starting with “’cause it’s Friday” and “’cause it’s Monday.”
So what did his mom think of his musical response to her question? “She just laughs and rolls her eyes at me all the time,” he reports. “She’s like, ‘Good lord, Son, whatever.’”
Moore turned poignant for single, “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home,” a tribute to fallen military now sitting in the Top 10. The song, he says, has evoked emotional stories from fans during his meet-and-greets. “To have a chance to hear from people how it’s helped them through a tough time is pretty cool,” he says.
Yet another heart-tugging track is “That’s My Boy,” a last-minute addition inspired by Moore’s only son, South, who’s 2.
The night before his final studio session, he and Stover, also the album’s producer, were simmering in Stover’s hot tub when the song title bubbled up. “I’m just kinda looking up at the stars and for whatever reason ‘that’s my boy’ popped in my head,” Moore recalls. “I have no idea where it came from. I guess God just places it in your heart or your head or something. I don’t know how to explain it.”
The next morning Moore, Beathard and Stover wrote the song in about 45 minutes, and Moore recorded it that day. “It was the easiest song on the album to write,” he says.
Of course Moore has three daughters, ages 5, 7 and 9, who may start hitting up Dad for a little parity.
“I’ll have to write one for them on the next album or something,” Moore vows, adding that he’s “already caught crap” from 7-year-old Kennedy because older sister Ella’s birthday is tattooed on Dad’s forearm.
“I don’t have a tattoo for the other girls,” he says, but the compact Moore says he has a good excuse: “When you’re 140 pounds and 5-foot-6, I don’t have a whole lot of space here, you know.”
Moore is currently on tour, in support of Late Nights and Longnecks, with dates scheduled through Sept. 1.