This year marks your and Carrie's fifth as hosts of the CMAs. Is it safe to assume the gig is one you enjoy?
It's something I've grown into a little bit, using whatever muscle an entertainer uses but applying it to something else. I love the challenge of figuring out what needs to be said on that show -- what's gonna be entertaining and unexpected and make somebody laugh. It's a different process than songwriting, but not all that different: You sit in a room and surgically decide which lines you think will affect somebody. The beauty of the CMAs is that you know the audience -- you know who's gonna be in the front row and that it's fair game to roast them. You also get to talk about current events, and we couldn't have more than we're having right now. Our show happens five days before the [presidential] election.
You recently released the first single, "Southern Comfort Zone," from an album that's coming next year. [Hear it below.] It's very wacky.
You're dead on. This whole album is like a wild experiment -- it could end my career! To me it would just feel wrong right now to say something I've already said or to make a record that doesn't make you say, "Wow, that's different." Different isn't always good, but in my case for it to be good this time -- as far as an album or a song -- I believe it has to be different. The worst thing you could've said to me was, "Hey, I just heard the new single and it's along the same lines as what you always do." That would make me very depressed.
So it's a song about leaving your comfort zone called "Southern Comfort Zone."
I know. The title was brought to me by my co-writer Kelley Lovelace. He was like, "Doesn't this feel like a hooky title?" I said, "Totally. There's probably 10 of them already, but I've never heard it, so let's try it." We sat down and wrote the first version, and it was what you would imagine. It was basically the way the Marshall Tucker Band would do it: sitting on the tailgate of a truck on the banks of a river with a bottle of Jack Daniel's in my hand.
Then you went somewhere else.
I said I wanted to do an open-your-mind type of song about leaving the South. Everything I love in my life was formed between West Virginia and Tennessee -- that's the core of my experience. It's easy to live in Nashville, where there's a lot of like-minded people and you know all the rules. But then there's the first time you go to Canada and stand outside at night in winter and go, "What is that neon-green stuff in the sky?" Or you land in Paris for vacation and walk through the streets and nothing prepares you for looking up as the lights on the Eiffel Tower start to go on. It's like, "What in the world? This is magic!" The song says two things at the same time: It's great to have Southern pride and not wanna live anywhere else, but it's great too to see the rest of the world.
"American Saturday Night," from 2009, felt similarly complicated. But last year's "This Is Country Music" was more straightforward.
There are tides to my career in that sense. In my adventurousness I'm like the ocean -- I'll venture onto the shore a certain amount, then go back and venture out a little further with the next wave. I feel like this album is further up the beach than "American Saturday Night." With "This Is Country Music," the point was to expose some seashells with the shallows there, not necessarily to go up the beach with it. I considered that a little bit of preaching to the choir, which is fun for preachers. You turn around to face the choir, they're all nodding their heads -- like, "Yes, sir, preach on!" This one's where you turn back around to the congregation and say, "Now, have you thought about this?"
How's the new one shaping up sonically?
It's a house record. I took an old farmhouse at my place in Nashville and built a studio. It's just my band -- the same players you'll see at the Bowl.
After the CMAs you head to
We've been there three years in a row, and you just can't believe how much they love