I have never liked polished, mainstream country music. Outlaw country, the whiskey-besotted truth-telling poured out by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Tony Joe White and, closer to home and more recently, Whitey Morgan, the Orbitsuns and Doop, I can't get enough of. But when the twang's gone, when the dirty jeans and workaday beards are replaced by $400 jeans, Stetsons and line dancing, I sick up in my mouth a bit.
So when I was first offered an interview with John Maison, I must admit my country music bigotry snuck into my thinkin'. And when his manager told me that Maison had been touring with Josh Gracin and Uncle Kracker, I feared the worst. Vile thoughts of Tea Party types and Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus and Carrie Underwood crept into my head like a grade IV cancer, alongside the idea that Maison must be disingenuous, a country-music mannequin, out for profit in a phony nudie suit.
I was, of course, wrong.
Yes, Maison's sound is clean. Sometimes, irritatingly clean for my tastes. Honestly, the dude could do with some cigarettes and alcohol burn in his larynx. But to consider him dishonest is grossly unfair. He's a funny, very "Michigan" sort of guy who naturally gravitated to country music through a love of classic rock.
Maison first picked up a guitar when he was in high school. "I was in bands before then," he says. "And I've been a fan of music my whole life. Growing up in Michigan, there's a lot of different genres in the area. A big mix. So I was exposed to a lot of classic rock and also a lot of country. When I started to write songs, they came out more country. It's hard to say how long I've been in country music, but as long as I've been writing, it kind of popped up as my style."
The misconception is that Detroit isn't a worthy breeding ground for country music bands and fans. Rock, electronica, hip hop and R&B — shit, yeah — but country? But why wouldn't it be, with its Southern roots and sister cities Memphis and Nashville? Maison agrees. "I'm from metro Detroit, Macomb County, and most people, especially out of Michigan, are surprised that I listen to country. They didn't know people in Michigan listen to country. Detroit is one of the largest markets for country music ... big summer country concerts at DTE, the Hoedown ... "
Maison does concede that his sound is cleaner than many local countrified combos, such as the Orbitsuns, Whitey Morgan and Doop and the Inside Outlaws. Maison says, "My sound is a little more driving; there are rock elements in there. The whole twang sound is not so much my style. That comes from my influences growing up, artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, the Eagles and a lot of classic rock guys. I'm a fan of the alt-country stuff, but I would agree that my style is different in that aspect. Josh [Gracin] is great. I've met him a couple of times, and I really like his sound. It's not too far from what I'm doing. I like exciting music. When I put something out there, more times than not it will be up-tempo and aiming to excite the listener as much as possible."
Despite owning a pad in Nashville, and the obvious career benefits for a cowboy-hatted musician there, Maison hates the idea of leaving Michigan. "Michigan is my home and that will never change," he says. "I have a condo in Nashville. People are always asking me when I'm moving to Nashville. It's not a question of when, but if. Nashville's great and I wouldn't mind living there, I would love living in Nashville, but I don't know if I could ever leave Michigan. There's too much I like doing here. There's family and friends, obviously. In the summertime, there's too much going on. The lakes — I have a boat and I can go out in the water, and I like camping, hunting and fishing. I love Michigan."
No shit! He hunts. Goes to show — you can take the guy out of the country. ...
"Yeah," he says, laughing. "It's more of a coincidence than anything else. The one thing I'm really not a fan of is a lot of times, people play up stereotypes. In country music, there are songs that are a proclamation of how country they are. I really don't want to write songs like that, because I see it as not being genuine. I have songs that have country themes but not so much songs that are a stereotype, about going out hunting in my pickup truck, etc., etc. I don't like writing stuff like that. However, the reality of my life is that I love hunting and the outdoors. I just don't like to use clichés, and it can be hard to differentiate the two."
Speaking of which, he admits he can't line dance. "Here's the thing," Maison says. "I consider myself a decent dancer. In middle school, I used to be big into break dancing, which is kinda funny. As well as the rock and country, I also liked artists like Run DMC. I used to break dance at school dances and that was fun. But I don't line dance. Not to say that I wouldn't ever, but usually, whenever someone is line dancing, I'm up on stage playing the songs that they're line dancing to."
That's probably for the best. Maison has that sort of knowing sense of humor that separates him from many of his ilk. And that, friends, seeps into his songs and, rather than singing about bullshit, he really incorporates the "white man's blues" approach to country songwriting.
"In classic country songs, the blues generally was a very strong recurring theme. In more contemporary country, that subject matter is there but it's definitely presented in a much different form. The way that country is now, it's kinda a double-edged sword. In many aspects, some people like to relate it to pop and some to rock, with good reason for both. A lot of people would be displeased with that because they don't want pop-country. That's a very good point, however the nice thing is, sometimes you get these songs that are crossover. A lot of pop songs could be country, like Taylor Swift. What's nice about those, when you have a song that has crossover appeal, you bring in a pop crowd who are now listening to this song, and later they might be listening to more hardcore country."
True enough. Some need to be gently pushed into challenging music. If they need Taylor Swift to get to old Willie, so be it. It's like listening to Blink 182 on route to the Stooges, or Puff Daddy before Public Enemy ... or, er, you get it. Maison knows this. But don't mistake his pop sensibilities for minimal authenticity.
See, Maison writes songs the right way.
"I try to write about life experiences," he says. "There are so many songs that are written every year, especially in Nashville — I do a lot of co-writing in Nashville — and everything's been written. You try to find a new angle to say the same thing. Let's say a girlfriend breaks up with you and you're heart's broken. How do you say this girl broke your heart in a way that's unique or different? It's been done so many times that if you don't do it in a way that's creative, your listener is probably going to be bored. I ask myself, what is it about this song that I absolutely have to write? Then you look for that hook or that one thing that makes the song and base it around there. Once I have that realism, it gives me something to write about and then I start to embellish."
Maison stops and thinks of an example, then comes back with a beaut'. "For example, there was a girl that I was dating and when I was 18. I used to sneak into her house and stay the night. I started to write a song about that but I thought, instead of sneaking in, what if I was sneaking out to get away with her? I wrote that song, called 'Sneaking Off with Lyndsey.'"
Saturday, Dec. 10, at the U Detroit Café, 1427 Randolph St., Detroit; 313-962-0660.
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