Country singer Kip Moore prides himself on a no-B.S. policy. He defines himself by his honesty, which feeds directly into his music, which earned him a fan base of die-hards and helped make him a breakout star in Nashville.
But there’s one topic he won’t touch: Nashville itself. Specifically, the changes he has noticed in the country music industry after spending more than a decade as a singer-songwriter in the fiercely competitive Music City.
“Things are very different. Things are very different,” Moore says. There’s a long pause as he averts his eyes, sitting in the deep freeze of an air-conditioned tour bus on a humid summer afternoon in Virginia. Then he smiles. “This is one subject I do have to hold my tongue on,” he says in his slight Georgia drawl. “But things are very different.”
No one knows this more intimately than Moore, the 35-year-old singer who had a stunning run of success with his 2012 debut album, “Up All Night.” The first three singles all hit No. 1. With his commanding, raspy voice and blue-collar lyrics, the Bruce Springsteen comparisons started early. Concerts started selling out. Soon, it was back to the studio for his next album, where he set out to top his first effort. Then something went wrong.
Moore’s new single tanked. The next one did even worse. His steadily growing buzz disappeared. His label shelved the album until he could score another radio hit.
No one could explain this sudden change of fortunes, and Moore took it especially hard. He is an artist determined to stay true to himself and his own instincts, with a built-in disdain for compromise, no matter the consequences. So what happens when what you think is best isn’t working?
Now, after a couple of frustrating years, Moore and his label are optimistic that things are back on track. His latest single, the fiery “I’m to Blame,” is climbing the charts and sits in the country top 20. Its early performance was solid enough to finally schedule his long-awaited sophomore album, “Wild Ones,” which drops Aug. 21. Still, Moore has learned enough to take absolutely nothing for granted — everyone knows that in the music industry, your fortune can change in a heartbeat.
“If ‘I’m to Blame’ is a hit, it’ll be 10 times sweeter than any of those [first songs] ever were for me, personally. ’Cause I’ve been kicked in the teeth recently. Not that I needed to be — I’ve always been grateful,” Moore says. “But this will be a sweet thing, because we’ve been knocked down again. And we keep getting back up.”
Moore is a natural when he’s on stage in front of thousands of people. That charismatic quality also helps with the daily, behind-the-scenes grind essential to building a lasting country music career: the chatting during meet-and-greets in every city; the banter with local radio hosts; the media interviews; the meeting endless new faces and posing for constant pictures.
One July day, Moore is backstage at the 25,000-capacity Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Va., a few hours before he takes the stage as the main opener on Dierks Bentley’s summer tour. During the sound check, clad only in basketball shorts, sneakers and his signature baseball hat, he runs through a few songs: “I’m to Blame” and the new, upbeat “Girl of Summer.” He jumps off the stage while his band plays and walks into the seating area as he tries to imagine what the audience will hear, conferring with the guys in the sound booth.
Afterward, he makes the rounds, stopping to do an interview on WMZQ-FM (98.7). He laughs as he walks between buses by the small inflatable pool set up for Bentley’s young daughters, who handed out pool party invitations to everyone on the tour. “I’m sorry I can’t make it to your party,” Moore tells the kids, busy splashing their dad with water.
It’s a packed day, which is routine — nothing to complain about, he knows, but it ensures you don’t have a minute to yourself. Moore is used to that feeling. Growing up near the Florida line in Tifton, Ga., he was one of six kids. That means he is used to noise but also craves solitude any chance he can get.
That partly explains why he took off solo to Hawaii as soon as he was done with college. He played basketball at a community college before transferring to Valdosta State in southern Georgia on a golf scholarship. In between, he learned guitar and joined a band. He took a six-month break in the islands, sleeping in a hut and hitchhiking to the beach to surf. He never stopped writing songs, and he soon realized that was what he wanted to do with his life. So he flew home to Georgia and told his surprised parents about his plans, and on New Year’s Day 2004, at age 24, he packed his guitar and moved to Nashville.
Moore has a quiet intensity to him when the commotion dies down. Back on his tour bus, he remembers how hard the move to Nashville was at first, as he took odd jobs to pay the bills and lived in “awful” conditions without heating so he could spend his days writing songs.
“I think about those times, when I’d lay on my floor and listen to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan records until 5 a.m. and try to figure out why I loved them so much and why I loved the craft of their writing,” Moore recalls. “They molded me during those years.”
Moore was eventually introduced to veteran Nashville songwriter Brett James, who signed Moore to a publishing contract and produced his first album, “Up All Night,” which would spawn those first three No. 1 hits. There was platinum party anthem “Somethin’ Bout a Truck,” the deceptively soulful “Beer Money” and the quiet ballad “Hey Pretty Girl.”
As it often happens with success, lots of people have lots of ideas about how to follow it up. There were multiple “arguments and disagreements” with executives as Moore worked on his new material. “I always respected everybody’s opinion — these are people who have been doing this for a long time. But at the same time, I got here being me,” Moore says.
His new songs were much darker and far from the carefree party-and-drinking smashes that were taking over country music — a trend that Moore didn’t particularly want to follow. “Young Love,” centered on a challenging relationship, stalled when it reached radio. The next release was “Dirt Road,” a haunting tune about Moore’s frustrations growing up in a Southern Baptist town and struggling with the preacher’s words about heaven and sin.
No matter why the songs flopped, it hurt, especially because Moore wrote the songs with two of his best friends, Westin Davis and Dan Couch, who had co-writing credits on his first album. “It was heartbreaking — to have those two songs that we all believed in so much and poured our hearts and souls into — to not work at radio,” Couch says.
Since his label couldn’t release a new album until he had a hit, Moore did the only thing he could think of: He scrapped a whole body of work and started over again.
Moore kept working on the new album, “Wild Ones,” until he found a balance between what he and his label both loved. The record vacillates between songs about relationships and his stubborn refusal to change who he is. It all comes together in the rocker “I’m to Blame,” steadily climbing the charts, which he wrote with Davis and Couch. He was angry when he wrote it, and when you listen, you can tell. (“If it ain’t broke, you can bet that I’m gonna break it/If there’s a wrong road, I’m damn sure gonna take it.”)
He and his team have high hopes. No matter what comes next, it’s been a learning experience. “I went through a period of anger, of sadness, of fear. I had all those things. Fear of losing what I worked so hard to get,” Moore says. “But I think what it’s teaching me to do is to let go and to focus on what I can control, and let go of the things that I can’t. What I can control is what kind of music I’m writing, the character that I’m going about in my daily life. And I’m letting the rest take care of itself.”