For a man whose new album begins with a powerful song called “Footsteps of Our Fathers,” Pat Green has blazed his own trail in a way that few artists today can claim. Even with all the artistic and popular success he has experienced along the way, What I’m For is the stirring sound of Pat Green arriving as a major American singer-songwriter who has managed to make his own way in country music and beyond. To borrow a memorable phrase from the man’s biggest hit to date, “Wave on Wave” of new faces have come along, but few have ever made such a vivid impression, both as a recording artist and performer, as Pat Green.
True to the title of this latest, greatest and decidedly lived-in album, Pat Green has accomplished all this by truly knowing what he’s for – and what he’s against, too. He’s done it by daring to follow his own strong gut instincts as an artist, and more than ever before on What I’m For, Green has done it by making music that honestly reflects his own attempt in his mid-thirties to actually grow up and walk like a man – one very human footstep at a time. “I really do think of What I’m For as an album by a husband and father,” Green says.
So when it came time to make What I’m For, Green set himself some grown-up goals. “I wanted to make a perfectly circular record – one that you could just put on repeat and really live with for a while,” he explains. “But I also feel like my ultimate mission here was to beat the Wave on Wave album.” The Wave on Wave album – with its enduring and moving smash title track – was released in 2003 and spread the word of Green’s remarkable talent far beyond the Texas borders where he had first established himself as a talent to reckon with back in the late nineties. By then, Green’s charismatic live performances were already evoking comparison to the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Buffett, among others.
“If I listen to Wave on Wave correctly, I’d say that I was very young writing those songs, but they were still good songs,” Green says. “Now I feel like I’ve finally come into my own, and I want to write songs by a man, by a father, by a guy that kind of has a handle on the situation. And as far as I’m concerned, What I’m For is the best album I’ve ever done, and it does beat Wave on Wave, at least for me.”
What I’m For also finds Green recording with the respected and extremely successful producer Dann Huff, after an important trilogy of albums made with Don Gehman, best known for his fine work with John Mellencamp. “The last three albums I recorded with Don Gehman, who was like a great producer and a great counselor,” Green recalls. “Sometimes I didn’t know if I was in therapy or making a record. For that time in my life, it was great, and forced me to develop and become more myself as an artist. But after three albums, I was ready to make a move. And I loved the sound of Dann’s records, especially with Keith Urban, because they didn’t sound like every country record necessarily, and that Dann could also work so well with Faith Hill and Rascal Flatts, too. Plus Dann’s a real guitar god, and that’s what I want now – someone who can make guitar records sound amazing. In my humble opinion, walking into the studio with Dann was the right next step. For me at least, it was a good fit. It just felt right musically.”
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Music – all kinds of music – has been a part of Green’s life from his beginning growing up in a blended family with nine children in Waco, Texas.
“I grew up around so many kids – I had five sisters and four brothers. It was a real Yours, Mine and Ours situation, and growing up around all those kids, there was so much going on and so many distractions and so many sources of feeding my younger self with music. People always ask you, ‘What are your influences,’ and I’ll give them some answer, but the truth is that my influences were everything from some really crappy eighties music to the best of Motown to a little classical music. Hopefully, I’ll be able to give my own children something like that to grow up on – that incredible range of music. For instance, the first album by Terence Trent D’Arby made a huge impact on me. And from that point, I would listen to records so meticulously – to the point that I would know all the burps and farts and bits so well of every performance, musically and especially vocally, of all the songs that I liked.”
Country music – specifically some of the great Texas writers – didn’t really connect with Green until a little later. “After my senior year in high school, the summer before my freshman year at Texas Tech, I had a female friend who was listening to Robert Earl Keen, and I thought his songs were so incredible,” Green recalls. “The stories were great, and the music was so much deeper than the crap on the radio, they just painted a better picture with deeper colors. Robert’s music turned me on to Jerry Jeff Walker, and that led me to go further back. Sure, I had already heard of Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, but now I explored it all. I fell in love with country music and the way it can be a great way of heartland storytelling – and so far from the plastic world it could be at the time, and sometimes still is. That’s a battle I’ll always have to fight, and I don’t always win the battle, but if you’re trying to make a living at this, that’s the river you have to negotiate.”
With the important early support of Nelson, Walker and Keen, among others, Green began to make a real name for himself as a live act with a growing fan base regionally. “Guys like Willie and Jerry Jeff and Robert Earl were letting me open their shows, which was amazing. Of course, there were plenty of other times that I had to call the bar and beg for that opening gig or call the frat. It didn’t matter how I got the gig – the important thing was to get the gig and get in front of someone else’s crowd until I began to build up my own. I owe them all a debt of gratitude not just for the platform, but also for their attitude and their example. They all had their impact without selling their souls. I was always willing to sell part of my soul, but I’ve always wanted to be in charge of what part was for sale.”
So rather than leave home and try and squeeze into the Nashville system right away, Green was able to find an audience as he began to grow as a singer-songwriter on early self-released albums like 1995’s Dance Hall Dreamer and 1997’s George’s Bar. “I was happy in Austin, in love with my girlfriend who’s now my wife, making a living, making the music I love,” Green remembers. “So going to Nashville to try and become a ‘star’ did not seem very appealing, especially since it might mean actually making less money and getting frustrated and leaving the greatest place on the planet. So I just rejected it. We were selling a lot of records our own way – a Houston-based company sold my records for me – and there still were record stores then.”
Eventually, Green found a limit to such independence. “I kept running into a wall,” he recalls. “I’d go play to 1000 people in, say, Atlanta, but a block away, the store would not have my records. That was finally what tipped things for me – I thought I needed to get a national company that could get my music out in front of me. It wasn’t really the money. I just wanted the impact of people having my music in their possession, so they could study my quirks and kinks just like I did the people who inspired me early on. I wanted to become part of the roots system instead of just part of the scenery. So that’s when I signed my first big record deal. We started getting lots of distribution. Then all of a sudden, we had a monster hit with ‘Wave on Wave,’ and then Nashville kind of perked up and said, ‘Okay, we’ll take you just the way you are.’”
What I’m For is the sound of Pat Green, just the way he is today, walking in footsteps of his own making, with respect for the past but his eyes very much on the future.