“So what you gonna do with all that youth 
Just because it’s brutal doesn’t make it truth 
Left so many of ‘em sipping on that venom and vermouth 
I only know I ain’t gonna go back

If our past is all we get to be
My old life would have been the death of me
While I find myself alive I might as well see where it gets me
I only know I ain’t gonna go back”

     – Cory Branan, “I Only Know” 

The minute I walked on-stage with Cory Branan, I knew I was screwed. I usually spend a few minutes at each show introducing that evening’s guest, maybe giving a little background on how I discovered their work or what it is about their music that I find especially distinctive. But with Cory, I didn’t even know where to start. Just the story of how we met takes ten minutes, never mind the stories covering the 18 years since. Our whole lives have changed in that time and we’ve woven in and out of each others’ orbits as family and work and geography have shifted us, but his friendship and his music have been among the few constants of my adulthood. And all of that stems from the fact that I’d never heard anyone do what he can do with a song, and I haven’t heard anyone do it since.

Of course, I didn’t want to say all that in front of him because I have a cynical smartass rep to protect, so after stumbling through a very awkward abridged version, I fled the stage and left Cory to speak for himself. Luckily he came equipped. After taking a writing hiatus while traveling the country for the last year, Cory had very recently gotten back in the habit. He started the night with a cluster of brand-new songs, and it says something about his fans that they were just as excited to hear something new as they were to sing along with old favorites. I daresay it also speaks to the series that he felt comfortable shaking out the new stuff with us. Our shows are different by design, and these raw, real moments happen when there’s space for a true connection between artist and audience.

After a shortish first set and longish break, Cory settled into his second act with no clear intent to end the night. He pulled songs from his full catalog, reconfiguring some and playing others with the same circa-2000 intensity they were born with. In between respectful silences (“freaky quiet,” he called us), Cory called for requests and the the sold-out crowd at Studio688 gave him more than one evening could handle. I could go into more detail, but I took a whole bunch of video and Cory’s own version will far outshine mine.

I probably wasn’t the only one being pummeled by nostalgia, but something else was hitting me, too. When we first met, my biggest fear was that Cory would still be hanging around Memphis in 20 years. Ten years later, I was afraid Memphis had lost him forever. I never could have imagined the paths ahead of us, or that I’d eventually be hosting him in front of a crowd as hushed and awed as those aught-era Hi-Tone audiences. But there we were, not taking his presence for granted, but welcoming him back home to celebrate a career that’s taken him across the planet and into the esteem of critics and colleagues alike — and even better, into the hearts of his amazing offspring and incredible wife.

I’m so proud of Cory’s work, but above that, I’m proud that he pushed through the distractions and discouragement that could have stopped (or, frankly, ended) him years ago. I’m so happy that after everything we’ve both gone through since those early days, we get to share the hard-fought victory of being in better places. And I’m just thrilled those places are in Memphis.

 

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