Isaac Hoskins photo by Peter Salisbury
Isaac Hoskins Evokes Classic Country For Bender
Isaac Hoskins recently released his new album Bender, and with some excellent timing, also got to celebrate the appearance of two of his songs from the record on the TV show Yellowstone’s fifth season. The placements came about after meeting the show’s creator, Taylor Sheridan, after a show in Ft. Worth, Texas. The songs on Bender mostly hail from recent years for Hoskins and took shape in the downtime from live play that caused him to reevaluate many things in life. They definitely lean into Classic Country traditions sound, but it’s not a comparison to make lightly since those guiding lights influenced every aspect of the album, from the songwriting to the production.
Careful sequencing on the album means that there’s an evocative emotional arc, and maybe even a bit of a narrative one if you’d like to build one, that opens with restlessness and a tinge of doubt, moves through bigger internal reckonings, and approaches acceptance with an almost curious air, leaving plenty for the audience to resolve. I spoke with Hoskins about the sequencing, the threads of his own life that are woven into the songs, his choice to keep the songs sparse in certain ways, and what some positive cowriting experiences have taught him lately.
Americana Highways: I know that having songs from your album on the show Yellowstone has been a great opportunity for you, shining the light on your music. It’s also happened right around the time of your record release for Bender, which is great timing. What’s the time span for working on the songs on this album?
Isaac Hoskins: It worked out well. I’m keeping my expectations low. [Laughs] The majority of the songs on the new album are just from the past year or two. The song “If It’s Meant To Be” is fairly old. I took that song to the 2017 Kerrville Folk Festival, so it was probably written around 2016. The other ones were all in the last couple years.
AH: One of the bigger question on my mind was about the song order on the album. That song, “If It’s Meant To Be” is getting towards the end of the album, and where it’s placed seems to suggest some idea of acceptance or resolution on the album. Was that intentional?
IH: Oh, sure. Definitely. The sequence for that album took me a while, and I created several playlists. I really paid a lot of attention to it, and so did the producer, Gordy Quist (of Band of Heathens). The majority of the things I’m writing about in that song, though, happened right out of high school. I just had that idea about “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” because a close friend of mine’s mother used to say that to me when I’d cry about a girl that had broken my heart. I knew that I was going to make a song out of it. I felt that it fit into the record well. It was a good song, but I didn’t want to bring down the tempo of the record early on.
AH: Since we’re talking about that song, I wanted to mention something I really liked about that song was the line, “It’s the kind of thing that people say, When they’d rather turn and walk away.” I like the way the song includes conventional sayings, whether it’s “If it’s meant to be,” or “There’s lots of fish in the sea.” The first one was, presumably said to you in a very caring way, but the latter is often said in a very cut-and-dry way in life that rarely really helps.
IH: Yes, it’s a canned response. Like I said, I took that song to the folk festival and I was really proud of it. I got roasted for those lines! I was told they were too cliché. I explained that the lines were cliché because the song’s about clichés. I kept the song the way it was for a reason. That is my favorite line in the song too!
AH: It’s very true to life. I’m sorry the song didn’t get more attention. It is pretty perfect for this album, so it found its moment.
IH: It was meant to be!
AH: There you go. A big song for this album, which is out, and has a nice video, is “Panhandle Wind.” It comes early in the album and I feel like it introduces the feeling of restlessness and trying to figure things out. The first few songs all do that, like “H-Town.” There’s high energy but something to solve. In the latter, the person is in love, but there’s some doubt in there. With “Panhandle Song,” that’s not an angry song or a conflict song, but there are little unresolved things that pop up. It starts a story to the album in a way.
IH: That makes perfect sense. Several people have said to me that they see a story in there. I was worried that the subject matter might be all over the place because I try to be eclectic while staying true to classic country. The songs do fit together because it’s how my mind was working at the time. The original idea for “Panhandle Wind” was a kind of exercise. I tried to take more of a pop song mentality that you can write a song that doesn’t have to change the world, but has a good beat, and cool lyrics, and puts people in a certain spot. I was pretty surprised by how much I liked that song and how much other people do, too. Also, it’s accessible enough that it’s not going to turn some folks off. Early in the record, I try to do that.
But yes, I grew up in a small town, like in the song, and my mother still lives in a small town in Northwest Oklahoma. It’s cool now, but I’m 40. I can’t imagine being a 20-year-old kid trying to spread his wings in a small, kind of sad place.
AH: Is that how you thought of the characters in the story?
IH: Totally. I remembered what it was like for me. It’s like a Radney Foster or Tom Petty song to me. It’s my version of “Jack & Diane.”
AH: I feel like that’s a song that could be taken in different sound directions, for instance, even into rock, which you didn’t take, but even within the choices that you made, it feels surprisingly gentle. That has an effect on how audiences feel.
IH: I think I was listening to a lot of Heartland Rock at the time. There’s a Kathleen Edwards song called “Six O’Clock News” which has a fun, driving tempo like this one, but it’s also a really tragic song. I wanted to go for something like that, which is exactly why we turned the steel up so much on that song. I wanted to country it up. The mandolin was Gordy’s choice, making some comparisons to Shawn Mullins, which was rootsy but could soften up the Rock side of things.
That’s one of the older songs on the album, too, and I didn’t have a record concept in mind at that point. When the record developed into an old-school Honky-Tonk Country vibe, I wanted to keep “Panhandle Wind” but we needed to make it fit a little better, so we went that way rather than with a dirty guitar.
AH: The video’s a lovely one, too, with golden hour sunlight and the natural world. That brought that mellow feeling in the song forward, I think.
IH: I really like it too, made by Talented Friends. They had some ideas for that to try to steer clear of cliché country video stuff. That’s hard to do! But I didn’t want to just act out the song. I had been spending time around equine sports, so that gave me the idea of doing drone shots of a woman riding a horse across a pasture. That’s what we did and it looked great!
AH: I also think it’s cool that you’ve been putting up some live play videos of songs from this album, so that’s another way people might encounter these songs. Who are the Glass Mountain Orchestra?
IH: Here in Texas, so many guys who do what I do just call their band by their own name, but I didn’t want to do that. So I had the idea of coming up with a name for my band. My whole family is from an area of Northwest Oklahoma that’s got a small set of mesas called The Gloss Mountains. I prefer “Glass Mountains,” so that’s where I came up with the name. These guys are here in town, and they are my best buddies, and they just want to play.
AH: These seem like songs that are definitely meant to be played live and are based on a lot of live play tradition.
IH: That’s kind of how I learned to do it, anyway. I’m getting more used to being in the studio and doing things that way, but the majority of what I’ve done has been trial by fire. I’ve had to figure out what works on the fly. Plus, it’s the nature of the record, and I wanted to make it sound like a barroom band.
AH: You worked with John Howie Jr. on the song “My Memory.” Is that a new thing for you?
IH: That is a new thing for me. Writing songs has always been a very personal thing for me and I didn’t used to be open to other peoples’ suggestions, but I’ve gotten better at that. [Laughs] John Howie is one of my favorite Honky-Tonk songwriters in existence. I was completely flattered to work with him. I tried a few cowriting opportunities during Covid during Zoom and it didn’t work well for me. It didn’t have energy.
But with this song, Howie sent me the lyrics to “My Memory” and said that he was afraid the song might die because he didn’t know what else to do with it. I was glad that he asked me to help him finish it. I think it was good for me, coming into that song, that I didn’t have the personal experience that began the song. I had to look at it from a different point of view. And I think he liked that about it. I would definitely be into doing that more.
AH: Sometimes an outside perspective is exactly what’s needed when things get stuck. It’s a very unusual song. The sound as well as the nuance to it is interesting. It’s not as straightforward as it might seem at first. It’s like having a friend who doesn’t say much, but you know there’s a lot going on inside them.
IH: I like that you got that out of it, because that’s how it struck me at first. I even whittled some of the words down to make it a little more sparse. A lot of times I over-write a song, and when I thought about what I wanted to get out of it, I thought of all the great, meaningful Merle Haggard songs that don’t even have more than one verse. I had to really stop myself and get out of the way. I love what we got. I wanted to turn it into a kind of crooner.
AH: How much of the sound was there already when you started cowriting?
IH: John Howie sent me a phone recording. I actually listened to the demo the other day. Howie did a thing in the demo that had a walkdown, similar to Crimson & Clover. I took that and went all the way with it. Once we got into the song and started recording it, we added the walkups. That really did it for me. When we got that going, I knew it was going to work. The music itself can get people emotional, at least it did for me. It’s also got a positive vibe going for it by the end of the song, just like the subject matter. Someone was heartbroken but now they can’t remember what it was like any longer.
AH: I have heard songs where people say, “I’m over you,” but that’s not what this is. This is watching yourself and realizing, “My mental state has changed so much that I can’t even remember that fight anymore, I just know there was one.” That kind of change is like a stage of development in life, recognizing that you’ve moved on in some sense. It happens.
IH: I totally agree. I’m glad that you got that out of it. I’d like to think that I have learned from all of the past relationships that I screwed up, or reacted in a particular way to something someone said or did. I’d like to think that it has made me more mature as a partner. I was hoping that people would get that from the song.
AH: The big takeaway is that the person who’s speaking is kind of okay, and that’s the positive thing you were mentioning. Then the audience can decide how they feel about that.
IH: I think that’s the beauty of some of the old, sparsely written songs I was talking about. It’s not for me to decide. I want the listener to be able to hear that and apply it to their own lives. That’s why people buy records. I think I learned a lot from John Howie about writing those kinds of songs.
AH: I actually think the whole record shows a bit of restraint in that regard, keeping things a little sparse, and that creates some of the more traditional vibe of the whole album. There’s a whole different trend to be very personal and confessional right now, but this is a very different approach.
IH: It is true. I’m still learning how to do that. I used to fall in love with my own turns of phrase and little overly descriptive lyrics, like I was writing Steinbeck or something. Even though I love those kinds of songs, that’s not for everybody, and I think leaving a little ambiguity there helps people to connect in their own way.
Thank you for chatting with us, Isaac Hoskins! Enjoy our review of Bender, here: REVIEW: Isaac Hoskins “Bender”
Find more information, music and more here: https://www.isaachoskins.net/bio