This John Maison dude got into modern country by way of classic rock
Published: November 30, 2011
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.
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