With his bold and charismatic self-titled debut, rising country crooner Triston Marez is the latest to throw his hat into the ring as a torchbearer of the Neo-Traditional Revival. While he most certainly embraces those sharp electric guitars, honky-tonk twang and soaring hooks, it doesn't hurt either that the Texan songwriter has the stamps of approval from a handful of '90s country legends, including Ronnie Dunn.
Much like the Houston-area Hat Acts of the '90s - Mark Chesnutt, Clint Black, Clay Walker and Tracy Byrd - Marez's East Texas rust bears weight. His strong whiskey-soaked croon and knack for captivating melodies feel right at home at the end of the bar, or in the cab of a pickup truck loaded down with hay bales.
Some of Marez's finest moments come on the likes of ‘When She Calls Me Cowboy’, a warm and amorous slow dancer. His aw-shucks grin radiates as the chorus tos and fros on the ranch ballad. Still, it's on dancehall sketches like ‘Two Beers on the Bar’, ‘If You Don't Know By Now’ and bar-closing anthem ‘Drink About Me’ that Marez is at his best. When he's delivering those late-night whiskey wishes, recalling old flames and outrunning ghosts, he does so with the best of them. Undoubtedly, Marez is a natural at holding court from his barstool throne.
Speaking to Holler ahead of the release of his debut album, Marez discusses maturing as a songwriter, working with his icons and the resurgence of embracing traditional country roots.
This past year, you've really focused on songwriting. Do you feel that working at such a consistent pace built the foundation for a full-length?
In 2019 we were pushing hard. We were brand new on the scene and were opening up for some good buddies like Randall King, Josh Ward, Aaron Watson and Jon Wolfe. We’d be on the road Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I'd be home Sunday through Wednesday and then would hit the road all over again. Man, spending three days on the road every weekend drains you. Your brain is dead coming home, so it's hard to find the energy to write with that kind of scheduling. But having nine months of lockdown last year kind of played out for me to become a songwriter, and I'm actually grateful for it in a weird way.
Many of your songs feel like they're brought to life by interactions with folks at a show - it feels like you're getting much of your inspiration by observing a crowded bar and picking up on the honky-tonk drama. Did you have a wealth of old notes and lines that you had to search through for song content?
It's funny, because luckily I did have a ton of ideas from being on the road, before everything shut down. But you still get to a point where all those ideas are exhausted and you still have 20 more writes on the calendar. Being locked down and not having any inspiration was a challenge, but it was a fun one. I definitely grew as a songwriter.
You've released a few EPs and a handful of singles these past couple of years. A full-length album is a different kind of beast. What was the process like knowing that it's more of an artistic statement?
It was so tough. The game plan was to write as many songs as we could by the deadline we had. We started writing for this record right after I released my last EP, and I think we wrote close to 50. Finalising the selection for the record was tough, but as an artist you can't pick what you think is going to be a hit - you have to pick what you feel represents who you are. For a debut album, you know a lot of first impressions are going to be made. So, I honestly picked what best represents me as an artist, as a musician and as a person.
You've been writing with Terry McBride a lot of late. Did you know his catalog of cuts and his work beforehand, or did you go in blindly?
I grew up a big Brooks & Dunn fan. You always look up who wrote and recorded your favorite songs, so I was familiar with him and his history. My manager has been friends with him for years and I have so much respect for Terry. He has opened doors for me in so many ways. I think he was my first co-write when I came to town; him and Brice Long. They've both helped me grow as a songwriter. It’s a blessing for sure.
What's it like leaning on his experience as a songwriter? How do you approach going into a room with Terry?
Well, I'll tell you, the first time I was nervous as hell. I was a green writer with barely any experience in a co-writing room. I'd always just written by myself and so walking into a co-write like that, I was so damn nervous. But again, working with somebody like Terry, he's down to earth and the funniest guy in town. He's got some of the best stories as well, So when he tells you them you think "Alright I can relax. It's going to be a good time."
I can attest to him being full of great stories. You mentioned being familiar with some of the songs he'd written that were cut by Brooks & Dunn, and Ronnie Dunn actually features on your lead single ‘Where The Neon Lies’. At what point did he get involved and come on board?
I was going through a breakup with a girl from West Texas. She was out in Nashville for the summer and had to go back to college at Texas Tech. Because of that, I had this idea for ‘Where The Neon Lies’ thinking she'll be coming back. You know, you're at the bar, you start drinking and start thinking that there's still a chance that maybe she'll come back. I wrote that down and wound up writing it with Chris Duboise and Lynn Hutton. Ronnie didn't come into the picture until the very end. We recorded it and it had that 90s touch to it, and when we were recording vocals my manager Alex Torrez said, "Man, Ronnie Dunn would sound killer on this song." We all started laughing like, "Yeah, that'd be awesome." Alex said he was going to shoot an email. I thought he was joking, but sure enough, Ronnie emailed Alex back. I couldn't believe it. About two weeks later, Ronnie got on the track and did his thing. It's amazing to even say he's on the song. Honestly, I still look at Spotify and I'm shocked. I don't think I'm ever going to get over it.
There are a few songs written by Chris Stapleton as well on this album. How do you approach a song knowing that it's written by such a powerful, unique artist while also wanting to be true to your own voice as well?
Cutting outside songs was another thing that was brand new to me; I was always really stubborn about wanting to have written everything. But then, when I started listening to some of these outside song cuts, I would say, "Damn, I wish I wrote that". Well, shoot - I didn't get to write it, but I'd love to be a part and get my voice on it, so I got out of that mindset. The songs that latched onto me, those that I wish I had written and that I relate to, I'll gladly cut. One thing I've had to adjust myself to is not singing it like them. ‘Day Drinking’ was written by Stapleton and he sang on the demo; I listened to that version so much that I started singing it like him. I did it with Ronnie's part of ‘Where the Neon Lies’ too. At our first gig back three weeks ago - I caught myself singing it like him. Braxton Keith was like, "Dude, you kind of sing it like Ronnie on the second verse." I went home that next week and practiced the second verse over and over again, without ever thinking about Ronnie.
A lot of the Neo-Traditionalist sound is soaked with pedal steel, fiddle and that noticeable twang. How reassuring is it that, while those instruments aren't necessarily supported by country radio, there's a resurgence in artists embracing those roots?
Honestly, I'm making music that I'd want to listen to. I'm making music because I love the sound. I'm not making anything because I want half a million streams on Spotify or want to be popular. I'm making music that I love to make. I'm blessed to be surrounded by musicians that allow me to be myself. It's cool to see Randall King and all those guys are making this whole Neo-Traditional sound and that it's still a part of the foundation of country music.
Triston Marez’s self-titled debut album is out on Friday (April 16th) via Torrez Music Group. Listen to new track 'When She Calls Me Cowboy' below.
Photography by Brooke Stevens.