Justin Moore‘s dad, Tommy, makes easy conversation. He’ll greet you with a warm smile and a strong blue-collar handshake, and he’s quick to share stories and details of his son’s life that a less trusting man might hide. He has a round face that’s punctuated with two blue eyes the singer’s fans will recognize. He stands an inch or two taller than Justin and — like the famous singer — makes meaningful eye contact while talking about how his son got from Poyen Ark. to Nashville, Tenn. It doesn’t take much urging to get him started.
Ten years ago, when young Justin left for Music City, his parents and an aunt and uncle helped him move. The ‘Point at You’ singer is an only child who would have been happy spending a lifetime in the town he grew up in, so the separation was painful. Tommy recalls crying with Justin’s mother all the way from Nashville to Memphis. They turned on the radio for a distraction, but it was just one sad country song after another, so they punched it off and drove listening to each other sniffle and the bumps of the highway.
“Yeah, I didn’t figure they’d stop (crying) ’til they got home,” Moore tells Taste of Country, smiling as he reaches back for that memory. “I bawled and squalled too.”
“I was one of the guys in my class that wanted to stay home. I didn’t want to get the heck out of dodge and go to school or whatever, but I knew I had to do it if I wanted to do this for a living,” he continues. “And … to watch them drive away, I’m sitting there in an empty apartment as an 18-year-old kid and I’m going ‘What in the world am I doing?’ I’ll never forget it, I just sat there and cried. I had no idea why.”
As it is with most people, you’ll learn more about Moore by talking to his parents and those close to him then you will through talking directly to him. Like his dad, Justin isn’t guarded. But he’s quick to deflect compliments — often in a self-deprecating way — and even quicker to hide his soft side. That’s changing, and his career is better for it. Listening to ‘Off the Beaten Path’ and songs from previous albums can be like reading his diary if you know what to listen for.
Also sitting poolside on a picture-perfect Arkansas Sunday afternoon is Pete Hartung, Justin’s manager. The New Jersey native looks to be a little younger than Tommy Moore, but both men are full of energy. Pete’s build is more athletic, like someone who runs marathons and looks good in fleece vests from Patagonia. The story he tells is that he first heard Justin’s voice at a midway-style karaoke booth and knew immediately he had to work with him. Hartung lived in Nashville, but didn’t have much music experience at that point. Before Justin he’d only worked with … actually, before discovering the then teen singer, Pete hadn’t managed anyone.
Convincing Tommy to sign off on the arrangement took work — in fact, the man Justin’s daughters call Grumpy (it’s ironic) wouldn’t even meet Pete at their home. He told him they could only meet in a public setting. Both joke about it now, exaggerating Hartung’s New Jersey accent, which has flattened significantly through the years.
“I would have never moved to Nashville if it weren’t for him,” Moore says of Hartung. To this day, the two have never put their business relationship in writing. It’s been a handshake arrangement that has stood the test of time, including three long years between the time Big Machine Label Group’s founder Scott Borchetta told Justin he’d sign him, and when he actually did.
“He’s one of those people now that I can’t imagine my life without, you know,” Moore says, as his wife and daughters finish breakfast 50 yards away. “We just have kinda done things a little different, a little unorthodox for what most of Nashville is and does. The way I run my camp is — I do what I wanna do and we do the things collectively that we wanna do and feel comfortable with, and we don’t really worry about the Nashville model, so to speak. And that’s one of them.”
It’s 7:15AM and Moore has just hugged his family goodbye before beginning an extremely busy week of media. Taste of Country was his first stop, and he’s still a little sleepy from debuting his new music the night before. From here — a fishing campground called Gaston’s in Lakeview, Ark. — he’ll go to New York City and call as many radio stations nationwide as he can. He’s hunkering down for an exciting journey, but you can tell he’ll enjoy returning home when it’s over.
Home is in Poyen now. Between daughters, Moore and his wife Kate decided to move back, leaving Nashville as a six-hour road trip (he hates to fly) they’d make often, but not call home. Together, they live on a piece of property that’s been in the family for decades. During a weekend in which Moore’s label brought several radio stations together for an album release celebration, Kate mostly hangs back. As expected, however, she has the best and most revealing stories.
Kate Moore is from Houma, La. She has strikingly dark hair and dark eyes — like a younger version of Karen Fairchild from Little Big Town. She’s thin (I’d Want It to Be Yours’ is not about this girl), maybe an inch shorter than her husband and dresses casually, but with her own unique southern flair. She’ll likely pull off shorts and cowgirl boots better than most women.
“Good grief,” Justin says when he learns that Kate may have outed him as a softie by sharing the story of how they met. It happened as everyone was around a campfire enjoying a s’mores … and more than a few adult beverages. “Keep in mind that was 12 years ago,” he assures.
It goes like this: Both were on separate senior trips when they came together on the beach. She stole his heart in a black and white floral dress. He stole hers with a song — a pop song. While neither will fess up to the exact tune, enough prodding reveals that it was by a boyband, perhaps ‘N Sync or the Backstreet Boys, as they were hot in the early 2000s.
Here’s where it gets mushy: Justin provided the details of that dress. In fact, he’s made her keep it all these years. “Sleeveless, really long dress,” he says without the front of embarrassment he put up just seconds earlier. “Satin or silk or something. She was gonna throw it out a couple of years ago and I said, ‘You gotta keep that.’ I don’t know if she’ll ever wear it again, it’s probably not in style now.”
Kate admits she won’t ever wear it again, but she clearly enjoys telling the story. The couple were married in September 2007, on the very day that Moore signed his recording contract with Big Machine Label Group. “We were married for 15 minutes, and we’d been working on trying to get it done for awhile and (Pete) goes ‘Sign this,’” Moore says, laughing. “So I didn’t even tell my wife that. I signed my record deal at my wedding.”
You can credit Kate for exposing Justin’s soft side professionally, as well. ”Til My Last Day’ was a favorite of hers and one that proved to be a big hit. She urged him to release ‘Point at You,’ another hit, and there are several other love songs to be found on ‘Off the Beaten Path.’ His favorite song from the project is ‘That’s How I Know You Love Me,’ a sexy love ballad that’s slower than anything he’s ever cut. It’s impossible not to believe he’s thinking of his wife of six years when he sings it. It’s also impossible to not believe she melts like she did 12 years ago when she hears him sing it.
So there it is, the key to his success. Moore’s best songs have a name and a title, whether it’s ‘Grandpa’ and ‘If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away’ (both about his grandfather), ‘Small Town U.S.A.’ (Poyen), ”Til My Last Day’ and ‘Point at You’ (Kate) or the follow-up to ‘Point at You,’ ‘One Dirt Road.’
“Every time I’d play it I’m going, ‘Golly, this reminds me of my grandma.’ I really don’t know why,” Moore says of that song. She and Moore were also very close before she died several years ago.
“I think some of the people I grew up listening to — Alabama, Charlie Daniels, Hank Jr. — they always cut songs about their lifestyle and what they did, their routine, what they loved etc …” he adds. “And I always thought that was really cool, you know. Cause I felt like I knew them, these people.”
On record release day, the family planned to blanket area Walmarts, picking up copies of ‘Off the Beaten Path’ at each stop. Kate says this is the first time Justin has been home on that day, so he’ll join her in her morning-of tradition of going to the store to buy about 20 copies, just to keep. Tommy hits about every other Walmart in the area to do the same thing, she says, and one guesses his extended family will also contribute significantly to his first week sales total.
When it’s over, between the end of the media blitz and the beginning of his Off the Beaten Path Tour on Nov. 1, Moore will soak up being a family man. Cooking, cleaning, painting his toenails with his daughters … these are the things he enjoys as much as bass fishing, watching University of Arkansas football and singing country music. These are the things that will build stories for his future albums.