“There's still a little America left in America...”
Ten years ago, when Logan Mize was busy being a Music Row staff songwriter, he'd occasionally feel homesick for Kansas, where he grew up. So he invented a way to get back there without leaving Nashville.
“My friend Blake Chaffin and I came up with this imaginary town called Prairieville,” Mize says. “Blake is from Kansas, like me, and we have this certain way of speaking, with similar quirks in the way that we say things. So over the years, we wrote about fifty songs together about this town.”
They based the characters on people they'd grown up around and used stories they'd heard as inspirations for their sharply-observed portraits of heartland life. “Whenever we'd get together, we'd be like, 'What's happening in Prairieville this week?',” Mize says with a smile. “It was almost like our Lake Wobegon. It inspired us. Gradually, it morphed from writing about a town into a certain style of writing that we found to be completely our own, to where we could really tell that our songs had a certain stamp on them. We took the best of those songs and that's this project.”
Welcome to Prairieville, Mize's fifth album, may be based on a fictional place, but it's also his most deeply personal work to date. And while the project was first conceived in Nashville, he's now closer to a real life version of Prairieville, as he and his family recently moved back to Kansas, to his wife's family farm in Andale.
“This project probably never would've come out if I'd stayed in Nashville,” he says. “I think that moving back to Kansas gave me perspective. Once I got out here, and I'm actually immersed in this lifestyle, I found it much easier to be myself, to be the heartland rock dude who's singing these songs, rather than a Music Row writer. I think I was always worried that it seemed fake what I was doing. I farm up here. The whole thing's more believable. You listen to it, and I'm living that lifestyle. I think that's an easier sell for people, and it's easier for me to sell it because it's real.”
The album is real in the deepest sense of the word, articulating Mize's native territory with eleven songs full of rural color, one-take energy and a heart as big and wide as a wheat field in summer. Lead single “George Strait Songs” and “River Road” are three-chord magic tricks that drop you right into the midwest with its “fields of gold, rusty Chevys and old Coke signs” and rousing choruses. The sly, winking rocker “Wine at the Church, Beer at the Bar” uses its clever title and nature imagery (“Barnyard cats, junkyard dogs, it's a jungle out there, don't get lost”) to hint at the darkness on the edge of all those idyllic small towns. And indeed, songs like “I Need Mike,” “We Ain't Broke” and the coolly observed “Welcome to Prairieville” (“Benny's brother Joe sells firewood when he ain't passed out on the hood”) take honest, candid looks at the occasional desperation that goes hand in hand with the glowing nostalgia of the American midwest.
“I didn't want to make it all Norman Rockwell-ish,” Mize says. “I wanted it to be real, an accurate representation of where I'm from. There are so many characters out here that you meet, and everyone's pretty stoic and quiet. But if you pay attention long enough, there's always a story that you'll pick up on. And those stories can be across the spectrum, from light to dark.”
Logan Mize's own story began an hour from where he lives now, in Clearwater, KS. There, his family has been running Mize's Thriftway, a local grocery, for over fifty years. From a young age, Logan worked unloading trucks and carrying groceries. But there was also music in the family – his great uncle Billy Mize was an architect of the '60s Bakersfield Sound – and in the air, leading Logan in a different direction. And it wasn't always country music.
“As a kid, I was obsessed with Elton John,” he says. “We listened to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road non-stop in the tape deck of my dad's Jeep. Every day on the way to school, it was that or Madman Across the Water. That's where my love of piano came from. I started taking lessons, and then I got into Clannad and Enya and Celtic stuff. So at nine years old, I was learning Enya piano ballads. To this day, I love those. Then when I found out about country music in the '90s, I thought, 'Wow, this really sounds like my surroundings.' But the pop rock stuff from the '70s and '80s like John Mellencamp and Tom Petty was just as big, if not a bigger influence on me. That's what I wanted to do.”
After two “distracted” years in college (“Songwriting was more interesting than my studies”), he dropped out and moved to Nashville, which he says loomed as a “kind of a mystical place.” The Ryman Auditorium, the Grand Ole Opry, Music Row - it all felt a bit intimidating. So Mize was surprised when he landed a publishing deal in short order. “I didn't even know what a publishing company was,” he says with a laugh. “A song plugger heard me at an open mike, invited me to play a song for Brett Jones, a songwriter who ran Wyoming Sky Music, and I had a deal by the end of the day.” While Jones championed Logan and helped shape his songwriting skills, the deal fell apart after a year. “I naively thought everything was going to be smooth sailing,” he says. “But then I found it impossible to get another publishing deal. That's when I really started to feel like, 'Okay, I need to buckle down and get serious about this.'”
While he dug in on his craft and put his own band together, he worked a slew of jobs to support himself - from driving a dump truck to building to forklift palettes to being a bouncer at Coyote Ugly. In 2009, he landed a deal with publisher Big Yellow Dog, and released his first, self-titled album. Over the next decade and three more albums, he scored hit singles with “Ain't Always Pretty” and “Better Off Gone” (which was recently certified Gold by the RIAA), logged over 350 million streams on different platforms, and toured constantly, sharing stages with Eric Church, Dierks Bentley and Lee Ann Womack.
Welcome to Prairieville was recorded in Nashville with producer Daniel Agee. Mize says their influences for the album's sonic palette might come as a surprise. “Daniel's a big Mutt Lange Fan, and I love Jeff Lynne. We were like, 'Let's get those two worlds and mix them together!' That was kind of the goal. Daniel has really great ears. He understands every angle of the business too. He was on the road playing as a musician for years. He can speak very technical language. He can play anything you want him to. We recorded at Shannon Forrest's studio, all to tape. From there, we went to Daniel's house and did minimal overdubs.”
The resulting sound has a wide-screen shimmer, abundant with warmth, feel and hooks. It also seems tailor-made for sky-punching singalongs in sheds and stadiums. But for now, the touring world is still only inching forward through these uncertain times. While Mize has been venturing out, playing some smaller gigs and open-air festivals, he says simply, “I hope we can just get back to doing our jobs and having fun.”
As he looks forward to the album's release, he reflects on what he hopes listeners will take away. “I always try to think, 'What is the goal here?'” he says. “But really, I just love these song