CJ Solar grew up on rock music. It’s evident from the first drum hit of his lead single, “Tall Boy,” which feels siphoned from the flannel-clad vein of Dave Grohl or Eddie Vedder. It’s grungy and groovy, with electrics that churn and drum kicks that serve as a pacemaker for the soul.
But then Solar starts to sing, and the room changes.
Solar’s voice is decidedly un-rock. It’s not belabored by the echoes and filtering that keep angst both loud and flat, nor is it wizened by time and drug-induced visions that can’t be unseen. It doesn’t scream until it growls, it doesn’t moan until it flatlines. Solar’s is a little gravely, with a melodic, smooth, and sometimes breathy underbelly. It’s a vocal bred in Baton Rouge, and words like “I” and “like” reveal his heavy southern lilt.
“I’d have rock bands and they’d be like, ‘Dude, can you sing less country?'” Solar reflects. It’s a sunny day in Nashville, and Solar has a rare afternoon off. Last weekend he was on the road opening for The Cadillac Three; Tuesday, he sang “Tall Boy” at the Grand Ole Opry; and most weekdays, he’s typically in songwriting sessions.
“One of my first trips to Nashville, I went to the Opry, and it was Dierks [Bentley], Blake [Shelton], and Brad [Paisley,] playing,” Solar says. “I was like, ‘This is the coolest thing ever.’ That was the night where I was like, ‘I love whatever these guys are doing. I can see myself playing that kind of music.”
Solar’s voice isn’t the only thing country about his sound. Whether it was the Willie Nelson that he folded into his record collection or the summers he spent on his grandmother’s farm “riding horses, blowing shit up, and shooting at things,” a sense of backroad storytelling stuck. “Tall Boy” is about finding your strength – “order up a tall boy, cause it makes you feel tall, boy” – while other songs on his upcoming EP Hard One To Turn Down find unique ways to discuss heartbreak. “New Radio” laments a song that reminds him of her, but he can’t afford a new truck, so, “I guess I’ll settle for a new radio.” “A Little More Time,” which feels part Aerosmith and part Zac Brown Band, asks God for a little more time on Earth to make things right. “I can be a diamond, just need a little shine … Send me on back, I ain’t ready to come home,” he sings.
Solar is constantly writing and constantly touring – aside from The Cadillac Three, he’s recently opened for Tyler Farr and Old Dominion – and the EP is the best of both: a sound co-written and co-produced by Solar and fine-tuned in front of hundreds of country crowds. “I think the bulk of relating to my music is just wanting to rock out,” he says. He’s referring to the songs he clicks most with and decides to record, but the same can be true of his fans, who connect to the high energy and thoughtful songwriting of his live sets.
It’s made him fans including Jerrod Niemann, who recorded his song “Blue Bandana” and released it as a single in July of last year. “‘Blue Bandana’ has a very earthy tone like the first album,” Niemann told Billboard. “We turned it all off and really deadened the sound like they did in the classic rock and Southern rock days.”