Sitting across from country singer/songwriter Niko Moon, the words "GOOD TIME" are inescapable, peeking through the threads above his knees. "Good Time" is a track on his forthcoming genre-testing debut EP, a moment he wanted to benchmark with tattoos: "GOOD" on his right leg, "TIME" on his left.
"I always wear holy jeans," Moon explains, "and I’m starting to run out of real estate."
"GOOD TIME" deserved permanent ink, since the phrase is more than just an album title. It’s also a way of life for Moon, an adventurous artist, writer and musician with an enduring optimism and a flair for challenging boundaries. That attitude is apparent in the EP, a judiciously layered synthesis of his Georgia roots, pairing Atlanta-bred hip-hop and rural-fed traditional country, two genres that were considered incompatible not that long ago. The EP will be released later this year, but for a sneak preview, "Good Time" and "Drunk Over You" are available now.
Moon’s relationship to both makes the cross-pollination a natural one. Douglasville, Georgia, where he spent his teens, is 30 miles due west of downtown Hotlanta, the epicenter for OutKast, T.I. and The Ying-Yang Twins. Douglasville is likewise 30 miles north of Newnan, the home of holy-jeans wearing country singer Alan Jackson and the birthplace of "Seven Bridges Road" songwriter Steve Young. Adding to Moon’s musical upbringing, his father was a part-time musician with a penchant for smart country artists – such as John Prine and Kris Kristofferson – and all those influences blended into Moon’s artful persona: a mix of hooky melodies, shrewd wordplay and edgy, electronic beats.
"If my life was to have a sound, this is it," Moon says of the summery architecture in Good Time. "The way I think of it is bass and drums is Atlanta, and everything above it is Douglasville."
The mash-up works nicely. The sing-along title track melds an ascendant hook with rural fishing imagery, easy-going acoustic guitar, ominous 808 bass and synthetic, clicking percussion. "Last Call" drapes burning Dobro over a bouncy pop riff. "Way Back" positions a dirt-road banjo and syncopated, programmed kick drum around a male-bonding storyline.
Sam Hunt, Jason Aldean and Kane Brown are among the artists who’ve fused country and hip-hop over the last decade, though it’s rarely been accomplished so slyly and seamlessly as Moon does it in Good Time.
"There's millions of people that are just like me, who are country people but want their country music to hit," Moon muses. "My goal in high school was to blow up my S10 speakers in my little truck, and it was hard to do that with country music at the time.
"I'm a country artist 100%, and I'm going to be a country artist. I just love to feel that hit in the chest, and that's what I love about the Atlanta thing."
Moon’s journey began in Tyler, Texas, where he was born the son of a truck driver and a waitress at a Chinese restaurant. His father gave up an opportunity to tour as a drummer when he found out Niko was on the way, but music remained a significant part of the family’s personality.
"Both of my parents are songwriters," he says. "They're not professional, but they love to do it. Some of my first memories in life were crawling into the living room and watching them write a song together on guitar, sitting Indian-style on the floor."
When Niko was 10, his mom picked up a job with a temporary staffing company in Douglasville, and it was in the new location that Niko took up music on his own. When Dad was away, Niko routinely snuck a guitar out of the closet and learned to play left-handed on the standard, right-handed instrument.
He immediately started writing songs, unwittingly establishing his future path. His first experience as a band member came playing rudimentary bass for a local punk group. And when his prowess in cross country brought a full-ride athletic scholarship at Samford University in Alabama, he used the opportunity to focus his studies on music, a pursuit he felt gave him the best chance to make a difference.
"When I first saw live music, I felt that crazy, enigmatic feeling like I was connected to something bigger," he says. "I don't even know if you can put a name on what that is. I just felt connected to something."
But not necessarily Samford. He skipped classes routinely to write songs, drove back frequently to Douglasville and left school after a year. He needed money, so he jumped into construction work, a whole series of jobs that concluded with Moon successfully running his own real estate appraisal company. But the music bug continued to bite, and he started playing in bars. When an Atlanta booking agent offered him $200 a night, and allowed him to mix his original music in with covers songs, it was a no-brainer. Moon took the gig – loved it – and fortuitously bumped into another Atlanta musician, Zac Brown, who hadn’t yet taken his band to the national level.
The two began co-writing, and Moon became a regular collaborator, credited on five #1 Zac Brown Band hits: "Loving You Easy," "Homegrown," "Beautiful Drug" and "Keep Me In Mind" – plus "Heavy Is The Head," which topped the rock charts with Chris Cornell singing lead.
Brown, of course, was a perfect foil. His version of country is a hybrid form that blends pop, soul and Southern rock, and it suited Moon, who became a fulltime songwriter for years. When Brown formed Sir Rosevelt with Niko and Ben Simonetti, it pushed Moon’s experimental tendencies even further, melding country, pop and EDM.
That project coincided with a move to Nashville, where Moon’s creative sphere widened further. His wife, Anna Moon, snagged a pop deal with Monument, and Niko expanded his co-writing work, landing a Rascal Flatts single, "Back To Life," and supporting reggae/hip-hop artist Michael Franti as a co-writer and producer.
During the work on Franti’s Stay Human, Vol. II, Moon’s personal journey reached a tipping point, inspiring him to make his own artistic statement. He enlisted Anna and a longtime friend, guitarist/producer Josh Murty (Luis Fonsi, Brandon Heath), to co-write what became Good Time. The goal – true to the project’s title and to Moon’s development – was simply to be a positive force in the world.
"The only thing I'm really concerned with is: Does it make people feel good? Does it make them feel happy?" he says. "If the songs do that, then I did my job."
With the title track setting the pace, "Drunk Over You" weaves a languid Dobro and gang vocals over a trippy bass-and-drums format. "Paradise To Me" inserts rich piano bass notes in the country/hip-hop circuitry, while Moon transports the trendy beach party to a backwoods lake, where the bulk of country fans are most likely to gather.
The songs sound big, but there are surprisingly few instruments involved. That, Moon says, is "super-intentional."
"I'm a pretty minimal person," he says. "I don't like clutter, and I don't like to inundate people with too many sounds at one time. Especially in country music, the story is so important."
Some of country’s prominent movers and shakers bought into Moon’s artistic story right away. Already signed to Warner/Chappell, he landed a booking deal with the Creative Artists Agency, and secured Luke Combs’ partners, Lynn Oliver-Cline and Chris Kappy, as his managers. Sony Music Nashville – his first choice for a label – signed Moon within a week of an audition in chairman/CEO Randy Goodman’s office.
"With Maren Morris and Kane Brown, they’re doing so well with the progressive country artists," Moon says. "That's definitely the lane that I'm more in, pushing the envelope."
Thus, some of Nashville’s strongest business players are on board with an artful singer/songwriter breaking down barriers between two musical worlds that once seemed so separate. Moon’s Good Time is a reflection of country’s new order in the 21st century, a culture of fluid genres and wider tastes.
"We were listening to country and hip-hop all at the same time and we were constantly flipping back and forth," Moon says of his own good-timin’ musical heritage. "I really wanted to figure out how to mix those two worlds together in a way that felt really authentic and genuine to who I am. And to everyone else who grew up the same way."