Flatland Cavalry have come a long way, both literally and figuratively. When the band’s singer, Cleto Cordero, speaks with Rolling Stone, he and the band are in Texarkana, on the eastern border of his home state of Texas, having driven all the way from the West Texas city of Odessa — not quite the entire state’s width, but pretty damn close. The reason for the epic drive: After forming in Lubbock in 2012 and graduating from small beer joints to Texas dance halls and beyond, the group is now set to make its Grand Ole Opry debut in Nashville on Friday.
“I’m excited and eager,” Cordero says. “Our families are traveling from all over the place. My parents are making the pilgrimage out to Music City, they’re driving. They stopped in Oklahoma City to pick up my sister and rest. This means a lot to more [people] than just ourselves.”
The band has had another reason to celebrate this year. In July, the six-piece — Cordero, Reid Dillon, Wesley Hall, Jonathan Saenz, Jason Albers, and Adam Gallegos — independently released their third album, Welcome to Countryland, the follow-up to 2019’s acclaimed Homeland Insecurity. Inspired by their far-flung travels and recorded in Nashville with producer Jake Gear, the album builds on their strengths with catchy, fiddle-driven rockers like “Some Things Never Change” and “No Ace in the Hole” that will please live audiences, as well as more introspective singer-songwriter fare like “Fallen Star” and “Life Without You,” a duet with Cordero’s wife, singer Kaitlin Butts.
Cordero wrote the songs during the pandemic, often collaborating with other writers across Zoom and being pulled out of his comfort zone. But getting his thoughts down and putting them to music was also a form of therapy, a way to counteract some of the dismal news from the pandemic.
“Writing was a release. It was an outlet,” he says. “It was, ‘What can I find that’s beautiful nearby and try to tell a story?’ Waking up at 6 a.m. and going out to the garden I got to grow, thinking about ideas and trying to mine them.”
Cordero maintains that spirit of optimism as he looks ahead to a busy fall and winter touring season with the band. Things are far from perfect, he knows, but Flatland Cavalry are promising to make days a little brighter wherever they go.
“I hope for the best for our country as a whole, and how we treat each other,” he says. “Now is more of a time than ever — if we are traveling and spending our lives away from home — to try to encourage and inspire and love people. There’s a lot of stuff plaguing the country with trying to divide people. If you meditate on it too much, it can really weigh you down.”
We chatted around this same time last year, and the band was playing a few Texas shows in the middle of the chaos. How did the rest of your year shape up?
Everything seemed like it was in a different place last year. Even the climate of everything was a little more uncertain. I know it’s still weird and there’s still talking heads on TV, but I remember it feeling like the ball was still up in the air: “What the heck’s going on?” We didn’t play much. We just played what we could. And now, things have opened up. We only have Thanksgiving and Christmas off. Every weekend’s booked. Last year was the exact opposite, so it’s kind of playing catch-up. Places are opening up again, and as far as, “What does this mean?” and “What’s happening?” at least my perception of it is that people are less afraid.
Let’s talk about the Grand Ole Opry. It’s your debut on that stage. What’s going through your head?
I’m excited. I’m not nervous. I mean this in the best way: I can’t believe we’re getting to play it, because it’s not a phone call I made or anything. It was offered to us, it was an invitation. Anytime someone invites you to something, you feel a little bit of “Aw shucks.” You feel enamored and grateful. I have a little of that flowing through me. I feel grateful for the opportunity. There’s a sense of pride — the good kind — of all the stuff we’ve been toiling and working towards over the last seven years — the ups and downs, being busted, broken down on the side of the road. It’s all led us to the home of country music.
What does the Opry represent to you?
There’s a bit of grandeur and reverence of what it represents. I listened to the radio growing up; there was no Spotify or iTunes. That’s how I digested whatever was out there. I was born in ‘92, so I got to experience Brooks & Dunn and Clint Black, George Strait, Alan Jackson, and into the 2000s with Kenny Chesney and Dierks Bentley and Zac Brown Band. It was great songs being played on the radio. That’s what struck my love for songs to begin with. It feels like the radio waves were broadcast out from Music City and all over the place. They hit us, and here we are returning to the source: “Hey, this is where it was made.” You’re returning with a piece of your own story, to be like, “It inspired me to write songs. It inspired me to travel around and play for people.”
You also recorded Flatland Cavalry’s album Welcome to Countryland in Nashville rather than Texas. What was behind that decision?
We’ve always followed the music to where it’s led us. it led us to an opportunity to open for Luke Combs in Texas and through that experience we befriended [Combs’ manager] Kappy. When that opportunity presented itself, there were fears on my end. There’s always been this duality, like Texas and Tennessee, us versus them. I don’t care for that. I care for writing good songs and making the next record better than the one before. Whenever we went to record, [for] the first 15 minutes we were timid. We were crapping our pants. Finally, [engineer] Logan Matheny made a joke to Jason about his rack tom, but he pronounced it “rectum” and we were like, “What is he saying?” We started laughing and realized, man, we’re putting too much emphasis on this. We just had fun. We cut 15 songs in three days, and the guys worked really hard, everyone was focused. It was like, we started in a garage but here we are in Nashville at the Sound Emporium and here’s Willie Nelson’s record, there’s Kacey Musgraves’ record on the wall.
I wanted to ask about the song “Country Is…” You sing the line “Country is what country means to you,” which is a really nice, conciliatory statement about how we all have our own ideas about this subject. Where did that come from?
It stemmed from traveling around the country and literally seeing it change. I grew up in west Texas and that’s where [my] imagination comes from — whenever your landscape and your setting is bleak, kids have imaginary animals and stuff. For me, growing up spending 20 years of my life in a place that was flat and dry and dusty and without water, whenever I got to see all these things with my own eyes in my early twenties: mountains, rivers, desert with saguaro cactus, then going to New York City, seeing the Southeast and seeing Florida. The word “country” jumped out at me. I meet a lot of people who go, “We really don’t like country music, but we like your band.” I’m thinking, you can’t really put your thumb on what is country, but when people try to, it comes off the wrong way. It’s like, “That’s just honky tonkin’!” and all this stuff, but that’s just one little spin on it. Everywhere you go, the landscape changes, which influences the sounds people feel, the emotions. We travel through the country and we play music. To me, that’s country music. I come from Hispanic heritage, and not to make it about race, but I’ve had people tell me, “You don’t look like what you sound like,” or something. If you go out see it for yourself, you realize, we’re the same creature, we just come from different places.
Were you writing and figuring this album out in the middle of everything last year? What complications did that add to your process?
I was tempted to be worried and stressed about, how are we gonna stay afloat? How are we gonna do this? But I knew it was outside of my hands and the only thing I had control of was, like Rudy the football player, I’ve got a lot of spirit. If this is the last record we’re gonna get to make, we’re gonna give them something beautiful. I’ve met so many people that have lost people from this thing, and that’s not to be taken lightly. One of the great things about community and art and music is there’s a healing element that does more than speaking or listening. [Our manager] set me up with three writes a week. I was writing a lot and I was thinking, “Oh crap, I’ve never co-written this much. I don’t know any of these people. And it’s over Zoom!” There were so many things that were tempting to distract me.
When things are out of your hand, the only thing you can do is what you can control. That’s what you do, your actions. My actions were, “I’m not gonna sit here and twiddle my thumbs. Let’s create a record and let’s give people something beautiful.” It’s been a year since I talked to you and things are changing — there’s a record out in the world, we’re getting to play the Opry. But I still feel the same way. I want to make another one and give it to people. If that’s what my work is here, that’s what I choose to do with my time.