Ryan Culwell grew up in the Texas panhandle, a windswept place filled with oil fields and open plains. It was there, surrounded by flatlands stretched to the horizon, that he began writing his own songs, looking to better understand the spirit and sparseness of his home by setting it to a soundtrack of acoustic Americana and dusky folk music.
It took a move to Nashville during the early 2010s, though, to give Culwell the sort of objectivity he needed to really define his birthplace. On next month’s Flatlands, he sings about dust storms, long workdays and cold weather, driving each song home with a voice that’s simultaneously warm and worn — the embodiment of a dogeared land whose residents sport resilience and battle scars in equal doses. (Stream the record below, one week before its March 3rd release.)
“I couldn’t make this kind of music in Texas,” he says. “Years ago, I was playing my songs in a bar there, and some kid walked up to me in the first cowboy hat he ever owned and said, ‘Play some Texas country!’ And I said, ‘What the hell do you think I’m doing?’ I grew up 100 feet from a wheat field, so I’d always thought of myself as, ‘Here I am in this Texas country scene, playing my songs.’ That day, though, I looked at my wife and said, ‘Maybe we can’t do this here.'”
Recorded in Nashville with producer Neilson Hubbard, Flatlands sounds like the score to some long-lost Cormac McCarthy film, its tracklist split between roadhouse-worthy roots rockers, front porch county songs and haunting, blue collar ballads about life and loneliness in the Lone Star State. There’s beauty there, but something sinister, too. On “Red River,” Culwell sings about nearly 150 years of loss, tracing a line from the Second Battle of Adobe Walls — where 28 hunters defeated 700 Native Americans in 1874 — to his present-day aunt, whose husband works 12-hour days for chump change. The slow-simmering song boils over during the final chorus, where Culwell leaps into a higher octave with all the fury of a traveler who’s seen enough dust devils and wind pumps to last him a lifetime. It’s those kinds of startling moments — the places where the bare-boned gives way to the bombastic — that makes Flatlands sound like the Bible Belt cousin to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.
A 900-mile stretch of highway sits between Culwell’s new home in Nashville and his birthplace in Perryton, Texas. Although he says he needed that distance to help sharpen his songwriting, he hasn’t stopped missing the place he came from. That’s an important thing to remember about Culwell; the guy loves his roots. Flatlands may not paint the rosiest picture of the Texas panhandle, but it isn’t a kiss-off. Instead, the record serves as both celebration and critique, examining the area’s duality by praising and lamenting the roughhewn lives it creates.
“Out there, you have to survive on your own because you don’t want to burden your neighbor,” he says. “They are a very really resilient people, and that individualism worked its way deep into me. When I moved to Nashville, I realized how private I am, and that my view of community is really community with isolation. There’s all that space — that void — where I come from, and you exist as one little dot on a big, giant horizon. Everything is individual out there, because you can see everything silhouetted against the horizon. There’s something I really respect about people being able to survive as individuals, but one of those things I’m trying to do is work some of that toughness out. It doesn’t serve me well in all occasions. On the other hand, I’d like to expose people to it. This record goes from praising that sentiment to throwing it under the bus.”