Along the fringes of the country format, there are those genre-blending artists who draw in listeners of all demographics — not just country fans — and one of them is Flatland Cavalry. “I’ve heard from several people who say, ‘Man, I don’t like country music, but I like your band,’” frontman Cleo Cordero tells Country Now.
It’s a pretty commonly-heard sentiment. Listeners have said the same of Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, Eric Church and many more artists who inhabit multiple different kinds of musical spaces. But Church has always had one foot planted squarely in the rock genre. Stapleton’s connection to soul is so strong that his breakout radio single was a redux of country standard “Tennessee Whiskey” braided with soul queen Etta James’ “I Would Rather Go Blind.” And as for Musgraves? Her music has always artfully borrowed from pop, more so than ever in the two songs she’s put out thus far from her forthcoming star-crossed record.
But Flatland Cavalry, an Americana-leaning act who came of age as a band in Lubbock, Texas, are more pure country than they are country mixed with anything else. Cordero hypothesizes that what people mean when they say they like his band’s music — even though they might not listen to other country artists’ music — is that they like the retro authenticity of the sound: The fiddle and pedal steel, the unvarnished production.
The group doesn’t claim any hyphenates: They’re a country band, full stop, so much so that they named their newest album Welcome to Countryland. The album’s 14-song track list is structured as a kind of photo album or traveller’s diary, filled with snapshots of what country music is and can mean.
“To me, each song felt like a different place that you visit,” Cordero explains. “It’s like sending postcards back home to my family.” Doubling down on that concept, the cover art of Welcome to Countryland is styled like a vintage postcard.
Those snippets of life from Countryland, Cordero goes on to say, range in theme, tempo and mood. There’s “A Cowboy Knows How,” a hard-driving, grizzled breakup anthem that was co-written by Luke Combs andis already starting to prove itself as a live fan favorite; then there’s the tender “Fallen Star,” an abstract ballad that’s one of several songs on Countryland Cordero wrote by himself.
Of the solo writes he did for this album, Cordero says the process was simply different — and for some tracks, more fitting — than co-writing sessions. “Getting to write by yourself is…I think you’re always gonna have your unique voice, and there’s no other input coming in. A song like ‘Fallen Star,’ there’s no one to shoot you down and say, ‘Hey, this is, like, a poem. It’s strange. It doesn’t go anywhere,’” he notes.
“For me, it didn’t have to go anywhere. I know that there’s a melody in there, and it’s gonna be an abstract song, but I think that’s what it wants to be,” he continues. “It’s always so fun getting to write with other people. It’s more efficient, honestly. You can knock songs out faster. And then songs like ‘Fallen Star’ are just kinda little snapshots into your mind.”
Having those different kinds of songwriting experiences expanded Cordero’s concept of what a Flatland Cavalry song — and a country song — could be, and the pandemic-imposed bubble in which the band made their record forced them even more to trust their inner voices and expand their boundaries with experimentation and internal reflection.
“Like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna kill my [inner] critic for two hours, three hours. I’m just gonna really throw everything at this and see what it wants to be,’” Cordero adds. “I love that process.”
Countryland is bookended by two songs that speak to the album’s conceptual musings about what country is and might be. The album opener, “Country Is…”, lays out its mission statement, and cautions against being too quick to slap a label on the term, warning, “Don’t rely on first impressions / Country is what country means to you.” Then, at the end of the tracklist, and followed by another set of ellipses, is “…Meantime,” a duet with Hailey Whitters.
Cordero credits the group’s producer, Jake Gear, with coming up with the idea to use those two songs to frame their Countryland project. “There was a thread there, between [those two] songs,” he explains. “We’re gonna keep expanding on what country music means to us — that was his idea.
“…[We wanted to] start the record off with what country is to us. And then take [listeners] on a ride through all the songs that are so different,” Cordero clarifies,” “[And end with] ‘Meantime,’ because it’s like, ‘In the meantime, you guys enjoy this record. We’re gonna keep expanding on what we think country music is and make another record about that.’”
What that next project might entail, it’s too soon to say, though Cordero is already hard at work in co-writing sessions. What it won’t be, though, is a clone of Countryland. This album plays like a travel diary, with each song a snapshot of a moment that would lose its authenticity if the band attempted to recreate it. No matter what they do next, Cordero says, Flatland Cavalry’s music lives and dies by its real, rootsy, spontaneous authenticity.
“I don’t know what the next record’s gonna sound like, but I think it’s gonna be our version of country music,” notes Cordero. “Which could be completely different.”