by: Thomas D. Mooney
“If you grow up in West Texas, there are a lot of ways to be lonely.”–Roy Orbison
If you go four years back in blog posts on Ryan Culwell’s site, you’ll find a series of posts about how he’s going to stop writing new songs and rather, finish old ones that he’s been working on for years. Again and again, he begins another song.
He writes that he’ll hopefully finish those songs, demo them out, and then proceed to record them so he can continually deliver some music to the masses. Four years ago.
“I set boundaries, and then I break them,” he writes. “TURNS OUT that when I quit writing a melody to every line that comes to mind and I let the kettle brew, something happens…I steep.”
There’s something unquantifiable about time ticking away. Sure, we can add up all the days, hours, months, and years, but what they are, are only cold numbers that represent people’s lives. When Culwell steeped, he found out who he was as a songwriter. He found out what exactly it was–for him–to be from the Flatlands of the Panhandle.
Simply put, Culwell’s Flatlands captures the essence of the Panhandle better than anything has in the past decade (and beyond for that matter). He scrapes away at the day-to-day, the cultural norms of the Panhandle, and the rough rural landscape to reveal the rugged, yet strong people who are scattered on the plains. He shows their courage under fire. Being a Perryton, Texas native, Culwell knows exactly what it feels like to live on the edge of the world.
Still, it’s never a love letter–nor is it a poisoned pen of loathing. It’s a genuine description and recollection.
As I’ve written before, here’s undoubtedly a vein of honesty that careens back and forth throughout the 12-track masterpiece that paints the Flatlands exactly what they are to most. He captures the highs, lows, and the in-betweens without harping or celebrating either too much. The southern gothic elements read like Cormac McCarthy or William Faulkner characters brought to life.
The Panhandle can be harsh. It can be brutal, hardening, and desolate. It can break down an individual. Still, it’s a beautiful place filled with a resilient people who are, for the most part, a hard-working bunch. They’re in many ways, still the backbone of American culture. Culwell’s ability to capture these individuals in Flatlands is as authentic as it is incredible.
I caught up with Culwell a few weeks back to talk about Flatlands, songwriting, and the full story on why he moved away. He’ll be playing The Blue Light tonight (Friday, March 13). He’ll be opening up for Hayden Huse.
Watch/Listen to the official music video for “Red River” below.
New Slang: The first song I heard from Flatlands was “Red River.” I think that was really a proper way to be introduced to the music that was going to be on this album. It really captures what West Texas and the Panhandle can be–and really, what rural America is for that matter. For that song, how long did it take you to write it?
Ryan Culwell: About 15 minutes.
RC: Yeah. I’m not going to act I write songs in 15 minutes or anything, but with that one, that was it. I sat down and was playing through it. I was kind of singing it. It wasn’t those words. It was about half of them. But I was playing it through and it wasn’t intelligible. I wasn’t trying to specifically sing about that yet. I was just trying to find it and let it do whatever it wanted to do. The melody and first verse just popped out. The chorus wasn’t even real words. Then when I was singing it through again, the chorus started to take shape. This was probably three different sessions, three different days in a row. I actually recorded all three of those versions–not that I’ll ever let anybody hear them [laughs]. Sometimes you can sense when something is happening and I wanted to show my friend Seth Wieck–that’s who you really should be interviewing. He’s writing short stories and novels that are ten times better than anything I’m writing. But I wanted to kind of show that writing process so I recorded all three.
So many guys are like, what’s the inspiration? So many guys want to sit down and say, “Let’s write a song about this.” I’m not really like that. I just started singing and letting it go. By the third time, the bridge started to take shape. I knew that’s why it was working. That’s why I was singing and working on it on different days. It’s not too directly attached. I’m singing about my aunt and uncle–supposedly–on part of it and Indians on another.
NS: Yeah. This album, it’s getting a lot of Nebraska Springsteen comparisons. I can definitely hear that, but I guess being from West Texas, I hear a lot of Butch Hancock, The Flatlanders, Terry Allen–I hear a bunch of that in these songs. Especially Hancock. Growing up here in the Panhandle, how familiar were you with these guys?
RC: You know, I grew up four hours north of Lubbock. So there’s really not really any talking about music at all. Everybody wants to talk about wheat fields and oil. I remember my dad talk about Joe Ely several times growing up but I never heard him play Joe Ely. It was like this mysterious guy. I grew up on, I don’t know, MTV [laughs]. I got into the blues around 10 or 12. At some point, I developed a catalog of really rare and strange blues things. Then they got ripped off so I don’t even know what I had. Maybe that’s better since I didn’t over saturate myself with it. I didn’t have a chance to screw that up. I let it get in me and then somebody stole it. I really got into John Lee Hooker. You hear these guys singing those songs–and any songwriter sounds like those guys to a degree–but then you look out your own window and if you’re honest about it, you’re probably going to sound a whole lot like those guys because that’s what they saw and what they felt. My in-laws lived in Levelland for a minute so when you’re driving over there, you can’t help but have that same feeling.
NS: Yeah. Are you familiar with Hancock’s first album? It’s a long album title. It’s West Texas Waltzes And Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes.
RC: Man, I’m probably not nearly as familiar as I should be or as a lot of people are.
NS: Yeah. Well it’s actually not that known. Like basically none of those songs were ever really done by The Flatlanders later on or Ely or anyone. All except “West Texas Waltz.” But I guess what I’m getting at is how he wrote the majority–if not all–of these songs while working on farmland. He was driving tractors. He’s writing about things that are surrounding him. It’s Woody Guthrie and early Dylanesque. And there’s that sense to this album by you as well. It’s about things that are close to the bone. There’s nothing really glamorous. Do you ever find it a struggle to write about things that can be perceived as depressing or desolate? Or things that are really just day-to-day?
RC: No, not really. I think I used to try and write these really deep songs. I’d try and make things big. You’d think you’re writing this big anthem and find out you were writing about nothing. It sounds like a big anthem, but you’re not writing about anything “anthemy.” For me, the smaller I make the world surrounding me and the world I’m writing about, the more vulnerable it is. People tend to relate.
You listen to those Springsteen songs–and not just Nebraska, but all of them–he’s writing about these very American things. But they’re very specific things. Then you’ve got thirty-thousand people singing along for three hours. Why does him being very specific about the struggle of this very specific place in America relate to people all over? It’s mainly because no one is going through anything different from you are. For me, it may be wind. For them it may be something entirely different. You attach these feelings to something specific in your life and people are going to relate. If you’re writing on something that has nothing to attach to, then who cares? It’s like one of the things Charlie [Shafter] tweeted, “Songs are mystical things and are inherently esoteric if they’re good.” I think there’s something to that.
People start finding all these objects in my songs and I’ve seen people misunderstand what those things meant. Just things being written about the album. Well that’s not at all what that means, but you totally got the sentiment right. It made you feel what I meant. That make sense?
NS: Yeah. That’s probably the most difficult thing as an artist of any kind. You’re wanting people to understand what you’re trying say whether it’s a song, a painting, a sculpture–whatever it is. I guess there’s always going to be something lost in translation between the artist and the viewer/listener.
RC: Sure. But there’s going to also be some things found. That’s the thing you lose when you start writing these bigger things. You think you’re honing in on it. The thing is, you can get to where you’re sounding really deep on these things, but it’s very simple. Just open your mouth and write about what you know.
NS: Yeah, I get exactly what you mean. I think sometimes we all focus too much on why these details are important to you, the writer. Why those objects are important to you and we, the listener, has to understand exactly what you’re feeling and why they’re important when a lot of the time, the more important thing is how the listener relates to the song.
RC: Yeah. It’s like when people are asking me about the characters in “Red River” and if those are real people. It’s not a question I’m willing to answer–because it’s irrelevant. Everybody has this “uncle.” Everybody has seen people pushed apart. Everybody is looking for rest. People are asking if these are true. Of course, they’re true, but it’s irrelevant. We all lay down at night thinking about wishing we had some rest. It’s kind of strange because it’s all going to be taken out of context. Then people want you to define it even further. Well, by that time, you’re going to take all the fun out of it [laughs]. You want to take all the mystery out?
NS: Well, I can’t speak for the interviewing techniques of other journalists [laughs]. Anyways, I was listening to the album the past few days, but it wasn’t really until this morning that this specific song, “War,” really popped out at me. With all the alliteration, my first thought was maybe that the song was a little difficult to write, but probably really easy to sing since you know certain verse are all R sounds or whatever. So was it?
RC: No, not really. It was easy. It’s really just, how many words do I know that start with R? The interesting thing with me was when I wrote it, I was just “eh.” Then I went back later and thought, “Oh crap. I think I actually said something.” I didn’t think I was actually saying anything. I thought I was just practicing alliteration. I didn’t know how durable it would be. It hung around and I cut it. It wasn’t hard to write because it was just fun.
NS: Yeah. I can see that. I’ve always heard that the alliteration thing is a songwriting exercise–whatever that is I guess.
RC: Yeah. I kind of thought about how people don’t really do it that much and thought it’d be a little fun. I was listening to some hip-hop records to be honest. I used to rap on tables at parties. The hard thing was that I used to play a whole lot faster and trying to squeeze all the words in would get a little difficult. There were songs on there that were a lot harder to write. There are songs on there that took years to write since they were so close to me.
NS: Yeah. How long of a period do these songs cover? What’s the oldest?
RC: “Amarillo” probably. Most of those songs took moving away. But “Amarillo” was kind of in the throes of things. What am I doing tonight? I’m going to The Golden Light and I’m going to have to fight. It’s going to be a fist fight the entire time I’m up there. So I wrote that years ago. I mean, I don’t know if I finished it years ago, but most of it was written years ago. And “Never Gonna Cry,” I wrote the chorus to that around the same time five or six years ago. Then finished it probably six months before recording. I’ve got songs like that now. They may take five or six years to write.
I think people view it as “I’m going to sit down and finish this song.” Well, I’ve not finished living it yet, so I can’t write it. You’ve got to be patient. Others will just pop in. It’s like when I said, I wrote that one in 15 minutes. The other one took 15 years. There’s some things I know I’ll finish some day that I started a decade ago.
NS: Yeah. I understand that. Some people do the “I’m sitting down and writing every day” approach. They try and write a song a day. And others, it takes inspiration to do it. It can be a lot harder and a lot more chaotic and random to write something. So you mentioned that it took you moving away to really write this album.
RC: Oh yeah. I guess this seems to be a vital issue, isn’t it? Or so it seems.
NS: Well did it take moving away to make certain things, elements, and experiences pop out? Did that make them more vivid?
RC: Yeah. But I’ll tell you what it didn’t make me do. It didn’t make me love or hate the place any more. I knew I loved it then. If I were a construction worker, I never would have moved. But on the other hand, I’ve never been claustrophobic in my life. Then we moved into these hills and I hear every night somebody say, “Look at the beautiful sunset.” And I’m just like, “That’s not a sunset. I want to go home.”
It’s not the sentiment you didn’t know what you had until you left it. I knew what I had. And now I have to hurt every time the sun hides another hill. Obviously songs like “Won’t Come Home,” you’re not going to write until you experience that. You don’t have to necessarily move away though. You can experience that with relationships. The song is probably more about people than places. It’s not like I think anybody needs to move away from there. I just know I needed to.
You know, I tell this story about some kid yelling at me to play Texas Country. The next guy, that might not bother. Well good, man. Enjoy. I wish I could have. But it just didn’t line up with my life. The part of that story that nobody printed was the middle. I’m standing there on stage and a bachelorette party walks on stage with dildo hats. They try and get me to sing into it and I’m just looking for security. You got to give me a break here. This is not what I do. If others want to, get them in there. Let them play all night long. I don’t care. But it’s not what I do.
My wife is sitting next to the stage. All this happened in one night. Bachelorette party on stage. Kid yelling at me to play some Texas Country. We just finished covering a cover of a cover. We played Stoney LaRue covering Red Dirt Rangers. We were covering a cover just to potentially make those guys happy enough to shut up and listen to the next song. And it just never was enough. I was playing a Mavericks tune later. Not necessarily Texas Country, but what’s more Texas Country than those guys? I don’t know what to give them. Then some girl was trying to seduce me and some half circle formed around here. The whole club basically stopped to watch this girl basically keep her close on. I’m looking at my beautiful wife and she’s looking at me. I drug her into the bar. She’s never been in a shitty Texas bar. There she is watching me while this girl is basically inviting me home. Then that girl falls downs. Her dress flies over her head–she passes out drunk. Everybody is saying, “Yeah!” She’s lying there with her summer dress covering up her head. She looks like a decapitated corpse. I just point at my guitar player and say, “Just play.”
I walked to the back of the stage and look at my wife and made the decision. It wasn’t that I couldn’t make music there. I know guys who do. Charlie Shafter was in that scene doing well. He continues to do it and is growing. I respect that. I wish I could have done it, but it really was shaving me down. It was like a piece of sandpaper wearing me down to the bone. I still haven’t gotten it back. I’m cruder than I ever before. Maybe those guys are just tougher than I am. Hell, I don’t know. It wasn’t like “Screw Texas.” I just had to protect me life, my family, and my music. Myself. I never rejected them. I felt like they rejected me.
NS: Yeah. I think people–obviously having a conversation on Twitter can prove to be difficult when you’re going 140 characters at a time. I think a lot of people misunderstood what you said.
RC: Yeah. Like a lot of people planted their flag. Once you do that, you’ve got to defend–no matter what you said. People do the same thing with America. “This is it and we love it no matter what.” Well yeah, but that doesn’t mean you can’t say this is stupid. Bill O’Reilly is stupid. Barack is crazy. There’s no one out there who are thinking those people make sense any more. But I still love America. Play me “One Night Taco Stand” all night. I think it’s hilarious.
RC: I listened to Taylor Swift today. I have no ground to stand on.
NS: Well now, I’m a fan of Taylor Swift. I guess what I was saying about the whole thing was that it seems people are being driven out–not physically in all the cases, but there’s still people driven out. It’s the numbers. Some of these guys, they should be getting records out once a year–or at least at the pace they want–but they can’t because they’re being pushed out by the guys with these huge fanbases that they have because of money. And I joke about this with Lubbock specifically, but it can be relevant for other places too. If I ever write a book on Lubbock music, my first question for everyone interviewed will be, Did Lubbock make you spiteful and jaded or were you born that way?
NS: People can feel resentful. It’s a huge massive love-hate relationship. The crowds can be entirely shitty or nonexistent and they can be attentive and amazing.
RC: Yeah. You know, I grew up in Perryton, Texas and we never talked about the Dust Bowl in high school. Did it make us tougher, bitter, and spiteful? Well yeah, but it also made us resilient too. But I think what we have to do is add in the self-awareness and ask why are we this way. Once you do that, you can discover the parts you need to hold onto. The good parts of that scene is that people are trying to protect it. The bad thing about it is that people are trying to protect it.
NS: Yeah. Exactly. That’s some stuff I’ve run into in the past. We’ve done some essays that have been critical of the scene and musicians and some people got really angry claiming that we had to support the entire scene no matter what. I think that’s some of the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard. I mean, it is great to see how the support system works in Texas, but having blind faith isn’t something I think is a good thing.