by: Thomas D. Mooney
He sets down three sheets of what looks to be drafting paper down by his feet. In giant uppercase lettering, song titles are scribbled in black sharpie. He picks them up and examines them again closely. His piercing eyes scroll down in three quick bursts before setting them back down–one to his left and two to his right.
The house music slowly winds down and Ryan Culwell begins singing an a cappella version of “Darkness.” Strangers line the front of the room in small pockets of gossip. They too start to quiet for a brief flash before, in unison, realizing they’re all too uncomfortable with the moment and go back to their pick up lines and Spring Break plans–albeit, in a lower tone.
For the most part, eyes and ears are locked on Culwell as he finishes “Darkness.” A round of applause echoes off the barren hardwood floors and he begins to talk about his life back in Perryton and Amarillo, Texas years ago before going back into songs from his Flatlands.
His haunting howl is sharp and rugged repeatedly. It’s Springsteen’s “Johnny 99.” It’s Hank’s “Lost Highway.” It’s Earle’s “Down the Road.” It’s Culwell on “Never Gonna Cry.” He’s simultaneously right in front of you and off in the distance–not just the room next door, but a train trekking on the tracks that scar up the land.
Culwell’s prose on the Flatlands are about the intersection of furrowed, unpolished lands and the gritty, harsh pockets of industrialism. They’re about the ties that bind–the people. This is never more apparent when in the live setting and Culwell, though brief in banter, talks about his father working in the oilfield for years, himself driving trucks out into New Mexico, and exchanging air conditioning parts with folks off the grid.
At times, Culwell is on the verge of derailment. His strums become violent. His vocals on the edge. It’s in these moments you find true and raw emotion rise. They’re void of pretentiousness and counterfeit. They’re the moments you think of when you wake up the next morning and recollect the previous night’s events. They shine brightest.
He becomes each of the characters in “I Think I’ll Be Their God”–their version of god, the husband, an earnest farmer, the devout preacher, the greedy oilman (Daniel Plainview anyone?), the loyal soldier, and lastly, the psycho killer. It’s the monster that lives within all man.
“This is my last song,” says Culwell. “They won’t play this on the radio because I say piss in it. Sturgill [Simpson] can say goddamn, but I can’t say piss. I don’t understand that. Anyways, here’s ‘Piss Down in My Bones.'”
He steps off stage and gathers the sheets of paper and stuffs them in his back pocket. He sells a few t-shirts. Signs a few copies of Flatlands. He shakes a few hands. Then, he walks out the backdoor to discuss the similarities between Snoop Dogg’s Doggstyle and Springsteen’s Nebraska.
02. Never Gonna Cry
04. The Wrestler (Bruce Springsteen Cover)
07. I Think I’ll Be Their God
08. The Ballad of Charlie Waters
10. Won’t Come Home
11. Walking Away
12. Red River
13. Piss Down in My Bones