Cale Tyson‘s Cheater’s Wine fortifies traditional country heartbreak songs with seamless storytelling. CMT Edge spoke with the Fort Worth native about moving to Nashville, working with rapidly-rising songwriter Robert Ellis and his taut new collection.
CMT Edge: Describe how the new album took shape.
Tyson: A buddy of mine has a studio deal where we can come in whenever and record as long as we want. I had the band of guys I was working with at the time come in to do it, and Robert Ellis had just moved to Nashville. We’d been playing some gigs with him over at Santa’s Pub, a Sunday honky-tonk night where he’d been sitting in with the band. One day, my steel player and I decided to ask him if he’d like to be on it. So we went into the studio, and he helped out a lot.
Explain the title Cheater’s Wine.
Pretty much all the songs excluding two of them are cheating songs. I’d been listening to a ton of cheating songs when I was writing these, and I’m a huge Gary Stewart fan. He’s definitely influenced a lot of my writing. Anyway, in the song “Borrowed Love,” “cheater’s wine” is a line in there. I like putting out albums where the album title isn’t necessarily a song title. I really like album titles that just use a lyric.
Tell the story behind writing that song.
“Borrowed Love” is about a girl who goes out to bars every night and pretty much leaves her man at home. The hook is, “Every night, she leaves the honky-tonk with borrowed love to go.” The opening line is “cheater’s wine is flowing.” It’s just the imagery of a girl drinking wine and planning on cheating on her man.
Explain how the new album represents your own evolution as a songwriter.
It’s definitely more of a storytelling approach, and also, this one isn’t so personal. There’s a lot of me in there as far as attitude goes, but I was just thinking up stories in my mind. I think the songwriting is a little more in-depth, imagery-wise, and tells the stories a little better. It’s definitely more of an upbeat honky-tonk record than the last one.
Did you purposely go in that direction?
It kind of just happened. I’d written the songs from [his 2013 EP] High on Lonesome when I was, I don’t know, 20, 21 years old. I’d done records before that that were folky, so that was the first country record I did. It was the first time I was writing like that.
I think it came from listening to a lot of great songs and seeing stuff that I like and didn’t like and sitting down and finding an exact story I wanted to tell, not really straying from that too much. Early on, I’d be, “Oh, well, here’s a line that could work here. I’ll throw it in and try to get through it.” These are songs I actually sat down with, and if a line didn’t come to me, I would walk away and maybe take a few days and come back to it.
Describe how “Fool of the Year” came to you.
A lot of times, I’ll get a line that I really like, and I’ll put it in my notes on my phone. I had written in my notes one night, “I’m the fool of the year.” I ended up coming back to that and came up with the line, “I’ll accept the town key because I’m the fool of the year.” It’s a self-deprecating thing.
I’m really into songs that are almost comical in how self-deprecating they are like, “This shitty thing has happened to me, but I’m gonna talk about it in a funny way.” I kind of do that in my life, too. It’s about someone who everyone else knew was being cheated on but that they didn’t. You’re the fool of the year, and everybody knows it.
Describe working with Robert Ellis on that song.
He was easy. I’ve listened to his music for a long time, and [Ellis’ 2011 debut] Photographs is one of my favorite records, so when he came to Nashville, I was kind of star-struck, to be honest. When we got him in the studio that day, it was nerve-wracking. Robert told us he plays guitar all the time. At least four hours a day, he practices. He said, “You know, a lot of people don’t even think of me as a guitar player.” I think that was a lot of the reason he wanted to come in and just play guitar.
How’d he do?
Well, having him in there was cool because he wanted to really show off his guitar skills and play something really unique. … It took us a long time because we did that song all live, but he was great in the studio. He had a lot of really great ideas. It was really cool to have him in there and now as a friend. It’s funny how that happens in Nashville. All these people I looked up to, especially when I was living in Texas, now I’ve gotten to work with them and gotten to know them on a personal level. It’s a real opportunity.
Explain how moving to Nashville generally has shaped you as a songwriter.
The competition side of it is something I’d never really experienced. It’s not a bad competition. It’s a healthy one. When I was writing songs in Fort Worth, there wasn’t a lot I was comparing them to besides records I was listening to at the time. When I moved here, there was so much emphasis on the song itself. It really made me have to sit down and figure out what I like and what I didn’t like and how I wanted to go about writing my own stuff with my own creative flair.
Figuring out who you are as a writer is the most important thing here. Some of my best friends in town, I can’t believe what great writers they are. They’ll come up to you with a song and you’re like, “Holy shit, that was incredible.” You get back home and think, “I need to work on my own stuff.”