Ryan Culwell‘s hardscrabble Flatlands frames the West Texas landscape with snapshots both bleak (“Amarillo”) and bold (the title track). CMT Edge spoke with the Amarillo native and current Nashville resident about his hometown, moving to Tennessee and how his new record took shape.
“I started writing a lot of those songs back in Amarillo,” Culwell says. “There was a time when I decided not to play music for a living. For whatever reason, playing those honky-tonks was working out career-wise but it wasn’t working out personally. So, I took a break and started writing songs.”
The result: Stark and stunning (mostly) folk masterworks from a former roadhouse country singer. Read our Q&A with Culwell just below the CMT Edge live performance of “Flatlands,” featuring special guests Kris Donegan and Kim Richey.
CMT Edge: When did you start writing songs?
Culwell: I’ve been writing since I was a little kid. So, when I quit playing the honky tonks, I wasn’t playing for a certain scene anymore and all of a sudden I was playing and writing for myself. Some people looked at it as me walking away from music, but, no, I went back. I went back to doing what I was doing since I was 9 or 10.
Explain what that allowed you as a songwriter.
It allowed me to write the songs I needed to write. I was trying to figure out life and in the meantime I had a kid and just kept writing. Finally I moved to Nashville and I had all these scraps of songs that weren’t necessarily something I thought I could do something with. I mean, I wrote the song “Amarillo” in Texas before I moved here. That was years ago and I didn’t know what I could do with a song like that.
The song definitely fits Nashville’s Americana side best.
Well, when I got here, I started looking at the scene and trying to write toward it. You know, your mind opens up to vocational stuff, but when you start thinking of this audience or these opportunities or this money or whatever. … I said, “Screw it” and I started writing again for me. I had 50 or 60 songs and I said, “You know, these are good. Nobody may ever want to hear them, but they’re good.”
Describe working with your producer, Neilson Hubbard.
Over the course of three days, I probably showed him 30 songs. I was like, “I want to do an EP and another EP and another….” He was like, “Why? This is a record.” There’s a duality to the record that wasn’t obvious to me. It was like, here’s this record with all the sad shit. Here’s this record about hopeful stuff. Here’s stuff I feel about home but they’re probably about a million other things. Neilson was like, “That’s all the same stuff. Nobody loves where they’re from wholly. You need to make one record.”
Say someone from New York City doesn’t know what the Flatlands area is. Explain.
My parents live on the edge of town in Perryton, Texas. On a literal level, if you walk around the block you can see however far — 18, 12 miles — the horizon is. There’s nothing in the way. You can see some power lines, an old farm house and a pump jack. That’s the only thing between you and the sun. There are no hills, no trees.
Did that void help you write early on?
Man, I don’t know. I’ve never experienced anything else. It’s like that old Beatles quote. “How does it feel to be the Beatles?” “Uh, I don’t know. It’s never been any other way.” I will say that that void does have a substance to it. It’s as comforting to me as people feel about the trees and the hills here in Nashville. You can feel that coziness of the hills here. Well, there’s a tangible substance over there that’s just absence. I get way too crowded over here. I need to get away sometimes.
Tell the story behind writing “Never Gonna Cry.”
I had a long conversation with a friend one night about having the rug pulled out. That opened our eyes to the world. I mean, look at today. My cousin got laid off. I believe my sister’s husband got laid off yesterday. They’re pulling oil field rigs out like crazy. You give your whole life to this thing and it can just be ripped out from under you. Why? Wall Street extended some more money to some oil tycoon and he did things you have absolutely no control over. There’s a tension to that.
How did you escape that life?
There was just some sort of loss in me, like a wound. “Oh, crap, man. I’m gonna have to spend my life like this, beating myself up against some vocation that gives me just enough to live on.” I started thinking, “Is that real? Is that the cosmic reality of the universe or is it just a cultural thing?”
How long ago did you write that song?
I sat down and recorded the chorus and sent it to my friend back in Amarillo. I didn’t touch the song again for probably three or four years. I sat down one day and finished it. It began an internal conversation in me that took several years to work out, to realign what it meant to work and whether that was a good or bad thing. Is there a way to be more fruitful?
Are these songs straight from your life or do you use some artistic license?
I mean, I don’t think there’s any old man at a bar who isn’t using artistic license. Artistic license is such a relative idea in a storytelling culture. (laughs) I don’t know if we know how to speak without embellishing but there are a lot of people who will listen to this record and go, “That’s me. Literally. I’m that one.” There’s that line in “Amarillo”: “I’m only here for some friends of mine/It’s either that or I’m scared of life/But now and then at the Golden Light/We draw a crowd and it feels all right.” That’s pretty literal. That was the only thing that was good in Amarillo for me for a while.