Cleto Cordero has been jotting a few pages worth of free-form thoughts daily the past year. It’s helped the Flatland Cavalry frontman and lyricist clear the mind, find more focus and ground him in the present. The past few years have been a bit of a whirlwind for the country outfit as they’ve gone from local and regional buzz to rising the country music ranks.
“I guess some would call that a journal or diary,” says the West Texan songwriter. “I couldn’t see past the event horizon. Our old producer Scott Faris called it ‘The Vortex’. It’s when you’re on a grinding tour schedule and you don’t know what day it is or where you’re at and you truly learn how to live in the present. You’re constantly moving.”
That Groundhog Day sensation took a toll on Cordero and heightened his anxiety. But one of the few silver linings of this past year for Cordero and company has been the new-found time to take a step back and reflect. He’s been able to appreciate the present instead of trying to merely survive it. Even though few songs or lines have come from his daily entries, the process has undoubtedly shaped the clarity found on Flatland Cavalry’s latest album, Welcome to Countryland.
Other than writing and recording Countryland, Cordero’s calmed-down schedule has allowed him to stop and smell the roses. He’s reminisced on the brightest moments of traveling the country and how they mirror his strong sense of home and family; molding Countryland’s journey through time and place.
“Country music sounds a little different everywhere you go, and that makes sense,” adds Cordero. “Those landscapes and people affect how country music sounds, but we’re all really singing about the same things, which are often hard work and family.”
While Countryland still has Flatland’s identifiable sound - something they’ve long called “Easy on ears, heavy on the heart” - throughout they shift, lean, and borrow varying country music lenses to tell their stories.
Welcome to Countryland is the first album you've recorded outside of Lubbock. Previous efforts have been with long-time collaborator Scott Faris at Amusement Park Studios. This time around, you recorded at Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville with Jake Gear as the producer. What was it that you were looking for to ensure it was the right fit and place?
Whether it was spoken or not, there was some apprehension - something new is kinda scary. But we'd already had Scott's blessing, and got linked up with Jake Gear through [Luke Combs’ manager] Chris Kappy. We'd befriended him after the first Luke Combs show that we opened up at, and he eventually became part of our management. Kappy had a lot of faith in Gear, as he’d produced Hailey Whitters’ album Living The Dream, so he set up a little meeting at his house. He'd listened to our projects before and was a fan of the music and the songs, so we took that leap of faith.
Gear's been in Nashville for a while so has a good feel for the best studios in town and people he really trusts. So from that point, it was really fine-tuning the songs and having that communication; I'd send them songs every week and he'd send back notes. He was really keen to capture this band. Some additional musicians were added like an accordion, steel guitar, and some B3 organ, but this is our band and I'm super proud of that.
This record finds y’all spreading those wings. Since Homeland Insecurity, y’all have played the majority of the country, which has been a huge influence on this album. In saying that, one of the integral aspects of Flatland’s sound and style is based on a West Texas identity and ethos. How have the two affected one another going forward?
The more I've visited outside what I believe to be home, the more my mind’s been opened. You see all these different geographies, topographies and meet all these different people. The more people we’ve met, the more we understand there’s this common human experience. They may not say “y’all”, but you still get that sense of home. I think that pops up in songs like ‘It’s Good To Be Back (‘Round Here Again)’. Where we started - the West Texas Panhandle - is still very much in our hearts, but I like to be able to share those outside experiences with people like my folks.
That cultural exchange of sorts. It’s y’all bringing parts of the world back home and then sharing West Texas with the outside world.
Yeah. And Texans can have this proud, perhaps at times, arrogance to them. That’s part of what makes you Texan. We like taking that sense of pride in showing off where we’re from, the culture, and the people. I think that’s where the idea of the record took shape in a subconscious way. Seeing different things and turning them into songs. You realize country music comes from all these parts of the country - why not celebrate those different sights and sounds?
Flatland have never been a gatekeeper band worried about the definition of country music. Welcome to Countryland starts off with 'Country Is…' which feels like a bit of a statement celebrating the many facets of country and your welcoming approach. When did 'Country Is…' start taking shape?
Initially, I had that chorus of “Some folks say that ain’t country” and I felt like that was set in. But in the draft version, I was really just mentioning the different sonic aspects in country music. At that point, it’d just been an exercise. Gear said “That’s cool, but you know what’s cooler? Country music is about family and love and working hard and chasing dreams and having faith.” That’s how it began to morph into being about all these deeper statements about what country music is and does. Country is whatever you think it is. This is what it means to us.
On Homeland Insecurity, you were writing about those lost years in your twenties, trying to figure out that transition into adulthood and struggling with the passages of time. You really captured that uneasiness and the anxieties attached to both worrying about the future and overthinking the past. This album closes with ‘...Meantime’ and it feels like you’re much more comfortable with living in and appreciating the present - you’ve found some steady ground. Do you feel there’s more clarity now?
Homeland Insecurity was definitely a record about making it through your early twenties. For us, it was also trying to follow up an album that you had your entire life to write. With Humble Folks there was no pressure to write, but all of a sudden, there was this new pressure. So Homeland does focus on some of those unsettling moments.
I think Lainey Wilson brought some of that clarity to the table. It was in the middle of the pandemic and there was a lot of uncertainty for every person on the planet. When Lainey brought that hook, I was able to look at anxiety and depression from afar. I’ve made it through these bouts of anxieties and depression and I’m still here and, if anything, I’m stronger. That song ended up having a positive message. Let’s celebrate life and enjoy the moment, let’s enjoy this day. I think it came at the right time for us. I like to think of the song closing the album as a short goodbye as well.
In the meantime, between this record and hopefully another, y’all live your life to the fullest.
Welcome to Countryland is out now. Listen to 'No Ace In The Hole' below: