Born in Cotton Valley, Louisiana, Brandon Ratcliff was never far from the spotlight growing up, even if he wasn’t directly under it. As the son of Suzanne Cox, one third of the celebrated family bluegrass band, The Cox Family, the young Brandon would watch on as his mother and her siblings sang the music they loved on stages, tour buses and writing rooms across America, winning Grammy awards and accolades along the way.
“I have great memories of growing up and music being everywhere,” Brandon says. “We always felt that we could express ourselves creatively. Early on, I wanted to differentiate myself from my family but as I've gotten older, I've come to respect my parents for the art and the craft of what they did.”
On his latest album, Tale of Two Towns, the singer explores themes of heartbreak and loss, faith and love, guilt and pride in a project that is split across two volumes. Volume 1 ponders the eternal should-I-stay-or-should-I-go conundrum that anyone who’s ever grown up in a small town will know only too well.
Taking the listener on a journey that explores the consequences of either staying or leaving the town you were born in, inspired by Brandon’s own struggles with his decision to leave Cotton Valley behind and move to Nashville after graduating high school.
For the time being, Volume 2 is filled with instrumental interludes, leaving space for the songs Brandon will write about the next chapter in his journey as he travels around interacting with fans, family and friends, and shares the songs from the first volume.
“Writing it with fans, that's the part that's really enticing to me,” he says. “Letting the fans in on where I am now, how I got to this place in my life. It's a bit of an unended sentence and I hope to flush out some of the places I think we're heading with the help from the people.”
After moving to Nashville, Brandon signed to Monument Records, and in 2019 burst onto the scene with his debut single, ‘Rules of Breaking Up,’ accumulating more than 50 million streams. After hitting the road with Kelsea Ballerini and Brett Young, he opened dates for Keith Urban, but when 2020 hit and the world shut down, Brandon’s career came to a halt and he moved back to the hometown he’d been so desperate to leave.
Being back there gave him time to write about all the stories he had never written about before and after two years away, he re-emerged with a brand-new sound that took a detour away from the more polished country pop of his early songs into the Louisiana delta-soul and bluegrass he had been brought up on, adding a sprinkle of gently picked blue-eyed folk that owes as much to James Taylor and Jim Croce as it did country storytellers like Glen Campbell and Will Beeley.
Tale of Two Towns Volume 1 is made up of minimal, soul-searching, and vulnerable recordings that take time out from all the noise of the modern world to ruminate on life’s bigger questions. It feels like a big, oversized blanket around your shoulders and an old friend that understands everything about you.
Beginning with a ghostly recording of a 1920’s radio recording about rebuilding Cotton Valley after a mining disaster, he takes us on a journey backwards and forwards through time. Songs like the title track, ‘Always Moving On’ and ‘Grow Apart’ are poignant coming-of-age mini-dramas that will tug at the heart strings of anyone who has ever left somewhere to follow a dream only to find themselves unexpectedly back there again, bumping into old friends and walking the same streets they used to walk to school.
‘Where I’m Coming From’ is a metaphorical conversation between Brandon and the ghost of his late grandfather. “I'll never tell you not to do the things you love but what you're chasing now won't always be enough,” he sings.
“My grandpa, he started the family band,” Brandon explains. “He was the patriarch of our family. The reason we’re all involved in music is because of him.”
While his grandfather travelled the country for music, he always had one foot in Cotton Valley. Brandon, meanwhile, left as soon as he graduated high school. It’s these two life choices the singer questions over the course of the album.
Holler sat down with Brandon Ratcliff to find out a bit more about the town he grew up in and went back to, and the songs that came out of it.
Where are you from and how did that influence you?
I’m from Cotton Valley, a tiny drive by oil boom town in northwest Louisiana. I will always be connected to small town life and working-class people because of where and how I grew up.
What did you grow up listening to?
I grew listening to a lot of the classics…Stevie Wonder, Merle Haggard, Fleetwood Mac. Later in my teenage years I fell in love with writing because of artists like John Mayer and Eric Church.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Yes. Haha the first few songs I wrote were not worth remembering, but the first was so bad I couldn’t forget it.
How would you describe your sound?
It’s always hard to quantify in a few short words, but I would say that my sound is musically driven, because I’m a guitarist so everything flows from that. I also love songwriting, so I love any song that becomes a vehicle for a story or a larger philosophical concept. Because of how diverse my musical upbringing was, I feel like I’m very versatile, but ultimately if it’s thoughtful and/or groovy, I’m in.
What can you tell us about the album, Tale of Two Towns?
Tale Of Two Towns is basically a book of my life since leaving my little hometown. It’s a concept record about how different decisions lead us down very different paths in life.
Where’s the most unexpected place music has taken you?
Music has taken me on all kinds of cool adventures. I grew up in a music family so none of it has felt that unexpected, but a lot of it has left me with some unforgettable memories.
What was your Grand Ole Opry debut like?
The Grand Ole Opry experience was truly full circle. I grew up seeing my family play that stage and never once did I think I would have the honor of playing it myself, let alone bringing my mom out to share that moment with me. On top of that, it was my daughters first show. It was the most magical show of my career so far.
Where do you get your inspiration for writing songs from?
I mostly try to pull from real life experiences or conversations that I’ve had with myself or others. Songwriting is a mysterious thing, in that the more you do it, the more you don’t really know how you do it. Every day you show up to write a song, you are beginning again. I just try to be an antenna for good ideas.
What’s your all-time favourite song of someone else’s?
This is a very tough question because it all depends on what mood I’m in when listening and I have so many favorite songs, but I’d say it’s most likely between ‘The House That Built Me’ or ‘Gentle On My Mind’.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
Honestly, I don’t really know. I feel like I was born to do this, so I’ve never really thought hard about any kind of plan b, but I am a talker so I would maybe say something in sales or radio. Any job that requires you to be good in social settings I would probably thrive in.
If you could time travel back to any time when would you travel back to?
I would probably say the 1970’s because I feel like that’s the greatest era of music in American history. I love history so I’m sure there would be all kinds of cool places to visit but the 70’s were so inspiring and artistic, and it seems like it would be the best time to come up as a musician.
Which person from history would you most like to meet?
I would love to have a long conversation with C.S. Lewis, I feel like we could really spin some yarn.
What would be your Spice Girls style nickname?
Oh boy, I have no idea…Habanero Honey?
Do you have any hidden talents?
I don’t think this would be considered a talent per se, but I love breath work and meditation and ice baths. I have held my breath for nearly five minutes before and I frequently take long cold baths to start the day.
What’s next for you?
What’s next is finishing out the second volume of Tale of Two Towns and hopefully a lot of touring, I can’t wait to get more music out and hit the road to be with the people.
Tale Of Two Towns is out now on Monument through Sony Records