Ah, Texas. The Lone Star State. The land of long, lonesome highways and dreams as wide as the horizon that meets them. With all that space, outside and in, it’s no wonder Texas has birthed so many great songwriters singing so many great songs. Songs crafted by the likes of Rodney Crowell, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, Butch Hancock, and others leave indelible marks on the hearts and minds of all who hear them. And they serve as a way for the stories to get out, even if the people who live them can’t.
The latest torchbearer in that tradition seems to be Ryan Culwell, whose upcoming ‘Flatlands’ album is a testament to his time in Texas. Throughout the song cycle, Culwell delves into the various voids he felt and observed in his homeland. His tales evidence the absence of people and purpose in life and, even further, the absence of place. These lives of these people in these town, they are filled with emptiness, they are overflowing with nothing much at all. Coming, going, staying… none of that means anything when you live in a vacuum.
From “Amarillo” on down, these songs describe life as they know it in the Texas panhandle working with their “blood-stained hands” just to scrape by in towns that are viewed as “just a waste of time.” Whether resigned or resilient, Culwell’s characters do what they do in search of some semblance of peace.
‘Flatlands’, on the whole, feels suitably dusty and dark, though there are certainly tracks — “I Think I’ll Be Their God” and “Piss Down In My Bones,” among them — that break from the languid timbre to strike a thornier tone. Even still, the listen-through experience remains intact. And, while it might not be an easy listen, ‘Flatlands’ is certainly a pleasant one… in the same way that driving those long, lonesome highways can be, if you surrender to the experience rather than fight it.
‘Flatlands’ drops on March 3 via Lightning Rod Records. Here’s an exclusive premiere of “I Think I’ll Be Their God.”