The oilfields in West Texas are not the only thing booming in the Lone Star State. There is a deep well of talented red dirt and Texas country musicians pumping some liquid gold of their own, with new bands packing the barrooms and dance halls of West Texas oil boom towns like Big Lake and Odessa, all the way through the Texas Hill Country to Houston. The folksy, country cross sounds coming from bands like Flatland Cavalry out of Lubbock are wildly popular with a growing fanbase.
Flatland Cavalry brings its twist of red dirt and Texas country to a hungry base not only in Texas but across the country. The band (and many like them), with the help of the internet, has managed to bypass the monolithic, polished sound of Nashville studios in favor of homegrown, sometimes rough around the edges, versions of their own interpretations of country music. “Word of mouth is powerful,” said Cleto Cordero, band front man and primary lyricist. “These days with social media and everyone being connected, it is easier than ever before to discover a new artist.”
Delving into image-based lyrics that tell stories reminiscent of Woody Guthrie and some of Bob Dylan’s work, Flatland Cavalry’s songs about blue-collar living, wild drinking days, and nostalgic longings for small-town Texas are more genuine and less cliché than many of the poppish lyrics found on established country labels. “I ‘accidentally’ wrote my first song when I was seventeen years old, and it made people smile and cry and say that it ‘took them back to a place,’” Cordero said. “I had never once done anything prior to that in my life that had brought such a reaction out of people. That was about ten years ago, and here I am writing down these little things, that I hope, provide joy and inspiration to folks.”
The red dirt movement began in country musician Bob Childers’s farmhouse in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where like-minded players gathered to enjoy a mix of Americana folk, country, and bluegrass. The movement was named after the color of the dirt throughout much of Oklahoma and met with traditional Texas sounds like Willie Nelson and swing legend Bob Wills. Red dirt merged with Texas country is more a way of seeing the world than a musical sound, although the bands lately, Flatland Cavalry included, tend to rely more on the fiddle than previous groups. “I think there is a folkier element that bands from Texas and Oklahoma bring to the table versus their contemporary mainstream counterparts,” Cordero said. “[It’s] a bit more raw and rootsier.”
Flatland fiddle player Wesley Hall has musical influences from all over the sound-sphere. “My great-uncle inspired me to learn to play the fiddle,” Hall said. “He played for Ray Price and Johnnie Lee Wills. By the time I was six or seven and playing in regional fiddle contests regularly, I knew I wanted to play music for the rest of my life. I grew up listening to Garth Brooks and George Strait. My main influences are Bob Wills and Charlie Daniels.”
Electric guitar player Reid Dillon cited more hardcore rock and rollers. “[I] grew up listening to everything from John Mayer, AC/DC, Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Red Hot Chili Peppers,” Dillon said. “Didn’t really get into country music until college. I enjoy and find inspiration these days in music from Tyler Childers and Randy Rogers Band.”
Cordero added, “Whatever popular country radio was spinning from ‘92 to ‘07 was the soundtrack to my childhood. I didn’t discover classic rock until my teen years when my dad enlightened me with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Greatest Hits Double Album. From there, I discovered other artists like the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, James Taylor, Jim Croce, and John Denver. Artists that I am inspired by these days and enjoy listening to include Jason Isbell, John Mayer, Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, and the Randy Rogers Band.”
Drummer Jason Albers became a converted fan of country music watching Austin City Limits in his early teens, while bassist Jonathan Saenz grew up in the church, hearing mostly Christian music. “I fell in love with music at an early age watching my dad play guitar in church,” Saenz said. “I knew then that music creation and performance was what I wanted to do.”
Flatland Cavalry projects the homegrown feel of a town favorite band that made it without a big business record company backing them. All current or former college students with priorities beyond music, the casual atmosphere of the Texas country scene allowed members to pursue other personal goals as well, such as Cordero’s upcoming marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Kaitlin Butts, Reid’s chemical engineering degree from Texas Tech University, Albers’s master’s degree in occupational therapy, and Hall’s and Saenz’s marriages. The band crowdfunded their first EP, Come May, in 2015 while living in Lubbock.
The band’s first album, Humble Folks, was released that same year, landing at number seventeen on the Billboard Americana/Folk, and number two on iTunes Top 100 Country Albums chart. Their next release, Homeland Insecurity in 2019, was even more widely acclaimed and cemented the group as successful independents in the Texas country scene. “It was incredibly difficult to write and record while touring full-time, but I think it forced us to dig deep within ourselves and work together to produce,” Cordero said. “Making a record is like giving birth; although the end result is beautiful, you must get through the painful labor first.” With hits like Honeywine and Old School hitting high on the charts across several genres, Homeland Insecurity is an album the band is proud to have made.
The mixtures of sounds have come together for this five-member band, often compared to the red dirt fan favorite, Turnpike Troubadours. But Flatland Cavalry has cobbled together its own sound, a milestone in the red dirt playing field where individuality will get you further than a smoothly produced, made-for-radio presentation. By flipping on the Texas and red dirt station KKCN 103.1 out of San Angelo, there is a pretty good chance listeners will hear some of the band’s latest hits pretty quickly. “I believe joy is contagious,” Cordero said. “And I love what I do for a living. If I can spread that joy everywhere I go, I believe that I am serving my purpose for the time that I am here.”
The fans seem to agree they have found an effective formula, as Flatland Cavalry pulls in crowds across Texas that know their songs by heart and love to sing along while the band plays. The lyrics are relatable; anyone who grew up in small-town America can pick up the mood of the music: hardworking, hard-playing, good old boys with a modern punch that explores themes like disillusionment and loneliness. That easily-accessed, unpretentious output, along with a red-hot fiddle that gives the fans something to tap their feet to, in many ways defines the entire genre of new red dirt-influenced Texas country music, and explains its escalating popularity across the state and further. In its own right, the red dirt revival happening in Texas is as rich and marketable as the oil pulled from the flatlands of the western counties.