Flatland Cavalry is a very important band to this whole thing, and for a variety of reasons. They symbolize the next generation of Texas country, who took the torch from artists like Randy Rogers and Josh Abbott, who previously took the torch from guys like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Robert Earl Keen. Flatland has also earned some major opportunities within the mainstream by opening for Luke Combs and such, and are now more centrally located in Nashville.
The band’s new album Wandering Star comes at a time when so much is happening in country music independent of the mainstream, it’s hard to even keep up, and a band that was so elemental to the gestation of the current country insurgency like Flatland Cavalry can almost get overlooked. Similar to other independent-minded outfits, Flatland has signed to a major label in Interscope, yet they maintain that grassroots and independent aspect to their music, as well as deep ties back to Texas.
But one question that has persisted almost from the very beginning of the band is, “Who exactly is Flatland Cavalry?” Blending country and rock with a major insistence on songwriting like many of the Texas music outfits before them, they’re not easy to pigeon hole. On the band’s last album Welcome to Countryland (2021), they were surprisingly more country, helping to answer some of those questions. Then we get Wandering Star, which in many respects opens up that discussion of “Who is Flatland Cavalry?” once again.
It has been a struggle to come to any conclusive thoughts about this album, and then communicate them on a whole, because the album feels like it’s more of a collection of individual songs as opposed to a cohesive expression. Some albums are “growers” and need repeat listens to really “get” what’s going on. Wandering Star is certainly one of those. But it’s also one of those albums that it feels like despite nothing being exactly “wrong,” there’s just something that’s missing or not entirely “right” with it, despite the appeal of many of the tracks.
Singer and frontman Cleto Cordero made a concerted effort to co-write the songs of Wandering Star as opposed to penning many of them himself like on previous records. Ashley Monroe and Will Hoge appear in the credits of multiple tracks, and Randy Rogers co-writes a song. Dwight Baker and Jason Albers also make multiple appearances in the liner notes. Though some songs feel like they come directly from inspiration, others feel more the result of perspiration, or method.
Cleto Cordero the singer is not someone you would traditionally characterize as exceptional, though he’s always been agreeable. But certain tracks on this album—including the early single “Last American Summer”—feel like they expose the thinness of Cleto’s tone, while the saccharine melody and Mellencamp-like writing of the song don’t help the cause. This album could have used more harmonies, even if it was doubling up on Cleto’s own voice.
When wife and fellow performer Kaitlin Butts joins Cordero for the excellent “Mornings With You,” the more pleasing aspects of Cleto’s delivery come to the forefront. Another reason Wandering Star seems to cut against the grain of current listening habits is because many of the songs take on a positive, thankful aspect, including a song like “The Best Days” that includes outright life coach affirmations. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact it feels refreshing in some respects. But it swims upstream in an era when sad bastard music is all the rage.
Once you settle in with Wandering Star, you really warm up to many of the tunes. “Spinnin'” reveals itself as a very appealing track with its emotionally-roiling melody and harmonizing high guitar lines. The waltz beat of “Only Thing At All” also helps to enhance the emotional connection to a well-written track. The banjo was a great texture to add to “A Thousand Miles An Hour.”
Rock fans may gravitate more toward the affectionate “Oughta See You (The Way I Do),” or the punchy opening song “Provider,” while country fans should make sure they don’t overlook “Burned Out Flame” or “Let It Roll.” Ideally though, fans of both would find favor with most of the songs of the album, including if not especially “New American Dream,” which Cleto Cordero expertly writes with Driver Williams and Jason Nix to elegantly articulate the technological immersion we’re all currently suffering from.
Wandering Star has some excellent cuts, but wanders between sounds and influences a little too much for the audience to get immersed in the listening experience. Flatland Cavalry doesn’t even have a distinctive guitar tone you can assign to them, let alone a particular musical approach or a lyrical fingerprint that makes their songs distinct. This is even more true for Wandering Star than previous albums.
Reviewing an album like this is always difficult and perilous because even though critical observations are shared, the ultimate conclusion is definitely more positive than negative. This makes a review like this ripe for being misunderstood or mischaracterized.
But even more unfortunate would be to not review the album at all, because Flatland Cavalry plays such an important role in the effort to save country music. Wandering Star helps move that effort forward, even if it leaves one feeling a bit inconclusive as a whole about where Flatland Cavalry’s place is in the country music cosmos.
– – – – – – – – –