It was time.
Flatland Cavalry from Lubbock, TX blazed onto the scene with their debut album Humble Folks from 2016, and had many in Texas music, Red Dirt and beyond singing their praises, and seeing the youthful country rock sound underpinned by earnest songwriting that made a band like the Turnpike Troubadours so unique and resonant becoming communicable now to a new generation of promising artists.
Flatland’s auspicious debut and wide acceptance early on was good, even if it was all a little early. At the time, the principal members of Flatland Cavalry were still in college. So touring was mostly regional, and sporadic. But they’d set a strong foundation for themselves moving forward. And when the sun had set on their college days, they could reap the rewards.
Then came their second album Homeland Insecurity. It had some really good songs on it, but in certain respects it felt like a misfire. The mixing was a little strange. They didn’t really known what to do with the audio signal of singer, songwriter, and frontman Cleto Cordero. It was a sophomore album with some freshman mistakes. And when original fiddle player Laura Jane Houle left the band right before the release, she took a unique wrinkle that made Flatland a bit more interesting than just another gaggle of dudes in a country band.
So for Flatland to live up to the original hype, appeal, and comparisons they garnered upon their debut, they needed to deliver here with their third record, or they could be one of those bands that’s hot off the line, but never really blossoms as anticipated. Early signs were promising. The band signed with the same management team as Luke Combs. Seasoned producer Jake Gear was brought on board. Instead of solely relying on Cleto Cordero’s pen, some other songwriters were commissioned to help polish up his ideas.
Welcome to Countryland is a worthy introduction and a resounding pronouncement for an important band coming into their own. It’s a step up, a stepping out, and an effort worthy of the buzz and adulation Flatland has been garnering for five years now. Well-written and executed, heartfelt, touching, and honest, it’s an album that doesn’t attempt to barrel you over with emotions, but works to reset your priorities and perspective in a roiled time. And perhaps most expressively, it is country.
Flatland Cavalry was always a country band. But for this effort, they dial up their country roots even more. They’re not here to pass judgement on the country cred of anyone else. As they proclaim in the first song “Country is what country means to you.” It’s just to them, country means pounding bass drum, prominent fiddle, and harmonica and steel guitar added on top of their native sound to really bring the twang to this record.
You still have a few of the country rock growlers, like “A Cowboy Knows How” co-written by Luke Combs, “No Ace in the Hole,” or the story of temptation in “Dancin’ Around A Fire.” These are songs that will render great during Flatland’s live shows. But primarily, the Countryland that Flatland Cavalry presents is a place where troubles melt away, appreciation is shared, and thankfulness is given, especially for the others that have come into your life.
You can’t help but feel how the love Cleto Cordero has found for fellow songwriter, performer, and now wife Kaitlin Butts comprises much of the muse for Welcome to Countryland, and Kaitlin’s occasional appearances on harmony lines help compliment those sentiments, while similar to fiddler Laura Jane previously, Kaitlin helps give a legitimacy and coolness to the band like only women in music can do. Hailey Whitters (who is married to producer Jake Gear) also appears on the final track, “…Meantime.”
Cleto Cordero is not the troubled soul like Evan Felker, or the rock star with the mug shots and priors to prove like Koe Wetzel. But these aren’t requisites to being a good front man, or writing good songs. Cordero’s no stellar or unique singer either. But the attribute that Cleto taps into on this record is his talent at setting a mood. The quieter he gets here, the more you hear and feel what he has to say.
When Cleto coos his appreciation out for Kaitlin in “Life Without You,” or conveys the message of slowing it all down in “Tilt Your Chair Back” and “…Meantime,” or surprises you with the imaginative and evocative “Fallen Star,” it’s hard to not get lost in the poetry and moments.
Welcome to Countryland isn’t perfect. A couple of the harder songs still seem to not get the levels on the guitar where you would expect them to be for the track to punch. The song “Gettin’ By” feels a bit too close to “Somewhere in the Middle” by Cody Jinks to impact like it should. But there’s no unforced errors here, and the effort feels like it’s at 100%.
Flatland Cavalry sunk their heart into this record, and even if they’re not your thing, you still feel and respect their effort and earnestness by the end. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to declare Welcome to Countryland an arrival for a band that’s already been beloved by many for years now.
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