There should be greater context for setting up this review than what I’m currently working with, the latest album from Flatland Cavalry that should by all means be a breakthrough project. And yet the odd thing about this band is, for as much as they have taken the country music world by storm in recent years, they’ve done it quietly and on their own terms.
What I mean is, this is not a band that’s ever aimed to be flashy or controversial in their presentation or imagery to attain success, and that extends even toward the music. Yes, their tagline has always been used to describe the music as “easy on the ears and heavy on the heart,” and yes, the Turnpike Troubadours comparisons are damn-near inescapable and have only been elevated since that band’s hiatus. But I think at this point we really need to put those to rest. Yes, the basic sonic palette for both bands features plenty of well-worn fiddle to support the main crutch of the sound and melodic foundation, but whereas that band approaches hardbitten subject matter from a more grown-up perspective, Flatland Cavalry has always decidedly been a younger band approaching younger subject matter from a more thoughtful perspective – the same kind of different, if you will.
And while their first two albums definitely showed marks of a band a little rough around the edges with some growing up to do on a technical level, I still think the general likable approach to their sound and presentation elevates those albums to greatness. 2019’s Homeland Insecurity was even one of my favorite albums of that year. And leading up to their newest album, the context behind that rise has been subtle yet very noticeable. For one, they signed to the same management team as Luke Combs, and they even have a writing credit from him here, too – plus ones from Hailey Whitters and Lainey Wilson, among others. And that’s before mentioning the touring opportunity with Combs. There is, of course, the ugly notion with Texas-based bands that leaning too far into Nashville or anywhere else will ruin them for good, but setting aside that misguided notion, this appeared to be a genuine – if, again, subtle – breakthrough moment for the band, provided all went as planned.
Of course, considering these conversations always circle back around to the music, I definitely enjoy Flatland Cavalry’s Welcome to Countryland, but in a year where I’ve been on the fence for so many albums regarding the difference between genuine greatness and material that’s just really good, this is another album to test that limit, and we’ll get to why later. It’s not from any drastic shift in sound or ideas, though, mind you. If anything, this is a showcase of the band expanding its scope just a bit further and benefiting greatly from it, even if it can feel overly ambitious at points. Still, in terms of rock-solid, modernly traditional country music (which is not an oxymoron), this band is three-for-three, and if you still need a good introduction, this is probably the best starting point.
And that’s likely enough to win over fans as it is, and for good reason. This is a band that’s consistently excelled at crafting music with great tonal balance in the production and really great foundational melodies anchored in the terrific fiddle work that continues to be a hallmark of the band’s sound. Past projects may have had their own issues with the actual mixing, but here it all melds together well and adds to that established foundation. Though if the Turnpike Troubadours comparisons weren’t overused enough as they already were, they certainly will be on this album, which employs plenty of welcome kickdrum to work in tandem with the fiddle to establish and anchor some meaty grooves. “No Ace in the Hole” caught me off guard in a good way, especially with its stark echo in the pure thumping, sinister-like banging of the drum that plays off exceedingly well against the meatier electric axes for a moment with real darker tension and muscle behind it, especially with the up-tick in tempo later on. It’s unlike anything they’ve done before, but my God, what a welcome surprise. And I like that they play to minor, bitter tones on other moments, too, like the melancholic “A Cowboy Knows How” with the groove-heavy low-end or the thumping rattle echoed on the seedier “Dancin’ Around a Fire.”
Now, I get how that all contradicts a band known for sweeter-sounding material, and that’s certainly here. If anything, it’s an expansion that plays well to the longer run time, even if my first nitpick with this record is that it can feel a little bloated in execution or lacking a greater heft for material that deserves it. I’ll also say that, while lead singer Cleto Cordero’s penmanship is a noted asset to this record and that he’s developed slightly as a singer over the years, I don’t often think he’s the best fit for this material. He still often sounds too stiff and can come across a shade too quiet in the mix at points or, in the case of “Some Things Never Change,” sound behind the beat entirely, even if I still quite like that song otherwise. And how well he sells the sentiments can be fairly hit or miss. I like that he’s selling “Country Is…” with a sly, self-aware poise to fit the message of painting country music as something for everyone in its universal themes of pain and love, especially with the nod to the southwestern influence in the accordion work. And for pure bitter heartbreak on “A Cowboy Knows How” or “Dancin’ Around a Fire,” he’s fine there, too. But then you have something like “Life Without You,” an alternative re-telling of “A Life Where We Work Out” from Humble Folks that feels a bit too on-the-nose in its intent and comes across a little corny because of it, especially when Kaitlin Butts is here to provide backing vocals but not actually lend her own perspective that could have made the song more interesting. “Fallen Star” is another moment that feels underdeveloped and tedious, too.
Again, though, circling back to what works … well, the melodies and hooks in general, which in terms of lasting impact are some of the band’s best to date: from the wistful, joyful rollick and innocence of “Well-Spent Time” accentuated by that great little low-end groove, the sharp, punchy fiddle play after the hook on “Some Things Never Change,” and the rattling harmonica that suits the travel home on “It’s Good to Be Back (‘Round Here Again).” Of course, my favorite moment is “Off Broadway,” a tribute to the St. Louis music venue frequented by Red Dirt bands that frames itself as a joyful bar sing-a-long and delivers on it, especially with its fantastic progression. It’s fitting that it’s framed as a tribute to making it while still simultaneously falling back in love with where you started, and between the gentle, wistful sway echoed by the accordion and fiddle alongside that huge hook, it’s one of the band’s best-ever songs.
Oh, and the writing is solid as ever, too. Again, this is a band meant for a younger audience without resorting to the easy clichés or tropes – mature music for people who still have some growing up to do, if you will. And while there’s no general theme that necessarily characterizes this record, it is another album that finds the band members themselves growing up and shifting their perspectives as things change for them. “Country Is…” is a fitting opener as it is, then, and while tracks like “Well-Spent Time” and “It’s Good to Be Back (‘Round Here Again)” are fairly basic thematically, it’s always been the details in Cordero’s imagery and metaphors that’s elevated them, especially when they’re too damn chipper to dislike anyway. Subtlety, again, is the key, and I always smile when I hear “some things money can’t buy, like a hopeful heart and watchful eye.” That’s not to say every track is essential. “Gettin’ By” is your standard “dirt poor but rich in love” sentiment that’s been really played out in recent years, and “Daydreamer” kind of meanders at times as well, even if getting lost in that hazy journey to find one’s self may also be part of the point. But you also have optimistic tracks like “Tilt Your Chair” and “…Meantime” that are likable and suit this band well, and even if it runs long, it’s an album that will stick with you in a good way.
But if I’m left comparing it to other releases by the band … well, I may prefer the more streamlined nature of Homeland Insecurity or their other earlier projects, but Welcome to Countryland is an exercise in looking forward while also grounding what’s worked along the way. Again, perhaps a little overlong or overly ambitious and a project where the highlights win out over pure consistency, but often too likable to find fault or care much anyway, especially when this album will inevitably stick with you – it’s got that magnetism. And as the band members continues to expand their sound, ideas, and perspective, this is a good time to jump onboard if you haven’t already, but also to see what happens next. And after years of quietly making their mark, it’s about time Flatland Calvary received their deserved mass exposure.
(Very light 8/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Off Broadway,” “No Ace in the Hole,” “A Cowboy Knows How,” “Well-Spent Time,” “Country Is…”
- Least favorite track: “Fallen Star”