Cleto Cordero of Flatland Cavalry

by Dan MacIntosh

Behind the Songs To Keep You Warm EP, including "Mountain Song," and thoughts on the Texas/Nashville rivalry.

Flatland Cavalry (L-R): Jason Albers, Adam Gallegos, Cleto Cordero, Wesley Hall, Jonathan Saenz, Reid Dillon

Cleto Cordero is the bandleader and chief lyricist for Flatland Cavalry, a Texas sextet that creates uncompromisingly authentic country music. Followers of country music have noted an uptick in exciting new artists coming out of Texas, which has created a kind of artistic rivalry with Nashville. The more Nashville music strays from traditional sounds, it seems, the more Texas artists tend to champion time-tested country sonics. Flatland Cavalry proved this theory with their first three efforts - Humble Folks (2016), Homeland Insecurity (2019), and Welcome To Countryland (2021) - while championing the motto "Easy on the ears, heavy on the heart."

However, the band continues to make inroads into the country mainstream. These actions range from Cordero writing with female phenom Lainey Wilson, to a football-sized stadium tour with superstar Luke Combs.

Songfacts caught up with Cordero after the release of Flatland Cavalry's Songs To Keep You Warm EP to get the stories behind the band's most popular songs, including "Country Is" and "Mountain Song." He also weighs in on the Texas/Nashville rivalry and what puts the country in country music.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I want to talk about songs and songwriting, so let's start with the EP Songs To Keep You Warm. My first impression was that it's songs to make you sad, instead. Why is it so sad?

Cleto Cordero: I figured most people during the fall and winter months notice a different vibration than the summer sunshine and festival season. And there's something about a sad song pairing with the seasons. For some people, sad songs make them happy or make them feel less alone because someone else experiences the same emotion as they have, so that's kind of the sentiment. But yeah, there definitely are some sad songs on that one. "If We Said Goodbye" made our fiddle player [Wesley Hall] cry, apparently, when he heard it with the strings on it.

Songfacts: But your wife [Kaitlin Butts] appears on it, so these aren't personal songs, are they?

Cordero: Any song that you write has a little piece of your DNA in it, so I'm definitely pulling from past experiences or relationships and emotions that I've experienced before. There's a lot of that in the songwriting and if I'm behind the pen, there will be a little bit of my truth spoken in there.

Songfacts: I'm going to play the devil's advocate here. What would you say to people who hear this EP and think, Man, things aren't good between you two?

Cordero: Well, I would tell you that other people's opinions about myself and my relationships are none my business and nor do they have any power over me. I have a great relationship with my wife, so that much I know.

Songfacts: That's what I wanted to hear you say, because that was my first concern when I listened to these songs.

Cordero: Oh wow. Well, a lot of the songs are old, old hooks or old little pieces of verse or prose, so they're from Cleto's early 20s and that kind of standpoint.

Songfacts: Do you have any favorites from the EP?

Cordero: I really love this song "Parallel." You were talking about Kaitlin, and people were concerned that songs like "Parallel" are inspired by her - as a love story and being somebody and connected to somebody across time and space and as much as I'm away from home. Every time I hear it, it lifts my spirits a little.

On the happy side of things, since you're talking sad songs here, "How Long" is a really short, sweet, beautiful, sad song that's one of my favorites as well. It has that kind of bluegrass acoustic arrangement.

Songfacts: One of the songs you often do when you perform live is "Country Is." Did you feel it was necessary to weigh in on the argument about what is real country music and what isn't?

Cordero: Well, I usually write what I hear. I write whatever lyric comes to mind. And that song initially was where the whole hook of it wasn't even like what makes you country or what is country. I had to rewrite that song after my producer, Jake Gear was, like, "Man, the initial first draft of it was all sonically driven." Like:

On a sunny day, I can hear fiddle whistling through a mighty pecan tree
And when I tip my toes in some water
Steel guitar comes washing over me
.

That was the initial idea that I was just writing as a creative outlet, like, "Oh, I wonder what this is," as I'm writing and figuring it out. And Jake was, like, "This is great, creative and cool, but you know what could be stronger is, what is country? What else is? That's what country sounds like, but what makes something country?" So, it isn't how you dress. It's not how you talk or your lingo or any of that stuff. It's some other intangible quality or some meekness.

I crafted it that way and, ironically enough, I met a guy out on the road when we played this small club. This guy was being real harsh to me and real crass and criticizing me because - and essentially, if I'm calling a spade a spade - he was judging me because of the color of my skin, and the way that he was coming at me was very unwelcoming and, "You ain't country." And I was thinking, "Man, buddy, I've got a song I cannot wait for you to hear," so that's the way that it really happened. It's not like I wrote it with this stance of, "Oh, I've got to let people know." It didn't really play out that way.

Songfacts: I want to talk about "Meantime," which features my favorite female vocalist right now, Hailey Whitters. How did that collaboration come together?

Cordero: I was introduced to Hailey's music through my wife, Kaitlin. We were listening to her stuff during the pandemic, and I just thought the sound of the record, the sonics, and the songwriting was there. As a songwriter, I really appreciated that and enjoyed it with the way it was all mixed, like ear candy. I was a fan of whatever was coming through the speakers.

So, fast forward some time, we connected to Chris Kappy, bringing him on as manager, and Kappy got us connected to [producer] Jake Gear. Kappy also co-manages Hailey Whitters, as well. So, they were, like, "You guys meet each other. Flatland, you need to make a record. Jake Gear makes records. Why don't you have a chat."

Now they're married [Gear and Whitters], but at the time, she was his fiancée, so Gear was like, "I'm not just trying to pump up Hailey," but there were a lot of factors involved. And I thought, "I frickin' loved Hailey's music before I knew any of these people." I thought it was awesome. I wrote the tune with Lainey Wilson, so there's a lot of girl power attached to that song and that record.

Songfacts: You wrote that with Lainey Wilson1?

Cordero: Yes sir, that's correct.

Songfacts: And she's not doing too badly now, is she?

Cordero: She's on top of the world. I'm so happy for her. I've met her one time to do some songwriting, and I ran into her a time or two in Nashville, and she's the same humble, awesome human being and I'm so happy for her.

Songfacts: Tell me about writing with her. It sounds like it was an arranged writing session.

Cordero: Yeah, I'm not sure who arranged that one, but we wrote it during the pandemic. We did it over Zoom. I had never met Lainey. I'd heard of her name before, like, man, she's gonna be something big. And at the time, everyone I'm writing with is a stranger to me. So, I was just showing up and writing the best song that I can.

"Meantime" was her hook and her little somethin' and then we crafted it pretty quickly. She was super fun to work with and she's a proficient songwriter, and Flatland took it and modulated a couple times and added this cool stuff to it. But man, the bare bones was a nice song. And she's very traditional country sounding, so there's a lot of that sort of Merle Haggard-inspired, classic-country vibe to it. But that's Lainey's DNA.



Songfacts: Let's talk a little bit about songwriting influences. I would imagine any true country songwriter would point to Merle Haggard, at least I would hope so, but who are some of the songwriters that really helped shape your approach to writing songs?

Cordero: There surely are many of them because initially I didn't know anything, so I was just moved by experiences, emotions and attending concerts. Randy Rogers was the first concert I went to. I was 17 years old. I would say his songwriting early on was of that heartfelt quality that had something to do with the makeup. Jason Boland and the Stragglers, just as a storyteller. And then you start talking about Red Dirt music, the Turnpike Troubadours.

On the popular side of things, I was exposed to John Mayer's music when I was a teenager, so I have the guitar player, poppy sensibility within myself as well, because I was a guitar player before I was a singer or a songwriter. Willie Nelson, too. There are many of them.

Songfacts: I want to circle back to writing that song with Lainey Wilson. Have you had any success as far as writing songs for other artists, pitching them to other artists, or are you just focusing on writing for your band?

Cordero: To tell you the truth, anytime I go to write a song, I just try to write the best song I can, whether Flatland cuts it or Kenny Chesney or whoever it might be, the chips will fall where they may. But it's my intention to write whatever's on my heart or a cool title or hook or someone else's title. You never know where they're going to end up.

We cut that Luke Combs song on that Countryland album ("A Cowboy Knows How"), and that blew my mind. He had this extra song, and it was cut by this "small, unknown band from Texas," so you never know where they're going to end up.

Songfacts: Have other major artists recorded songs you've written?

Cordero: No, not yet, but it is a dream or desire of mine to just write the songs and let them go where they will. To have songs recorded by another major artist, I would be truly happy about that. I think that would be awesome. Hopefully, one day.

Songfacts: Would you consider your band to be part of the start of the Texas scene that people keep talking about, as far as rivaling Nashville?

Cordero: People talk about Texas and Nashville like there's this illusionary rivalry or a dilemma between them. We're a band from Texas and that'll never, ever change. We got our start in Texas. We're always going to play in Texas, and Texas is a big place, so we thought we'd explore our own backyard and play all over it before we go, "Well, what's beyond this? Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico? Hey, let's take it to the West Coast."

We'll always play Texas, but the dream is to play music and take it to all people. Be it across the pond or wherever it might be. So, anyone that has qualms with that, I can't see what the point is. If you don't want your friends to prosper and succeed at the grandest level, I guess.

Songfacts: Some people would suggest that Texas music is more authentic than Nashville, but I think there's some really good country music on country radio. Dare I say it, it's coming back to country, more to its roots. Do you hear that as well?

Cordero: Totally. I think that things are reverting back to more traditional sounds. Luke Combs actually said last night during the CMAs, "I've been going to this for six years, and this is the most country-sounding award show it's been in six years." And he's proud of that. I totally think that's valid. Cody Johnson played. Alan Jackson showed up. What's meant to be will be and that's why country music will never stop getting played, whether that's on big radio stations or just for the fans traveling around.

Songfacts: One of your songs I really like is "Dancin' Around A Fire." It's so well written because it paints the picture of what temptation is like. Realizing the inherent dangers, yet still going through with it. Do you remember writing that song and what inspired it?

Cordero: Yeah, once one kind of theme was established, and how Countryland had different sounds of country, I figured there needed to be a cheating song. There are Hank Williams cheating songs. You hear about it growing up. That's what I heard about in country folklore. There's a whole variety of songs that are cheating songs.

I had that riff, and any time you play a guitar in D major and you go to that C chord, that's your flat 7, it has this ominous Southern-rock sound, so that just felt like a cheating song. That's how it got formed. I haven't cheated on anybody.

Songfacts: No, I'm not even going to go there. It's interesting what you said, that even the chord structure sounded like a cheating song. Even before you wrote the words.

Cordero: Sometimes the music will influence what you think the images are behind it. If you were going to sync it to some kind of story in your head. To me, it just sounds ominous or something.

Songfacts: Songs To Keep You Warm was produced by Bruce Robison2 who is quite the songwriter in his own right.

Cordero: Oh yes, he's revered as a songwriter. Lots of Dixie Chicks cuts, George Strait cuts. He's revered in Texas, for sure.

Songfacts: Did he have any input on the creation of the songs, or was he just there to bring out the sound in the studio you were looking for?

Cordero: I had the songs already written and I brought them to him and asked if anything was missing, and he thought they were pretty strong, so he definitely went into the studio to help with the arrangements. Not necessarily songwriting, directly, but indirectly in how it was to form and flow with the produced songs.

Songfacts: Were you nervous when you brought your songs to him?

Cordero: Well, I'd worked with him a lot before. Two singles with Flatland, three singles with the Panhandlers, which is the other band I'm in. We've recorded two records there. So, I wouldn't say I was very nervous. I would say I was just more humbled. I thought it was really cool when he replied back, "Man, these are great! I'm so excited to record these. These are great songs!" I thought that was really nice.

Songfacts: You guys have a few EPs out. What's the thinking behind releasing an EP rather than waiting and releasing a full album?

Cordero: If we were to wait to release a whole record, it would be two years plus, and there's so much going on in the music industry these days and people's attention spans are shorter. I'd rather make a full record if I'm gonna make one, but in this particular instance, it felt like, "Alright, we've got fall and winter and then we go on this Luke [Combs] tour, and release a record at the end of that, but since we have songs, let's put something out in the fall."

We've never done that. Getting out of your own way and thinking that you know it all and just trusting intuition and that gut feeling. It seemed like an appropriate time for an EP, versus a full album. I don't want to give people 12 songs that are depressing.

Songfacts: The single is "Mountain Song." Why was that chosen as the lead single?

Cordero: I think that was the first song we had right out of the gate. The others weren't mastered or anything and done. I always thought "Parallel" would be a great leadoff single, but "Mountain Song" was just what we had in hand and ready to go. People were falling in love with it on socials and YouTube.

To me, it seems more on the folkier, B-side kind of vibe, whereas "Parallel" is like a hit sound, so I was shocked that that was our choice to take to radio, but luckily there are radio stations that play stuff off the beaten path. I'm just glad it's out there being listened to.

Songfacts: You said you're going to be on the Luke Combs tour.

Cordero: Yes, next March through July. We've got 17 shows. NFL stadiums, and a few in Canada.

Songfacts: Is that going to be difficult to adapt from playing smaller clubs to playing stadiums?

Cordero: Well, we've had the privilege of playing stadiums before. I think, having an opportunity to perform at such a level, it really pulls out whatever's really inside you. It makes you rise to the occasion. You can always go back to playing clubs and theaters and all those things, but it's definitely a challenge we've never seen before, so you walk the stage and the catwalks. But we're willing to rise to the occasion and take our music to as many ears as possible. I'm sure we're gonna learn a lot. We'll learn a lot from our failures. But that will make those wins a lot sweeter.

December 6, 2022

Get tour dates and more info about Flatland Cavalry at flatlandcavalry.com

Further reading:
Interview with Bruce Robison
Interview with Hailey Whitters


Photos: Fernando Garcia

Footnotes:

  • 1] Lainey Wilson is a Louisiana-born singer-songwriter who took Nashville by storm in 2020 with her breakthrough single, "Things A Man Oughta Know." It was nominated for the Country Music Association's Song of the Year award in 2022, the same year she was named Female Vocalist of the Year and New Artist of the Year. (back)
  • 2] Bruce Robison's songwriting credits include "Travelin' Soldier," which The Chicks took to #1 on the Country chart in 2003, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's chart-topping duet "Angry All The Time," and the George Strait hit "Wrapped." (back)

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