Country Jukebox Jury LP: Flatland Cavalry – Welcome to Countryland

Beloved by critic Grady Smith (where I first heard of the band) and plenty of folks in Texas, Flatland Cavalry are the project of songwriter Cleto Cordero. He spent time working on The Panhandlers with some other musicians from the Red Dirt scene.

Flatland Cavalry share Luke Combs’ management so it’s set up for them to succeed, even though their fiddle player left just after their 2019 second album Homeland Insecurity came out. Indeed Mr Combs (whose song Forever After All has been number one on sales for ten weeks and on radio for six) co-wrote A Cowboy Knows How and passed it on to the band. It would be a bold man who didn’t bet on Luke being Entertainer of the Year at the CMAs this November. As for the song, it’s about a drunken phone call full of regret and about getting ‘back on the horse’ and finding someone else. I can hear Luke doing this with extra oomph but this is a Texan arrangement with some neat fiddle.

Life Without You has a similar tenor but with a key guest, Cleto’s wife and the band’s harmony singer Kaitlin Butts, and Fallen Star mentions dragons being slayed and absence making the heart grow fonder. Off Broadway is a waltz which paints the picture of a place in St Louis where the tourists don’t go, ‘frozen in time/ Graffiti tattoos’ on the walls. The accordion is a super touch, as is the singalong fadeout, and if The Mavericks are ever forced off the road, Flatland Cavalry will gain some of their audience.

The album is defiantly Texan, and so far up my street I’ve put in an offer on a house there. Cleto is Gettin’ By and sounding like Counting Crows, he’s Dancin Around A Fire like Casey Donahew, he’s enjoying Well-Spent Time sounding like Drive-By Truckers and there’s a touch of the Willie Nelsons on It’s Good To Be Back Round Here Again. Meanwhile, No Ace in the Hole twists the title of the song George Strait made famous and turns it into gloomy rock with some palm-stopped chords and a lyric ‘only jokers on your side’. I can imagine George recording the gorgeous Tilt Your Chair Back, a front porch song with some mellifluous chords and a touches of harmonica.

The arrangement on Daydreamer makes me feel good and indeed be one too, taking up Cleto’s call: brushed drums, a harmonica solo in the middle section and harmonies surrounding Cleto’s vocal talking of ‘bustling city streets, knee deep in concrete’. This is music with soul and verve thanks to the production of Jake Gear, who also brought joy to the tracks on his wife Hailey Whitters’ album.

Hailey (who is due to support Midland on their delayed UK dates this autumn) provides vocals on the album’s closing track Meantime which, to complete the circle, was co-written by Cleto with the great Lainey Wilson. Given that the track follows the euphoria of Off Broadway, I’m treating it as a kind of bonus track and the jew’s harp that bounces around underneath Cleto’s plaintive vocal does make it stand out. Hailey’s vocals overpower Cleto’s but the message is to ‘look around, take it in, slow it down’. There is a key change.

This is one of the albums of the year, and I am sure Grady Smith loves it too.

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