April 7, 2015 by Jay Minkin
Ryan Culwell is one opening act you don’t dare to miss. What already is looking like the show of the year, Culwell will be tagging along with Amy Speace for a handful of concert dates this month in support of his new record Flatlands which was just released on Lighting Rod Records. Last month, my liner notes highlighted the lovely Ms. Speace’s record in preparation of her tour stop heading to Cleveland in May. I wanted to find out who the heck this Ryan Culwell fellow was and I was literally blown away on the first spin through the CD.
Well, you might not have heard of him either since he’s been off the radar for the last eight years. Growing up in the dust bowl West Texas panhandle town of Perryton about a hundred miles north of Amarillo, Culwell was a shooting star in 2006 releasing a debut record and then promptly quitting the music business. He didn’t want his young daughters to hear stories of him working the bar circuit and the touring exploits that come with being away from home. It was a price Culwell looks back on and still stands by. He finally decided to pack up the family and leave Texas for Nashville at age 31, but as much as he wanted to rid himself from those tumbleweeds, he wrote poignant songs about what it’s like to stay.
Dedicated to his Father and brother who are roughneck oilmen, Flatlands are a collections of stories with a thread of toughness, work ethic, and solitude that is hard to fathom unless you lived that life. Like Speace’s latest effort, the album was recorded at Mr. Lemons Studio in Nashville by Neilson Hubbard. Culwell plays acoustic guitar on the twelve original tracks with help from all-star utility man Kris Donegan on lap steel, electric guitar, banjo & mandolin, Michael Rinne on upright bass, Eamon McLoughlin on fiddle, Evan Hutchings on percussion, and Hubbard on piano.
Although “Never Gonna Cry” is the first single being released, my dream 45RPM would have the catchy “I Will Come For You” backed by the beautiful ballad “Won’t Come Home” to capture the essence of Culwell’s range. It’s hard to live up to monikers when comparing new emerging stars to Hall of Famers, but I kept hearing faint similarities with another lone star artist, Rodney Crowell, as I sank deeper into the record. Highlights include the emotional pain traveling through the west Texas panhandle in “Red River, a great Americana roots song called “Satisfied” that begins as a Woody Guthrie like folk song that just explodes, and distortion echoing from “I Think I’ll Be Their God” that gives it a Black Keys feel. Culwell continues to throw punches throughout the rest of the record though his fists aren’t clenched for anyone in particular as he exclaims in the title track “The Earth Can Break a Man, but I Will Take my Stand, I’ll Climb my Mountains, Out in the Flatlands.” His perseverance in the end finds peace for a place he learned to love which he originally wanted to forget about.
It’s great seeing indie artists for that all inclusive evening offering a quality show with money still in your pockets for drinks. Hearing a troubadour like Ryan Culwell touring behind a great record is what makes the experience worthwhile and a win/win for the artist and the audience. So get off the couch and check out this singer/songwriter if he happens to swing through your town on tour.