“I used to work construction,” Flatland Cavalry frontman Cleto Cordero tells Rolling Stone.” “I didn’t hang wind turbines or anything of that nature, but I worked enough to meld a story of the working man based on some true-life experience. I kind of got to re-live what it was like before we transitioned to this life of, you know, being self-employed versus working for the man.”
Cordero is previewing the band’s new video for “The Provider,” the second single off the group’s first album with Interscope Records, Wandering Star, released in late October. “Fifty-hour weeks, put my life on the line/Workin’ on a farm, hangin’ wind turbines,” goes one detail-rich lyric. Filmed in part at the Blue Light, the venerable venue in Lubbock, Texas, the video, like the song itself, is steeped in the blue-collar vibes of the Texas Panhandle. Such was life, by and large, for the members of the six-piece before a growing catalog of heartstring-tuggers and boot-tappers — and a few well-timed opening slots on Luke Combs’ 2023 stadium tour — landed Flatland Cavalry on the brink of a mainstream country breakthrough.
Cordero is calling from the Nashville home he shares with his wife, the songwriter Kaitlin Butts — whose own career took off on the heels of her 2022 album What Else Can She Do and an opening run on Morgan Wade’s No Signs of Slowing Down Tour earlier this year. Specifically, he was in his office, staring at a piece of Native American artwork that Butts found on a visit to her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The artwork, Cordero says, inspired the title of Flatland’s record.
“Kaitlin picked up this folk art,” Cordero says. “It’s stitched, and it’s on my office wall, and it’s this man with eagle’s wings. So my brain just put two words together, like ‘I wonder if his name was Dancing Eagles or something.’ And then I wondered what would my spirit name be if it were given to me in the same manner? Of course, I don’t mean to be disrespectful and I don’t know what all that entails. I’m just being imaginative. ‘Wandering Star’ just kind of jumped out at me. It was a lyric in the record already, from the song ‘Spinning.’ So, there goes my brain trying to make this narrative up, right? We’ve been on the road wandering around America and beyond for 10 years.”
Flatland Cavalry is Cordero (vocals, acoustic guitar), Jason Albers (drums, percussion), Jonathan Saenz (bass, background vocals), Reid Dillon (electric guitar), Wesley Hall (fiddle), and Adam Gallegos (keys). But while the singer might live in Nashville — where he co-wrote all 13 tracks for Wandering Star with writers like Ashley Monroe, Will Hoge, and Billy Montana — Flatland still claim Texas as home. Produced by Dwight A. Baker, known for his work with Lone Star stalwarts Pat Green and Josh Abbott and Far From Saints, Wandering Star uses a classic two-four Texas twang to support a refreshing, modern lyrical take on the path Cordero’s life has followed since the band’s 2015 inception.
“Like we kind of said in the very beginning — easy on the ears, heavy on the heart,” Cordero says of Flatland’s vibe. “That’s all I want to do.”
Flatland is having, by any measure, a tangible breakthrough after seven or eight years of working the Texas club circuit. How do you adapt to this moment?
I’ve spoken to some of my heroes like Randy Rogers — who was the first concert I ever went to — and he talks about this. He says, “Man, we’re just driving on the roads that were paved by Jerry Jeff Walker and Robert Earl Keen.” And I feel the same way. I feel it about this whole infrastructure of Texas music as a community, and we just popped up at a place in time where there’s social media and all these other things outside of ourselves that are helping us. But, at the core of it, in my heart, since I started writing songs and I realized they connected with people, that’s what I want. I just want to write something that’s going to connect with another human being. If all this is a big machine, as people put it…if the business is a game, you can’t play it if you don’t have the tokens — which are the songs.
The first single off of this album — “Mornings with You” — was a duet with your wife, Kaitlin Butts. How did this evolve from a co-write with Ashley Monroe and Nick Walsh?
Whenever I write with people, we’re soul-diving. We’re jumping into the deepest part of ourselves. Let’s go. So, Nick had this idea for a song, just about, you know, mornings! Just being peaceful, and whatever that emotion is, and we really loved it. I don’t even remember what lines I contributed. That was a song where I was a student, learning from Ashley. She pulled out the minor chord in the song that makes you feel like your heart’s gonna fall out of its chest. It just seemed like it so effortlessly happened.
But our producer was like, “Dude, Kaitlin’s harmony on that would be sick!” And he’s right. Just the emotion of the song when I’m already singing on it, and Kaitlin adds another element of union. It’s a beautiful song. It’s a powerful song. I love just reading the lyrics to it.
You’re a keep-to-yourself person by nature, and not one that someone maybe would have pegged for a record full of collaborative songwriting. Did you have to let down any of your guard to work with these songwriters in creating the music on this album?
When my team proposed it like this, my initial reaction — like a lot of people when change happens — was to get afraid. Just, “No, man! I have my process.” I heard that voice in my head, but I also heard another voice that was like, “Hey. If you’re going to keep walking along this path, these things will keep popping up. And you need to try these new opportunities and give it your best and put your whole heart into it.” So, I just learned to trust that feeling and the people they set me up with. And we all vibed — just like the kids are saying.
Josh Crutchmer is a journalist and author of the 2020 book Red Dirt: Roots Music Born in Oklahoma, Raised in Texas, at Home Anywhere and the 2023 book The Motel Cowboy Show: On the Trail of Mountain Music from Idaho to Texas, and the Side Roads in Between.