At some point in the near future I’ll stop posting stuff about Ryan Culwell’s album “Flatlands”. But in the mean time, you should listen to it here. Listen like a 1000 times, so he’ll draw a royalty check.

Or buy it here:

Rolling Stone says: …startling moments — the places where the bare-boned gives way to the bombastic — that makes Flatlands sound like the Bible Belt cousin to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.

Pop Matters says: Indeed, if Flatlands was a movie, it would have better been entitled Badlands given its barren settings and austere atmosphere. And if it was a slice of cinema, it would likely end in triumph; however tortured the tale, its ultimate purpose would be to salute Culwell’s acumen and resolve. 

New Slang, a local rag says: There’s undoubtedly a vein of honesty that careens back and forth throughout the 12-track masterpiece that paints the Flatlands exactly what they are to most. He captures the highs, lows, and the in-betweens without harping or celebrating either too much. 

Ryan Culwell’s Flatlands

Ryan Culwell’s album Flatlands comes out March 3, on Lightning Rod Records (Joe Pug, Billy Joe Shaver, Amanda Shires). I’m grateful to have etched the album’s cover art, a linoleum cut print. Also, if you get the physical album, I have a poem in the liner notes. Brian Boebel at Dual Identity Design did the package design.

I include here Gustav Dore’s “The Destruction of Leviathan,” which is an illustration of Isaiah 27. Not only was Dore’s leviathan a touchstone for my rattlesnake, but Isaiah may be a hermeneutic while listening to Flatlands

Not that this is any sort of creditable review, but I keep crying while I listen to it. But then I stop cuz aint no one saying I aint tough (tough just aint enough).

P.S. Rolling Stone premiered the album. For a little while, you can listen to it here:

“There is a highway shot of those awful wind turbines in the beginning of the video,” he says. “If you follow that road another 40 miles, you’ll end up at the Adobe Walls, where 28 hunters defeated 700 Indians in 1874. Billy Dixon shot a warrior off his horse from a mile away to end that battle. That shot brought on the Red River War and led to the Plainsmen Indians being relocated to reservations in Oklahoma.

“Go nine miles past Adobe Walls, and you’ll end up at (billionaire entrepreneur) T. Boone Pickens‘ house on a 68,000-acre ranch. Thirty more miles and you’ll be in Pampa, Texas, where Woody Guthrie experienced the Dust Bowl, and my grandpa taught math.


“There is something magical about youth and ‘Bobby Jean’ sings like a dirge reminding you that the kid you once saw in the mirror is gone, and he is not. It’s not closure that Springsteen’s plain words give you, but they seem to be pointing to an open ended grief – in some regard, life is loss. If you can mourn that loss then you can also wake up tomorrow a brand new creature.

You can choose to listen to Springsteen’s songs on several different levels, but actually singing them forces you to get below the surface. ‘Bobby Jean’ is written in about as plain language as you can get, but there is profound loss lying below those simple words.

The more I sang ‘Bobby Jean’ the more I realized regret and the energy that is born out wanting a thing, or missing who you were. ‘Bobby Jean’ helps you realize the difference in who you thought you’d be and who you are – how you see the world and how it really is.

Springsteen writes with such plain language that you may not initially realize what songs like ‘Bobby Jean’ are accomplishing down in your heart. One minute you’re singing about a girl, the next your whole life is laid on the table to be examined. These songs help you feel like you have a place in your own life. This is your world too, sometimes you just need Bruce to remind you.” – Ryan Culwell

Listen to the expanded version of his understanding of the song:

Various Artists – Ryan Cutwell – Bobby Jean Commentary

“Those who imitate, imitate agents who must be either admirable or inferior. (Character almost always corresponds to just these two categories, since everyone is differentiated in character by defect or excellence.) Alternatively they must be better people than we are, or worse, or of the same sort…Homer imitates better people; Cleophon, people similar to us; Nicochares, the author of the Deiliad, worse people. The very same difference distinguishes tragedy and comedy from each other; the latter aims to imitate people worse than our contemporaries, the former better.” – Aristotle, Poetics.

In Ryan Culwell’s song “The Ballad of Charlie Waters”, he depicts two lovers on the lam for a murder. Or murders. The unrepentant Charlie Waters narrates the flight, finally landing in prison expecting to die there. (This, of course, has all the markings of a comedy. :))

The song’s plot isn’t new. It’s been explored in song by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, and in film by Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone, and more recently by David Lowery. At the heart of each of these versions is an actual true story with real teen-aged serial killers, which probably means that every generation produces similar crimes. It’s tempting to say that all these versions portray people worse than our contemporaries, but I’m not sure. Springsteen is known as an Everyman songwriter, generally placing him in the company of Cleophon who portrayed people similar to us.

Mr. Culwell maintains that the song is in fact a love song. But it’s not a tragic Romeo and Juliet teenage love. They may have been foolish, but they were certainly better people than their contemporaries. The scariest part of a song like “The Ballad of Charlie Waters” is that the characters are of the same fabric as most of us. Not that most of us are murderers, but that most of us love things that eventually harm us or people around us.

In the end, I’m not sure I buy Aristotle’s distinctions in morality (or defects and excellence). I think we’re all on the same level, and I think Culwell’s song finds that note.

I’m posting another of @RyanCulwell’s songs, for which I sort of apologize to my 42 followers on Tumblr. Sort of, but not really. I mean, chances are you are probably a mutual friend of mine and Ryan’s anyway, so you’ll be listening to it regardless. However, there’s a small chance that we’ve never met, and you live in some place exotic like Switzerland or NYC or San Francisco, and your musical tastebuds (eardrums?) are inundated with new sounds and new songs constantly by new artists who might be worth investing a listen because chances are those artists will pay cool dividends in 5 years when you can say that you were listening to them way back.

So here’s another video – one of those ubiquitous black-and-white-shot-on-the-street-videos featuring a-girl-with-a-beautiful-voice – of which you can find billions all over the Internet. I realize nobody finds music this way any more because there’s just too much of it. People still find music the old fashioned way: because their friends like it and put it on the playlist while hanging out or on road-trips or because you slow-danced to it or whatever.

Anyway, if you and I were sitting in your living room and I brought over the record or my mobile device, then I would compare Ryan’s songs to other songs that both of us had enjoyed while we were younger. I might bring up people like Ryan Adams, and you’d say, “But I don’t like Ryan Adams anymore. I mean I still occasionally listen to him, but only for sentimental reasons; only to remind myself of myself 10 years ago.” And I would say that I agree and then we’d sit there for a bit. And then I’d say, “but one of the reasons I don’t like Ryan Adams anymore is because he hasn’t aged well. He’s still talented – great voice, etc – but his scope has narrowed or just didn’t grow up. I just can’t listen to a break-up song at this point in my life because it doesn’t make any sense. Which is probably why it’s so hard to find any new musical artists once you hit your 30s. Pop music just doesn’t grow up. There’s nothing rock n roll about domesticity.”

On that you and I would surely agree, otherwise you haven’t grown up either.

I’d ponder a little longer and vaguely recall some Robert Penn Warren I’d read in my 20s that said something like “Living is a temporal art like music. It is dynamic and consecutive in its nature. Nostalgia is a vicious denial of this fact. The chord must be resolved.” Or maybe one of Eliot’s appreciations, like the one of Tennyson that bemoaned the master’s inability to sail through the dark night but instead shipwrecked in middle age. 

Finally, I’d resolve and say, “I think Ryan Culwell may be an artist I can go through my 30s listening to honestly." 

I’ll let you know in 8 years.

Also, here’s an interview with other people who aren’t Ryan’s friends who think that he’s worth listening to:

Winter Wheat (EP Review)

Arbor Christian Academy


18 pt
18 pt


Ryan Culwell’s last studio album, Heroes on the Radiowas released in 2006. Since then he led the rock band The Young Senators through a storm of shows in oil-field bars across West Texas before walking away from the lifestyle to plant his young family in Nashville. Upon arrival in Music City, he could only make sense of the new world in the laconic language of his barren Flatland upbringing, and his first EP in 6 years – Winter Wheat – was born.

While it may be fine to talk about these songs in terms of a career, it falls short of the ambition in the opening lines of “Walking Away” – The wheat field is all but dead // There’s a pure white snow under my heel // But the old timers say it’ll be a crop someday. 

For all the paradox this seems, these songs tell what it is for a man to hate his life – lay down his vain ambitions in the dirt, hoping they bear a better fruit than the meager scraps he’d known. In the world decaying-to-dust that Ryan narrates, hope is the crop germinating in Winter Wheat

I’ve said a few things about Ryan (here and here) in the past, and I do so again now proudly and without regard to any sort of Internet personality I may have cultivated. I think these four songs are great. They have been my accompaniment as I drive the 40 uninhabited miles home from work every day and can literally say that the songs have kept me alive (or at least awake, which at 70 mph is the same thing). 

If my recommendation holds any weight for you, then click through and download Ryan Culwell’s Winter Wheat. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope it whets your appetite for the full-length album that he’ll release in 2013.

* If you don’t know anything about NoiseTrade, here’s the basics: you enter your email and zip code so the artist has the information in case they are ever in your area. You don’t have to pay anything to download the music; although tips are nice. Pretty simple.