Flatland Cavalry Bridging the Divide

The music industry brings together oppositional forces. On one side, we find the music and songs created by artists to advance our culture. On the other, the commodification of that art for mass distribution and sale.

Neither can exist without the other, as the art informs the mass production and the sale supports the creation. And this has forever been the oppositional dynamic inherent in creating recorded music. 

Few enjoy the entire balancing act — with artists decrying the suits and A&R teams dismissing the experimental recordings and untested lyrical themes. It becomes easy to believe that pop music lives on Broadway while alt-realness thrives on the other side of the Cumberland River. 

Wandering Star, Flatland Cavalry’s latest full-length album and first on a major label (Interscope), however, may provide a bridge for an increasingly meaningful segment of the mass audience hungry for a slightly less diametric approach. 

From the band’s tentative yet balanced Come May EP (2015) to the harder, confident licks of Homeland Insecurity (2019), Flatland Cavalry has developed intriguing soundtracks to consider deeply traditional themes: love, loss, the passage of time and the evolving concept of home. Their sound — straddling the lines between classic Americana, 90s Texas Country and the best of the early aughts stomp-and-clap — is rooted in high-quality instrumentation, seamless harmonies and pretty smart lyrics. 

It is what listeners have come to expect from the Lubbock, Texas-based group — and they pressed it perfectly on this album. 

Flatland Cavalry is a band built for those hungry for substantive yet accessible country music, and Wandering Star provides another entry point for the individuals that comprise this growing market of music consumers. 

A Collection of Songs vs. An Album  

From the first downbeat, The Provider puts the band on aggressive footing with several subtle, if unintentional, references to other seminal works within this sub-genre. Working hard for the weekend, putting on George Jones, because nothing else will do, and doing the work that is expected of you alludes to Shooter Jenning’s 4th of July, without any shade of irony or disrespect. The Best Days track pushes the listener to embrace that hard work as something worth celebrating, which then smoothly transitions to Only Thing At All’s honest post-breakup ramblings that anyone who has been through it can understand. 

The album twists and turns through a range of tempos and feelings but remains incredibly consistent. The overall quality, the connection between the tracks and the intentional order kept me engaged while listening casually and brought me back when reviewing it critically. 

Larry Miller, clinical professor and director of the Music Business Program at NYU Steinhardt, told me that streaming services “have unbundled the album.” And while there are countless economic implications of this fact, it also has done away with album filler. Those fine, mid-range songs that used to occupy space between radio singles are a thing of the past. 

This forces bands, songwriters and producers to deliver a collection of songs that can hold their own and potentially gain traction on playlists, influencer posts and the radio. It shifts the approach when creating an LP and often yields a collection of singles as opposed to a well-designed album with a unifying concept.

With Wandering Star, we get both. While the connection between the songs is loose, it provides crumbs for an active listener to follow from beginning to end, as well as several smart callbacks to previous works, most obviously on the track, Mornings With You

The song, which was released as a single, serves as a potential next chapter to the sad love song A Life Where We Work Out. Kaitlin Butts joins the band again for a powerful exploration of honest love and gives a long-time fan a glimmer of hope that our characters have made it from point A to somewhere close to point B. Importantly, Last American Summer, a moderate-paced romp with strong Bruce Springsteen vibes, placed immediately before Mornings With You, sets the stage for transitioning into this happier love song.  

New American Dream, which joins the chorus of songs decrying the vapidity of modern life and the omnipresent nostalgic drug of country music, pushes the narrative of the album forward. Its track placement enhances the song, making it more than just another diatribe against looking at our screens. This isn’t to say the song doesn’t stand alone, and many people will agree with its message. However, it’s more impressive as part of the album. 

Expecting Better

Every week, critics and music lovers are bombarded with new music, forcing us to quickly listen, rate and move on. A common refrain from the most engaged among us outside of the decision-making class is that we deserve better music, not just more. 

However, the listening masses do not seem to mind the steady flow of slight variations on the same facsimile of country music. Trucks, dirt roads and cold beer sells, and frankly, will continue to do so. It’s easy, fun and provides an escape from our complicated world. 

Complex and challenging music that spins on the turntables of modern-day, so-called real country music fans lives in the shadows and, frankly, will continue to do so. Shedding light on what is wrong in our complicated world doesn’t sell — we don’t need to be reminded of what is wrong. 

There will always be that artist who delights the critics and gets no radio play, just as the ascendant singer with no meaningful talent will remain a stalwart of popular music. However, the perfect balance — with all its imperfections — exists and we deserve more of that in our music. 

Wandering Star provides a peak at a pop country future, in which lovers of both approaches can enjoy the same thing, together. 

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