If Flatlands was a movie, it would have better been entitled Badlands given its barren settings and austere atmosphere.
While some artists tend to adopt a false veneer, one that emphasizes hard luck stories and a generally dour disposition borne from their supposed trial and tribulation, Ryan Culwell adapts his narratives from actual circumstance. Hailing from the tiny town of Perryton, Texas, he relates his genuine firsthand experiences, rife with the challenges he experienced growing up in a working class family in west Texas. That gives his music an authenticity that few of his peers can claim, or even much less imagine.
Culwell’s released three albums so far, and while his previous efforts have hinted at his ability to convey the bleak imagery so essential to his story, Flatlands may be the one that states it best. It’s a fascinating album, one that offers every indication it will provide some sort of breakthrough.
Culwell pulls out all the stops this time around, wisely enlisting Neilson Hubbard as both producer and player. Hubbard’s knack for casting dark designs ensure Flatlands gets the appropriate ambiance, an overcast, sometimes stormy veil of doom and despair that’s evident in not only the titles, but also the tone that’s given these songs -- "Never Gonna Cry", "Darkness, Piss Down", and "Won’t Come Home" in particular. That’s not to say that the material is wholly given over to despair. Culwell makes it clear he’s going to persevere with resilience and determination. So while Flatlands may sometimes seem overly circumspect, the delivery comes across with a decided sense of triumph. For all the obstacles he bemoans, Culwell still retains his swagger and defiance, a defensive attitude perhaps, but one that serves him well when struggling with his adversity. Even when the music takes its darkest turns -- the stark "Satisfied" describes in bitter detail a young man’s jail cell suicide -- Culwell still manages to carry himself with unrepentant insistence.
Ultimately, it’s the man as much as the music that takes center stage here, a credit to Culwell’s ability to maintain his stoic stance even when the odds seem overwhelming. Like the mysterious loners that populate the films of Sergio Leone, he seems to defy any notion of resignation or defeat. 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. In the song "Darkness", Culwell’s unbridled attitude comes into focus. "It’s strange and lonely," he sings. "The only sound is some old men in the diner talkin’ bout rain / But that’s only hearsay, don’t believe we’ll see no rain / then again I seen stranger things."
This isn’t about acceptance. Rather, it’s about perseverance. In Culwell’s capable hands, Flatlands becomes a fertile retreat.