Since their humble beginnings playing music in Lubbock, Texas, Flatland Cavalry has taken their old-school, yet uniquely fresh sound across the country and to country music’s most iconic stage. The sextet now has three critically-acclaimed albums and is touring the country and beyond, gaining new fans with every show. Postcards Magazine sat down with bandleader Cleto Cordero to learn more about the journey that started in West Texas songwriting circles and dancehalls—and how faith has been the greatest driver of their success.
How did this incredible musical journey start for you?
My mom would keep a radio on the windowsill when I was growing up, and I think that’s where I fell in love with music. And usually, it was turned to a country station. My parents loved George Strait. We would listen to his “50 No. 1 Hits” in the car, and it would get us all the way from Midland to Alpine for family visits. And growing up, I would listen to my older brother’s CD player when he was away (even though he always said, “Don’t touch my stuff!”). I would listen and write down the lyrics, because I wanted to know the words so I could sing for the kids on the school bus. I would mimic people’s voices, and they got a kick out of it. When I was 14, that’s when it really changed for me. My brother bought me a guitar for Christmas, and the movie School of Rock
had come out around that time. It was really influential in me wanting to learn to play. I thought if those kids could learn, so could I. I never get tired of watching that movie.
So, what happened next after getting the guitar?
I was raised Catholic, so we would turn off the TV for Lent. I had nothing to do the whole Lenten season, and my dad had this VHS tape of a guy teaching you how to play guitar. We started it together, and I did it every night. After Lent was over, I had gotten hooked and pushed past the blisters on my fingers.
Then, when I turned 17, I wrote a song because I told someone I would. Had to keep my word and write it in a pinch. I played it for my peers and showed it to my English teacher. She was a very sweet lady and a believe-in-your-dreams kind of person. I saw people were moved by it. My dad said, “You wrote that? You should keep going.” He had never said that before – he never said, “Good job at baseball.” (laughs)
After graduating high school, how did you continue developing your skills and begin really chasing your dreams?
After two years in a junior college, I moved to Lubbock to go to Texas Tech. My brother said if you’re going to waste Mom and Dad’s money, get a good degree. So, I got a degree in accounting. He knew I wanted to do music.
Our drummer Jason and I have known each other since 8th
grade. We were both living in Lubbock, going to Tech, and both had this dream to play music. We went to open-mic nights as soon as we moved to town and started to get our feet wet out there. The Blue Light had a songwriter night, and I had heard of Blue Light Live that put out people like Josh Abbott, William Clark Green, Pat Green, and Wade Bowen. I initially thought after junior college I would go to Austin to the Music Capital of Texas, but I would have been a goldfish in a big pond when all these signs were pointing north to Lubbock. So, I did songwriters’ night every Monday – never missed one. Jason and I started playing around town and found our guitar player Reid, who was 19. Soon we had six band members. We were a cover band playing on Broadway in Lubbock where our peers were. Every once in a while, we’d throw in an original, and we did that for a couple of years. Then I graduated in 2014 and had a panic attack.
Oh no! Why a panic attack?
I realized I wasn’t a student anymore, and I had to get a job, and that rocked my world. I was working in construction installing windows as I was doing in college, and I tried to find an accounting job which was one of the most painful memories I have – knowing that’s not what I wanted to do.
Then I heard a still, small voice that said, “Record the songs – get to work.” So, I called Scott Faris at Amusement Park Studios and asked if I could cut a single, which ended up becoming the Come May
EP in 2015. Then we got a single on local radio, Red Dirt Rebel
, and it became a Top 5 on the Drive At 5 and then got to No. 1. People were requesting it, and we played it at The Blue Light, and people came out in droves. That’s when I decided either to get a real job or chase this with my whole passion.
I had to wait for the band to graduate, so I still did odd jobs – built road cases in my garage. I remember cutting metal in my garage and listening to our mixes for our album Humble Folks
, and it made me cry because I knew when people heard it, I wouldn’t be doing that anymore.
Soon after, we got a booking agent, management and people wanted to help us. We’ve had ups and downs, but it’s worked out for us to be here today.
Over the past few years and now with three albums, your music has evolved, but you’ve stayed true to your roots. Talk about the inspiration behind the song, Gettin’ By.
I went to the cowrite one day, but I didn’t have much to say. But I showed up and did my best. We talked about growing up, and that title brought to mind a photo I have of my dad and all us kids – there were seven of us – and he had a stern look on his face. He didn’t really smile a bunch in photos. Then I realized he was younger than me in these photos with seven kids. I can imagine he was stressed. We were just getting by, but as a kid I didn’t know that. Their love and faith have been a driver for me.
My parents dreamed of having a large family. They came from very humble beginnings near the border, and they wanted to get us away from that life, so we settled in Midland. At one point, there were all nine of us in a single-wide trailer. From nine people in a single-wide to paying for all of our college. They built a house on the same property, and they are just wonderful people. All the faith and love I have in my heart comes from them and my journey.
How did Flatland Cavalry adapt to the pandemic?
Pandemic was a sowing season for us – we knew it was a time to write songs, rehabilitate, and spend time with family – soak all that time up, and here we are back at work.
Flatland Cavalry also made its Grand Ole Opry debut during the pandemic. What was that night like?
The Grand Ole Opry debut was a pivotal experience. All our families drove in from all over. All six of my siblings showed up, and my mom and dad. When we took the stage and stood in the circle and played Country Is
, I told the story about starting in a garage. We ended with Stompin’ Grounds
– a song about being born in this land and ending up back in the ground. We got a standing ovation, so that was special.
You talk about your family a lot and how they have had a major role in your success so far. You also talk about your faith. How much do you rely on your faith in this journey?
It’s the most important thing in my life. I am not saying I am never doubtful, worrisome, or fearful, but I know it’s the most important thing, because without belief you cannot have a dream or anything to shoot for. You stick with that, and it will give you everything – the songs, people in your life to love and love you, and just try to be a decent person.
Speaking of love – you also got married during the pandemic to the super talented Kaitlin Butts. You both are so down to earth, yet so focused on your musical careers.
I tell Kaitlin, “Let’s pour all our time into this and do all the work that we’ve been doing, and in the future if we don’t get to do this, we can still say – look at all the stuff we did.”Great advice, and Flatland Cavalry is certainly doing stuff! They recently went across the pond to perform at the C2C – Country to Country festival, and they just released a YouTube video series, “Far Out West Sessions.” Cordero will soon begin recording the second album by “The Panhandlers,” which consists of himself, Josh Abbott, John Baumann, and William Clark Green. And we could see another Flatland Cavalry album in the works by year’s end.
To keep up with Flatland Cavalry and find out when they will be playing near you, visit flatlandcavalry.com.
Photo caption for group photo:
Flatland Cavalry consists of bandleader and lead singer Cleto Cordero, guitarist Reid Dillon, bassist Jonathan Saenz, drummer Jason Albers, fiddle player Wesley Hall, and utility instrumentalist Adam Gallegos
**For all the full-band photos, please give photo credit to Fernando Garcia.