Thad Cockrell – Heartbreak hopeful
Some things are just too good to hold back, like Thad Cockrell & the Starlite Country Band’s debut album Stack Of Dreams (Miles Of Music). The bulk of the album was recorded in just one day at producer Chris Stamey’s studio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was originally intended to be a demo, but it turned out so well that Cockrell started burning homemade copies to sell at shows as an EP. And now, after a bit of tweaking and the addition of another track, it’s coming out as a nine-song album.
“I didn’t really do these recordings for release, but they’ve sort of worked their way into that,” Cockrell says. “There are still some details I’d like to give them, which we just didn’t have time to do. The only song we played three times was ‘Why?’ Everything else was first or second takes.”
Despite the rushed circumstances, Stack Of Dreams is an amazingly polished, fully realized album. Fellow North Carolina singers Caitlin Cary (of Whiskeytown) and Tift Merritt contribute backing vocals (the latter particularly shining on a heartbreaking duet version of Buck Owens’ “Together Again”). The Starlite Country Band — whose members have logged time with Two Dollar Pistols, Whiskeytown, Chickenwire Gang and Hooverville — provides perfectly supportive, understated backup. And Cockrell’s voice is a wonder. High, dry and lonesome, it cuts right through you.
Though this album was birthed quickly, the 29-year-old Cockrell is actually a bit of a late bloomer. He spent his formative years in Tampa, Florida, the son of a Baptist minister (his father is now a minister with an unaffiliated church in Buffalo, New York).
“I didn’t come from a musical family at all,” Cockrell says. “I was not allowed to listen to rock ‘n’ roll. I didn’t even have my first stereo in my own room until two years ago. But my parents have been very supportive of my music, even though they might have a hard time explaining it to some of their friends. It’s not like this happened out of the blue. My parents know I’ve had a different take on things my whole life.”
Cockrell studied public relations in the school of journalism at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and is currently on the verge of graduating from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. Religion is clearly important to him, and it plays a part in his music: One of the best tracks on Stack Of Dreams is the closing number, an original gospel tune called “He Set Me Free” that people frequently mistake for an old traditional number. But Cockrell still hasn’t quite sorted out his future, and where music might fit in.
“I’m not opposed to becoming a pastor, although it would have to be in a very nontraditional setting,” he says. “I would just really have to know that that’s what God wants me to do. People ask, ‘Do you want to be a minister and play in church, or play in bars?’ Well, why do I have to pick? Sing in a bar Saturday night and in a church Sunday morning, I’ll do ’em both. Internally, it’s not a struggle.”
At Liberty, the burly Cockrell was on the wrestling team. One of his coaches was Jeff Dernlan, a fellow pastor’s son who became a mentor figure. Keith Richards’ nephew by marriage, Dernlan also wrote songs himself (he recently released his first album, Lost In The Fray). With Dernlan’s help and encouragement, Cockrell wrote his first song in May 1997, during math class.
“I knew Jeff wrote songs, so I’d ask him how you did it,” Cockrell says. “‘There’s no set way,’ he told me. ‘But what about bridges? What’s the format?’ ‘No format, just write.’ So I did. I wrote my first song to the tune of [Neil Young’s] ‘Powderfinger’, got three verses done and then Jeff helped me finish it.”
Uncharacteristically, that first song (“Picture Stories And Songs”) came out relatively happy. Cockrell doesn’t play it anymore, because it doesn’t fit the heartbreak themes of the rest of his catalog. His motto, after all, is “putting the hurt back in country.” If Cockrell has a muse, it’s a woman from his past named Gale — “as in a wind that knocks down everything in its path,” he says.
“I don’t think I made any decision about falling in love with her, I just did,” Cockrell says. “I did not know my way around a woman’s heart, but she definitely knew her way around men’s hearts. I was a little boy in a man’s league. So I guess I had to become a songwriter. I’d never have written that first song if not for her.
“So I guess I owe her a lot.”