Thad Cockrell – Steppin’ out
The thing is, you see, Thad Cockrell couldn’t help it.
“Some people,” he says, “are blessed with blue eyes, and that’s out of their control; I was blessed with the love of country music.”
The music — in a phrase he uses habitually to describe much of what he’s encountered and the songs he’s created, “came to him” earlier than many might assume.
It’s documented, after all, that Cockrell was raised in Missouri and Florida, son of a minister, in a household that frowned on playing secular music, with no stereo in sight. But memories of music he managed to hear on the sly have persisted.
“From an early age, in Kansas City in the first grade, when I got sent up to my room for doing something wrong, I did have an AM radio up there, and I remember hearing the piano on ‘Behind Closed Doors’. I never cared if I got sent up to my room if I could hear that.”
Love of music like Charlie Rich’s countrypolitan crooning brought Cockrell back to his focus on hard-core honky-tonk, soulful R&B, and even bluegrass, just six years ago. At age 25, urges to begin writing and then performing music came his way.
Cockrell likes country, writes it, and sings it straight — truthful, simple, and focused on the stuff of life. And he’s concerned enough about being at all associated with what he calls the “way too smart,” mocking, po-mo end of the alt-country universe that he rejects the label “alternative country” for what he does.
“If you parody my country, boy, you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me!” he says, laughing. “I just love the music.”
Since release of his debut disc Stack Of Dreams by the indie company Miles Of Music two years ago, Cockrell has been known primarily for torch-carrying twang songs — sparked, he has said, by a college relationship that ended abruptly, and its lingering aftermath.
Heartache and yearning are certainly the key themes, again, on Warmth & Beauty, due out September 23 on Yep Roc Records. But the new album is likely to surprise some people with its range of sounds and arrangements.
Co-produced by Cockrell and pop veteran Chris Stamey, this first “planned” release — Stack Of Dreams was almost accidental, essentially a session of demos — takes up the modern honky-tonk again all right, with twists learned from ’70s Willie and ’90s Dwight as much as from Rich. But it also ventures into southern college pub-rock reminiscent of some of Scott Miller’s numbers, and well into the indie-rock end of what others call alt-country, which suggests a process of osmosis at work as Cockrell rocks out from his Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill home base.
There’s certainly enough music in the air there, or maybe it’s in the water — but Whiskeytown, the Backsliders, the Two Dollar Pistols and Tift Merritt reached national attention, to varying degrees, from the North Carolina Triangle. Former Whiskeytowner Caitlin Cary’s two recent Stamey-produced solo albums were born there, too.
But even playing that old upstairs AM radio as a kid, Cockrell was listening to more than country. He was taken with the likes of “Old Man Down The Road”, the nothing-held-back Creedence-like effort from John Fogerty, as well as “I’m On Fire” — exactly the sort of Springsteen hit that was about to loom large for Steve Earle and rockin’ country music as well.
“They were playing alt-country or Americana,” Cockrell observes in retrospect. “There was good radio in the ’80s. On the other hand — there was Poison!”
As Warmth & Beauty plays out, the “southern college rock” sides lead off the show, with considerable optimism about the future and energetic in tone — although the guy singing the stories is still alone in the back of a car on a Friday night in “I’d Rather Have You”, the standout album opener. Keeping a low profile until heartache time blows over on subsequent the title track, Cockrell tries to get some perspective on being blue in the anthemic, Springsteen-meets-Miller-tinged pub-rock rouser “Taking The View” to complete this “Act One” rock sequence.