Interview: Ryan Culwell Hones His Identity on ‘The Last American’
Ryan Culwell -- a Texas Panhandle native -- remembers a moment during a show he was playing in his home state: An audience member looked up at him and yelled, "Play some Texas country!"
"And I'm just like, 'You little dirtbag, I am Texas country,'" Culwell recounts to The Boot. "If you grew up in a small town in Texas, and you start singing -- anything, really -- it's kind of Texas country. Just because of how I grew up, if I start opening my mouth to sing, what else could it be?"
Nonetheless, Culwell's reflective, atmospheric and often experimental approach to the format makes him something of an anomaly within his birthright genre, and it can be lonely being an outsider. "I didn't feel like I had a home there for a [while]," he admits. "Then I found a good home in Americana, because I didn't realize that there were people all over the world doing what I was doing. I came out here and I was like, 'Oh, there's a bunch of me.'
"It's good to have a place that is intentionally created to encompass a lot of things," he adds. "It means I can get weird, if I want to -- which this record definitely did."
The Last American, which dropped in late August, is Culwell's third full-length album and the follow-up to 2015's Flatlands. If the latter was an in-depth exploration of the geography and identity of the Texas Panhandle, The Last American looks outward, towards the rest of the country.
"It was time to open the door a little bit and get a little broader," Culwell shares. "I didn't want it to be so Panhandle-centric, because although in a way that's how a lot of people really entered the last record and what anchored it, that can also isolate people, too."
Through both the process of making the album and Culwell's own evolution as a musician and songwriter -- which has included a move to Nashville as well as the births of his four daughters -- the singer says his views on life, and perhaps even what it means to be an American, has shifted. "I've evolved so much," he explains. "I've been so many different places now.
"Moving out of a small town [to Nashville]," he continues, "it's just a different perspective on life."
The Last American carries inflections of Bruce Springsteen and soaring, '80s-style guitarwork, but its subject matter is distinctly modern, even offering some commentary about what it means to be an American today: His repeated "I can't breathe" in the song "Can You Hear Me" recalls the final words of Eric Garner, a black man killed by police officers in Staten Island, N.Y. in 2014.
"My only regret is that I run out of air after singing 'I can't breathe' 10 times while Eric Garner found the strength to say it 11 times," Culwell told Rolling Stone earlier in 2018. "You can't love your neighbor as yourself if you're not even listening to him."
To The Boot, Culwell adds that, despite the album's larger focus on social commentary, he doesn't harbor negativity towards the country, or towards his own corner of it: "My hometown is a really good place that is opening its heart more, to a more diverse [group of people]," he says. However, part of what Culwell appreciates about Americana is the larger playing field it offers its artists for speaking out about the causes and issues that are important to them.
"I mean, you can put 'John Rich can kiss my a--' right in the middle of this article," he says with a laugh, referencing the Big & Rich member's Twitter outcry against Nike after the footwear company featured former NFL player Colin Kaepernick in their 30th anniversary ad campaign. "But those kind of guys ... it's either 'cut the top of your socks off if you're wearing Nikes' or it's 'shut up and sing.'
"Literally, someone told me [recently] that they don't think artists have the right to leverage their platform into talking about social issues," Culwell shares. "I 100 percent think that that is not only their right but their obligation and their responsibility, as a human and as an American."
In Americana, not only has Culwell found a place to speak his mind, he's also found a home for a variety of musical styles: "It means so many things musically," he continues. "I grew up listening to John Lee Hooker and Snoop Dogg and Creedence Clearwater Revival. All that stuff can be together." In fact, Culwell has found that, under the Americana label, he has even come to be a part of the country music coming out of his own state.
"There was a big article in Rolling Stone where they called me Texas country," he adds with a laugh. "Right there in the little subtitle. I was like, 'Yes! I'm comin' up, y'all!'"
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