The soul of country music runs deep within Stephen Flatt. The great nephew of bluegrass icon Lester Flatt, Stephen grew up in Hendersonville immersed in the sound of traditional roots music and surrounded by a plethora of Opry stars. Over the past two decades, he’s forged his own path in the world of Nashville’s countless poets and pickers. In the mid aughts, Flatt co-founded the criminally overlooked Americana duo Flatt & Alvis with longtime friend and collaborator Shane Alvis. In subsequent years, he expanded his artistry under the country-flavored blues-rock sound of The Tolleson Experiment, all while starting a family and fostering a successful working career outside of the music industry.
Though most of his musical endeavors had always involved bands or other creative partners, Flatt eventually accumulated enough original songs to do something he never previously imagined: make a solo record. That vision finally materialized in late 2019, when Flatt called up his buddy Dave Roe and enlisted him to produce the album. With Roe, came a supremely talented array of players including Kenny Vaughan, Charlie Cushman, and Steve Henson – a supporting cast whose credits include the likes of Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart, Lucinda Williams, and Randy Travis.
With the perfect backing band and a set of songs sharpened by years of experience, Flatt was able to make the record he was always destined to. His debut album, Cumberland Bones is an expertly crafted roots record comprised of tender, hard-rocking songs that are fluent in every style under the Americana umbrella. From highway-ready guitar jams like “Hold You Tonight” and “Satellite” to the blistering bluegrass on “White County Shine” and “El Camino,” Flatt not only shows a firm grasp of the musical styles that were so prevalent in his upbringing, but also exudes a deep understanding and appreciation of their fundamental values.
On Cumberland Bones, you’ll hear shades of Jason Isbell’s rustic storytelling, Neil Young’s emotional country-rockers, and Tom Petty’s good-time grooves, all major reference points for Flatt in a musical and songwriting sense. At the material’s core, however, are a collection of stories and characters whose ideology belongs solely to Flatt. They are personal, deeply inspired, and reflective of a life well-lived.
Editor Roberto Johnson caught up with Stephen Flatt to chat about releasing his debut album at 45, his early days with Flatt & Alvis, why living a normal life is essential to his creativity, and more. Check out their conversation below.
How does one decide to release their debut album at, by industry standards, what is considered such a late age?
Stephen: I know, man, I know. Between doing all these projects over the years, having a family and a kid, I accumulated all these songs that I liked. I had songs with The Tolleson Experiment and Flatt & Alvis but these didn’t really fit with those groups. About 2012, I said ‘I’m going to start working on an album.’ So, it’s been in the works eight years I guess. My brother-in-law died of cancer in 2018 and I had to give his eulogy. He died pretty rapidly, just over a month. He was one of these guys that didn’t live in fear. I said, ‘You know, I’ve been putting off doing this album. I’ve been lazy. I’m either gonna die with these songs and nobody’s ever going to hear ‘em or I’m going to do something with ‘em.’ So, that’s what I did.
Did you always have aspirations to put out your own record?
Stephen: Not until Flat & Alvis broke up. Shane had gotten so burnt out with all the travel and playing. When you’re dragging your equipment out at 3 in the morning past a bunch of drunks trying to get to the bathroom and you’re trying to get to your trunk so you can put your guitar away, it just grinds on you. He didn’t want to do it anymore, but I still loved Americana music. That’s what we did. Our first album was Americana. I never had aspirations for a solo album ‘til I started gathering all these songs and I started getting more confident in my vocal abilities. Shane was such a great vocalist. What I enjoyed doing was singing harmony. That was always my thing. I started getting more acclimated and more confident in my own voice and I think that’s what helped over the years.
How does being in the driver’s seat as the primary artist compare to being in a duo or playing as a sideman?
Stephen: It’s a lot more work (laughs). In The Tolleson Experiment, we all had a role. We had one guy that dealt with finances, one guy that set up the recording, one guy was the equipment guy, and me and another guy did all the writing. Now it’s all on me. I like the comradery and creativity that comes out of a group. I think there’s a synergy there. And it’s easier too because you have a collective of people in the creative process. I’m a pretty humble, behind-the-scenes kind of guy, so this is all new to me but I’m feeling good with it.
How would you describe your musical upbringing?
Stephen: My dad played the guitar and the banjo and my mom played the piano. I knew Lester was my uncle but I didn’t ever understand the magnitude of who he was. You gotta understand, I grew up in Hendersonville, and there’s a lot of famous country artists who live in Hendersonville – Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Barbara Mandrell – I grew up with a lot of their kids and grandkids and friends. Having Lester as my uncle didn’t seem like a big deal. We’d see Johnny Cash at church or Conway Twitty out and about and nobody ever thought much about it. When I was in high school or college, I started realizing the magnitude of it. We grew up listening to country music. That’s all my dad listened to. We had a record player in the house going all the time and an 8-track cassette player in his truck that had Waylon, Merle, and Flatt & Scruggs. That was it. When I started on guitar, it was more rock and roll. That’s what I really got into. When I was in high school, I started writing a lot of folk songs and got really infatuated with harmonies. That’s when Shane and I started playing together. We got well known regionally, got to play on TV some, and it was really exciting as young kids to be able to do that and make a name for ourselves. Went to college and continued writing those folk songs and those harmonies and it was just exciting, man. But I was really influenced by a lot of folk-country, the Grateful Dead, I love The Byrds. Sweetheart of the Rodeo is one of my favorite albums of all time. Harvest. The sounds that really shaped this album [Cumberland Bones] probably happened a lot during those college and late 20s years.
Were there any relationships you had with other family members that significantly influenced your aspirations to pursue music more seriously? Or was it more being immersed in this musical environment that shaped you?
Stephen: For me, it was a deeply personal thing. I remember times sitting on my bed as a middle schooler or high schooler and listening to music in my headphones and being like, ‘I cannot believe the feeling I get from listening to this.’ It speaks a language that only speaks to you and it feels like you’re enlightened when you listen to it. To me, it’s almost a religious experience. I just fell in love with that and said that is what I’m going to do. When I went to college, I went to Middle Tennessee State, who had a recording industry program there, I just immersed myself in music and writing – concerts, live music, trying to collaborate with other artists, playing at bars and writer’s nights, and developing the craft. I don’t want to be cliché and say it’s in my blood from my family but maybe a little bit.
Could you elaborate on the years when you began writing more frequently?
Stephen: We had a rock band with some buddies when I was 16. What we ended up finding was when Shane and I got together and would practice with an acoustic, we realized ‘Oh, wow. That song sounds good by itself.’ So we kept writing. Between the ages of 17 and 25, we wrote a whole catalog of stuff. We got to where we were playing a lot in college at writer’s nights in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and we kind of had a following of people. We’d have concerts in dorm rooms and pack them in with like 30 people. One night, people were like ‘We’re going to record you guys!’ and they set up a boombox and cassette tape. They ended up making copies of this stupid cassette tape and it got to the point where people would come up to us during the summer and tell us, ‘Oh, I love your guys’ tape!’ and we were just like, ‘Where did you get this thing?’ (laughs). After college, our friend Dustin said, ‘Let’s do this but the problem you guys have is you’ve never developed your sound. We’re going to make this artsy folk-Americana.’ Back then, Americana was still kind of a fledgeling music genre. You’d tell people you play Americana and they wouldn’t even know what the hell you were talking about. When we released the album, we had a hard time getting people to even listen to it. There wasn’t really Americana stations or stuff like that, hence why we didn’t get very far with it maybe.
How was your experience making the record with Dave Roe and company? Did the songs turn out how you envisioned?
Stephen: I gave Dave a call in December 2019. He has a really good studio and we live not too far from one another, so I called him up and said, ‘Hey man, I really want to get all these songs recorded.’ He said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Next thing you know, he’s arranged Kenny Vaughan to be on it, Pete Abbott, Charlie Cushman, Justin Clark came in and played on it, Ashton Brooks, who was one of my bandmates from The Tolleson Experiment. All of a sudden you had this cornucopia of awesome musicians playing and collaborating on this album. We tracked just about everything on the first day and got all ten songs knocked out in about 12 hours. Second day we came in and added color on the back end but all the main tracking was done in that first day. It was a lot of fun. The songs turned out better than I had envisioned because I had been playing them on a guitar by myself and had never heard them with a band. Dave changed up some of the intros and added some solos and bridges here and there and really got the arrangement tight. Of course, when you have people like Steve [Henson], Kenny, and Dave in the studio, they can knock it out. One song an hour. They’re not just cruising through it either. They’re adding color and get really involved. We were prepping “Hold You Tonight,” and Kenny goes ‘I got this riff.’ That guitar intro almost sounds like a Traveling Wilbury’s thing – I would’ve never in a million years played it like that but that’s what he was hearing. Next thing you know, man, we’re all in and we got the whole thing knocked out in four or five takes.
A lot of the material on Cumberland Bones is steeped in what many people would call classic country songwriting: story songs, character-driven narratives, etc. What were some major points of inspiration for the songs that made it onto the album?
Stephen: A lot of them were deeply personal. “Brother” is about addiction. If you look at the line, “You played your cards, you held your hand / Tight against the table, you could not win,” I was trying to paint a picture of an addict that looks at life almost like a card game. I wrote that about someone in our family. “Hold You Tonight” – I worked in and out of the trucking industry for years and have known a lot of drivers who give their life and soul for the road. Wrote that one for them. Most of the songs are about characters and situations for the most part. The only one that wasn’t was “Logan Creek,” which is a murder ballad. People either love it or think it’s weird. It’s got a real blunt ending. I wanted to see if I could write as good of a song as Jason Isbell. I wanted to be deep and dark and wrap everybody in at the beginning and have a twist at the end. When you can tell a story and it captivates your listener to the point where they forget about everything else and they’re just so focused on that song and that line, that’s kind of what I wanted to do with that one.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the mystique of being a songwriter. As someone who’s been a working musician for multiple decades now, how vital is ‘living life’ to your creative process?
Stephen: Oh, extremely, man. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. That’s one reason I wanted to do this album. I didn’t want to look back and say, well, I should have done something with those songs. You only live once, right? I wouldn’t trade my life for anything right now. I’ve got a very happy marriage, I got a 7-year old, life’s really good. I wouldn’t have had that if I’d been playing on the road 200 nights a year. It’s just rough. It’s not meant for a family life. Just being around it and seeing it, it’s hard. Almost everybody goes through two or three marriages. I didn’t want to get past two (laughs). Having a wife that’s supportive and is always coming to the shows and letting me have my guy time to go upstairs and write songs and putting up with hearing me singing all the time, it’s as healthy as I want it to be.