At least one wag has defined Americana as “country music that doesn’t suck,” and that fits Thad Cockrell rather well. In fact, Cockrell, as he demonstrates on his new release, Warmth & Beauty, makes original country music that is pretty damn good. Unlike what’s playing on country music radio, Cockrell remembers how to use pedal steel guitars and fiddles and write lyrics that are more substantial than plays on popular catch phrases. Like many of his Americana brethren, he’s a throwback to the days when folks like Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Haggard, and Waylon Jennings honed honky-tonk into a medium for singer-songwriters. “Why Go?,” for example, is classic ’50s country, while “Some Tears” finds a place somewhere near Jackson Browne at his peak. “Some tears you want to keep. Others you don’t want at all. Some tears you want to keep. Others, they’re bound to fall.”
Cockrell fills Warmth & Beauty with the variety of sounds he finds within honky-tonk and the Bakersfield shuffle. “Breaking of a Day” could fit right in on Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night or On the Beach. Mel Street would have been proud to have written and sung “My Favorite Memory.” The title cut reminds you of Ricky Skaggs 20 years ago singing a great Guy Clark song. A hidden cut, which appears as track 21, apparently called “Misery Feeling Again,” finds Thad channeling Buck Owens at his best. But on “What’s The Use,” he uses the Bakersfield beat to sound just like Thad Cockrell. His tenor voice delivers that happy song delightfully, yet it can power the rocking, Long Ryders-like opening song, “I’d Rather Have You,” then just as naturally, he can make his voice nearly weepy as Webb Pierce on “Why Go?” On the bass and guitar driven country rocker, “Taking the View,” and the wistful, tear-jerker “Are You Missing Me,” he’s in that place again where Thad sounds like no one but himself as he does on “Was So Lonesome” and “She Ain’t No You.” As he continues to grow as an artist he’s bound to find that totally original sweet spot more and more frequently.
Cockrell’s lyrics are straightforward with simple phrases employed to great effect, as with the chorus of the down-but-not-out “Breaking of a Day.” I’m holding on, I’m holding on,” he sings. “Won’t you hold on too? Just a little longer.” On “She Ain’t No You,” the singer addresses a former lover with all the fine attributes of his current girlfriend, “but the truth of the matter, she ain’t no you.”
Cockrell, who lives in Durham but is contemplating a move to Nashville, composed or co-wrote all eleven songs. Producer Chris Stamey arranged the strings and added some instrumental touches. Stamey does an excellent job of allowing Cockrell’s sound to flourish with a good live feel to it and no distractions. Despite an abundance of slow-to-medium tempo pieces, Warmth & Beauty flows well and consistently engages the listener. Cockrell’s core band in the studio included area veterans Aaron Oliva, John Teer and Jen Gunderman, The Carbines’ Greg Reading and Zeke Hutchins and additional vocal and instrumental support from such notables as Tift Merritt, Caitlin Cary, Bob Carlin and Mitch Easter.
Warmth & Beauty proves a thoroughly engaging, enjoyable and thoughtful album worth repeated listening. Thad Cockrell demonstrates that he has become a formidable singer and writer capable of striking originality while remaining closely in touch with his roots.