“There’s a lot of ways to be lonely in West Texas.” — Roy Orbison
Culberson County is in the middle of nowhere. For those keeping scores, it very well could be the most desolate of the nine counties that comprise Texas’ Trans-Pecos area out in West Texas. There’s a harsh raw beauty out there that can beat you down one minute and take your breath away the next.
“There’s a resilience in places like that,” Red Shahan tells Wide Open Country. “I feel like there’s a resilience in songwriters who want to keep things lonely. I like feeling lonely at times. A lot of people may not understand how you can find happiness in those places, but you do.”
For Shahan, it’s places like that — locations off the beaten path that have remained pure and untouched by the luxuries of modern living — that remain as a natural inspiration for the rugged singer-songwriter. For much of Culberson County, his sophomore efforts, Shahan searches for that eternal truth, none more so than on the hauntingly delicate title-cut, “Culberson County.”
Like Ryan Bingham‘s “Boracho Station” before it (Boracho is a ghost town located outside of Van Horn), Shahan’s “Culberson County” is caked in dirt and sun-soaked. You sense the sprawling nature of the landscape. Except for the oil companies’ carvings and the highway’s whine, it largely remains untouched by growth and expansion. Shahan and company may as well have recorded “Culberson County” at a roadside park or truck stop parking lot. It breathes and moans with a sharp sonic punch.
“Let’s keep the lonely places, lonely as long as we can. Let’s keep it out of reach from anyone who doesn’t understand,” howls Shahan. He’s not just begging on the lonesome ballad. “Culberson County is as much a confessional as it is a plea. Shahan is as idealistic as they come. While it’s certainly a criticism of progress and gentrification, Shahan’s lonely “Culberson County” is ultimately about remaining true to yourself.
“Having my daughter two months back has really put a lot of things in perspective,” says Shahan. “I don’t want her to see me struggle with things that I don’t believe in. I don’t want her to see me struggle with things I can’t take back or be proud of.”
That sense of grit and integrity is scattered throughout Shahan’s songwriting. As a storyteller, Shahan is often drawn to drifters, ragged blue-collar cowboys and outliers pushed by society’s norms. These character sketches aren’t outlandish outlaw tales set in the Wild West though. They’re grounded within the confines of a grim reality. He breathes life into these down and out wanderers and finds what’s pushing them to endure. Like many great storytellers, Shahan discovers an empathy even in the most undesirable of characters.
Shahan and company expand on the stained and rugged guitars of Men & Coyotes on Culberson County. They create a sonic palette that aches, wails and captures a side of Texas that’s rarely properly examined. “I feel like we still have that mixtape brain,” says Shahan. “We’re still taking a lot of things from the past and blending them with what we’re trying to make in the present.”
At times, Culberson County is large, grandiose and anthemic. There’s the soaring race of Spaghetti Western and Southwestern textures that beam down like roaring West Texas sun. You’re exposed to the engulfing desert with only Shahan’s vocals guiding you out of the elements. Other times, there’s a bluesy grit that pulls you in with an intimacy that’s a gentle pat on the back.
“I don’t want to say we’re in a comfortable state,” adds Shahan. “Even though we’re in a good space, I think we’re still very ambitious.”
Culberson County is officially set to be released March 30.