Musician (And Landscaper) Ryan Culwell On Making Ends Meet

Aug 18, 2018
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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

Ryan Culwell followed up his critically acclaimed album in 2015 by taking a break to spend time with his growing family. He had two more daughters - four total. And, well, Culwell needed to pay the bills.

RYAN CULWELL: Next thing I know, I'm knocking door-to-door selling roofs. Ended up doing landscaping for a minute. I'm terrible with a Weed Eater. I graduated to being on another crew, cutting down trees.

LUDDEN: Working odd jobs to make ends meet - it's a theme throughout Culwell's latest album "The Last American," about the struggles of ordinary Americans. Ryan Culwell joins me from Nashville, Tenn. Welcome.

CULWELL: Well, thanks for having me. How are you doing?

LUDDEN: I'm good. So let's listen to the song, "The Last American."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAST AMERICAN")

CULWELL: (Singing) I'm the last American on this Earth. I'd like to quit this talking, get back to work. You don't understand me. That's because we are not the same. You may recognize me, but you don't know my name. I got my old man's heart and a broke-down Chevrolet.

LUDDEN: That's really beautiful. I'm wondering. Who are you speaking to there? Who is the last American?

CULWELL: Oh goodness. See this is the question, isn't it? I think that's just up to you if you're listening to it. What I've really loved is the reaction that I've had to the song is - I don't know. There's been more tears to this song than I anticipated. I didn't think anybody would cry to it. And that - for some people, it's because they're thinking of their parents and stuff like that. And some people because they feel like they're not alone in kind of who they are as a patriot or an American and that they're realizing like, oh, there's other people here that feel the same way that I do.

And sometimes I feel like I'm looking at the nation changing in a way where I'm like, man, it's over. The only thing left is the same name and the same flag. And then you get to talking to your neighbors. And whether they're on the left or the right or wherever, that spirit inside of them, it still remains. And I think it's something we've got to talk about.

LUDDEN: You picked up on current events with another song on this album - the opening song called "Can You Hear Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN YOU HEAR ME")

CULWELL: (Singing) Bang real loud and get down low. Make a little love on the radio. Dial it in, boys, and let it ride. Send a little call out to heaven tonight. Can you hear me? Can you hear me?

LUDDEN: This song was inspired by the death of Eric Garner, the black man who died after being put a chokehold by a police officer in New York.

CULWELL: Yeah, you watched that film clip of Eric Garner, and it's undeniable. There's something wrong with what we're doing here. And I'm a big - you know, I support our police officers. But I also think there's something institutionally that we have to go back and look at. And you're like, we're hurting the same people over and over and over. And I've found it interesting. Where I'm from, it's very, very conservative. And everybody has things to say like...

LUDDEN: You're from Texas, right?

CULWELL: Yeah, yeah, I'm from the Texas Panhandle. They're saying, what are you going to do when they come for your guns? And I'm like, well - you know, when the government comes for you, you better have a way to stand up. And my response is like, they're already coming for people. You know, and we're just sitting and watching - you know, as kind of like middle-class, white America going like, well, this is Eric Garner guy, if he hadn't been breaking the law. And it's like man, I break the law worse than that three times a week. Nobody's trying to kill me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN YOU HEAR ME")

CULWELL: (Singing) Bang, bang, bang, can you hear it in the back? And it's bang, bang, bang. Can you hear in the back? And it's bang, bang, bang. Can you hear it in the back? And it's bang, bang, bang. Can you hear it in the back?

LUDDEN: You've been compared to Bruce Springsteen, kind of speaking for the working class.

(LAUGHTER)

CULWELL: Well.

LUDDEN: Yes? No?

CULWELL: I have been, and it's very kind of people to say things like that. But somebody actually said about Springsteen - Springsteen has always been trying to find space between the American dream and actual real Americans. And I feel like maybe what I'm doing is finding the space between who I want to be and who I am. I've spent a lot of time holding up opposing ideas - things that I love - America - also things that I'm really angry at and frustrated with - America - and trying to reconcile those. And it's not unlike raising kids, right? I mean, I've got four daughters. And you love them. And you're also like, you are really driving me crazy (laughter).

LUDDEN: There's the parent you want to be and the parent you are.

(LAUGHTER)

CULWELL: Yeah, correct.

LUDDEN: That's a lot to handle with the - writing music with four kids. There's not a lot of time for reflection, I would think, during the day.

CULWELL: No. There's actually a couple of songs on the album that I wrote at the bedside.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYAN CULWELL SONG, "TIE MY PILLOW TO A TREE")")

CULWELL: I was tucking my daughters in. And there's a song called "Tie My Pillow To a Tree" that I just wrote the little melody and the little tag. And I was put my daughter down when she was - I mean, she was probably 3 at that time. It was probably four years ago. And in the next night, I wrote another one. And before you knew it, there was a song. And they sang it, and we still sing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIE MY PILLOW TO A TREE")

CULWELL: (Singing) There ain't no place I can hide myself. And I'm going to tie my pillow to a tree. I smell like crossing. I taste like leaves. Would you scoot on over, make some room for me?

When I put my daughters to bed, I generally just tell them crazy stories and asking them about their day, making up stuff about trolls. And this song is probably born out of that a little bit. Also the - not a - probably not a normal dad. I talk to them like adults a lot. But I also try to live in their little fantasy land, so we can relate. And also because I enjoy it too, you know. There's nothing more fun than dancing around the room singing about trolls eating marshmallows, you know.

LUDDEN: Ryan Culwell, his latest album is "The Last American." Thank you so much.

CULWELL: Thank you. I enjoyed that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIE MY PILLOW TO A TREE")

CULWELL: (Singing) I been high. I been low. Yeah, I been high. I been... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.