Interview: Lifelong Nashville resident Stephen Flatt on his take on authentic country

Taking 20 years to record his debut solo album with the cream of Nashville players

After a 20 year career writing songs, playing music and sessions in Nashville, Stephen Flatt has finally released his debut solo record ‘Cumberland Bones’. If you think you may recognize the name then that is because he is a member of the famed Flatt family, his great uncle was Lester Flatt, and he has been a Nashville resident all his life. Stephen Flatt has followed his own muse in developing his career, taking time out for occasional day jobs rather than playing the Nashville songwriting and performing game. His experience of Nashville means he has been able to call on the cream of Nashville players, many of whom he counts as personal friends, to appear on the record which mixes the sounds of southern rock, bluegrass and traditional country. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Stephen Flatt in his Nashville home to discuss his family connections, what it was like to grow up in Nashville with country music legends being part of your day-to-day community, the dangers of Nashville celebrity family life, his love of rock music and why he thinks he has captured the authentic sound of country music on his new record. 

How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?  

Things are well.  It’s been a crazy year for us humans inhabiting planet earth, but I believe we are turning a corner and things are slowly starting to get better and back to some level of normalcy.

What is it like being a Nashville resident and having the Flatt surname?  

There are actually a lot of Flatts in middle Tennessee, so it’s actually not uncommon.  The last name Flatt, although an uncommon name in most places in the  US, it is common in TN.  I’m a 7th generation Tennessean.  The Flatt family were early settlers in Tennessee going back to the early 1800s.  So, I have a lot of distant cousins.

Were you aware as a child that your great uncle had a bit of a reputation?

It never really registered how iconic Lester Flatt really was until I was older. I had a pretty normal childhood, and nobody made a big deal about it.  Actually, a lot of my friends growing up were related to famous people in the music business, like major icons, so it was really never a big deal honestly.  That’s just the way it was growing up in North Nashville (in the city of Hendersonville).  No one thought about it much.  We saw Johnny Cash at church or Conway Twitty at the mall, and nobody cared much, so it really wasn’t a big deal that Lester Flatt was my relative. That probably sounds strange to an outsider, but that was normal in our town filled with a lot of Country Music legends.  Everyone minded their own business.   My Dad always had a lot of Flatt & Scruggs records, but I never really understood the magnitude of the situation until I was probably in High School. One of my friend’s mom asked me if I was related to Lester Flatt.  I told her, “Yes, he’s an uncle on my Dad’s side”, and she was literally in disbelief.  She accused me of lying to her because I had never told her before.  It was rather humorous.

You have had a duo Flatt and Alvis as well as a rock band Tolleson Experiment who have recorded and toured. Why is now the time to release your first solo album ‘ Cumberland Bones’?

The other groups were awesome and a lot of fun.  Americana music is my favourite music, and a lot of the songs I write are true Americana songs. I have been building a large collection of Americana songs over the years, and they didn’t really fit with any of the other groups. I have been slowly building and developing the songs for this album over the past 10 years. As things began to wind down with the other groups, I thought it was a great time to do a solo album.

The Cumberland River looms large in Nashville history and in country music lyrics. What does your album title mean?

The album is about characters that have been moulded and affected by rural society.  Many of these characters are from the “Upper Cumberland” region of Tennessee, where my relatives reside, especially the Flatt family. So, the word Cumberland is indicative of Tennessee, specifically the region of Tennessee on and near the Cumberland Plateau.  Bones is another word for memories, relics, and fossils.  In his song, ‘Digging Up Bones’, Randy Travis sings about “resurrecting memories that are better left alone”.  So, “Bones” are oftentimes tough and unpleasant memories that might be better left alone.

What music were you listening to in your formative years?

I was influenced by a lot of different music:  I listened to a lot of Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, Drivin’ N Cryin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Byrds, The Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, The Indigo Girls, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Simon and Garfunkel. I also love rock music, which is why I created The Tolleson Experiment. You can hear a lot of these influences in my music.

Nashville is clearly a southern city but how modern is it in terms of its industries and attitudes?

Nashville is a fairly progressive city.  It is a major hub for automotive manufacturing, communications, healthcare, banking, technology, insurance, and of course, the music business. Nashville is very forward-thinking compared to the rest of Tennessee.  It’s the same trend across America. The big cities are progressive, and the rural areas are very conservative.

America is a very divided country. How do you see the south developing in the future?

I could talk for hours on this subject, but it might be best discussed over a pint of beer.  Too much to discuss for this article.   

Were you impacted by the recent tornado to hit Nashville?

Not directly, but everyone was impacted somehow.  We had friends that were directly impacted, local businesses that were shuttered, roads that were closed, friends that lost homes or roofs.  It was a tough time for our city.  Its been a tough year for our city with the tornado,

COVID, the bombing downtown, and recently flooding.  We have a resilient city with awesome residents, and we always seem to bounce back better than ever.

How do you go about writing songs and how do you decide what you will do with them?

I usually get a theme in my head and/or a melody.  I always write with the guitar.  I usually start with a melody or a line, and then I just start working on it.  I break it down line by line.  I normally have a chorus first, and then I mould the verses around the chorus.  The type of song depends on my mood, most often or the music I’ve been listening to recently.

Is it intimidating to write songs in Nashville given its history and the fact it is a mecca for songwriters?

Honestly and ironically, I’ve never gotten too deep into the whole Nashville songwriting scene. I know that may sound weird, but I’ve always lived here and I know what it’s like.  Its strange man.  It’s like actors in Los Angeles.  People come from all over the world to come here a be songwriters, and that’s pretty cool.  I’ve got good friends that are amazing songwriters, like Jason Duke and Matt Warren, that also grew up here.  They’ve had #1 hits on country radio, and they literally write all the time. I can’t write like that.  My songs come from very deep and emotional places of my soul.  I can’t sit in a room and write with two or three other people.  I’ve never been able to write on demand.  I write when I get inspired, and I might work on a song for six hours straight without ever taking a break.  Or, I might get a chorus completed and then abandon the song for six months until I get inspired to do the verses.  This can drive other writers crazy.  But, I am definitely Obsessive Compulsive in this regard.  It has to be perfect, there has to be a theme, there has to be a hook, and it has to be authentic and real.

You have worked in the trucking industry when not following music full-time. Trucking has been the subject of some great songs with truckers being seen as modern-day cowboys by some. Has your experience of the industry influenced your own songwriting?

I love driving and listening to music, and a lot of my songs are road songs, so they tend to resonate with truck drivers.  I also worked in the trucking industry for a number of years.  I wasn’t a truck driver, but I worked closely with them, and they inspired some of the material.  The song, ‘Hold You Tonight’, is specifically about a truck driver eager to get off the road and back home.

Do you see yourself as a performer or songwriter?

A songwriter.  Since I was in high school I’ve also gravitated to writing my own songs.  I love to play live shows, and I love to record, but most of all I enjoy the creative process of writing a song, developing the words, creating the melody, working on the vocal arrangements, etc.  Having a song come together brings me a level of happiness that is hard to match.

How did you go about getting the finance together to record the album?

You can save a lot of money over ten years. Ha. Ha.

How did you hook up with producer Dave Roe and what did he bring to the recordings?

Dave is a long-time friend, and he was my neighbour for a while.  Dave played bass on my first album, Fields of Fire, while I was in the duo Flatt & Alvis, and that’s how we met.  We kept in touch over the years.  He has an awesome studio, and I wanted to work with him again on a recording project.  Dave brings a tremendous amount of professionalism and creativity to a project. He is a great guy, and great to work with.  He knows exactly what a song needs, and he gets it done quick.  He does not cut corners, and he puts his soul into every song.  He has literally played with everyone in town, and he is highly sought after as a studio musician.  He has played with the legends.  I wanted him to produce this, and he was excited to do it.

Kenny Vaughan also plays on your album. What was it like working with a guitarist of that quality and the other musicians who joined you on the album?

Kenny’s playing is on a different level.  He is so smooth and tasteful, and he approached the project in a very humble way.  His tone is truly remarkable.  All the musicians on this album were amazing. I’ve known many of them or worked with many of them before, like Dave, Charlie, Steve, Justin, and Vaston.  Steve Hinson is one of the best steel guitar players in the world, and I was lucky enough to have him as one of my guitar teachers when I was a kid growing up in Hendersonville.   Deanie Richardson is unbelievable on the fiddle, and she recently won the IBMA fiddle player of the year award.  Charlie Cushman has a Grammy Award for his work with the Earls of Leicester, and Ronnie Bowman is a three-time IBMA vocalist of the year.  It was awesome getting a group of musicians of this calibre together to create the album.  It was an honour working with them, and they are amazing down-to-earth folks.  Also, it was an honour having Sean Sullivan as the studio engineer and mixer.  Sean worked at John Prine’s studio, and he has been the engineer on many ground-breaking projects for folks like Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers.

Chris Scruggs is active in Nashville. Is there any form of club in Nashville for the relatives of legendary musicians? Seriously though, how much sharing of experience is there between the Nashville families?

Chris Scruggs is awesome.  I love his music, and he can play about any instrument made.  Oddly, I’ve never met Chris before.  I met his Dad and brother, but never Chris.  Like me, he sorta keeps to himself and tries not to ride his family’s coattails too much, but instead stands on his own merits, which he does extremely well.  We were supposed to be booked on a show together years ago, but it didn’t work out for some reason.  There are definitely many notable legacies in town, such as Dean Miller, Shooter Jennings, Holly Williams, Hank III, but I don’t see a lot of interaction amongst these folks.  I think everyone is busy and trying to stand on their own two feet.  Maybe we need to start up a club or something, haha.  I must say that my parents always tried their best to shelter me and keep me away from the ugliness of the music scene.  The music scene can be nasty.  A lot of my friends growing up with famous relatives had a tough home life. Their parents were always on the road and rarely at home.  They were oftentimes struggling with addictions, family issues, divorces, and separations.  Country songs imitate life, actually.  Fame and fortune have a high price.  So, the music business was not a great place to be if you wanted a stable family life, so my parents were very cognizant about trying to keep me away from this scene. That’s probably why I’ve never dove headfirst into the scene like others have.

The Nashville sound changes every now and again as it adapts to its audience. What do you think of the current version of the Nashville sound and why have you kept away from the Nashville mainstream?

See the answer up above.  I have a lot of good friends that make a living in the Nashville music business, so I don’t want to disparage it in any way.  There is a lot of great music being made in Nashville, and what is played on mainstream country radio is just a small snippet of the music being made here.  But, let’s be honest, country radio is purely manufactured. Don’t get me wrong, the musicians in this town are legit, and they play from their souls. However, it’s the labels and the money that can sometimes remove the soul from a song or an artist.   The “mainstream” stuff never resonated with me much, because it can be so manufactured.  A lot of stuff on country radio these days is just pop songs being sung with a country accent, so it’s not what I call authentic country music.  I like authentic music that reaches down and touches your soul.  I wanted to do an authentic album filled with deep emotional topics.  I wanted all the musicians together, so we could track everything at the same time and generate a vibe that you can only get when musicians are interacting with one another. So, that’s what we did.  They literally don’t make albums like this much anymore.  I am extremely proud of the sounds generated on this album.

What did you think of Jerry Douglas’s Flatt and Scruggs tribute band The Earls of Leicester?

They are absolutely fantastic!  I love them.  I’ve been friends with Charlie Cushman for years, and he’s the best Scruggs-style banjo player in the world, hands down.  Shawn Camp’s vocals are amazing.  Nobody can match Lester’s voice, but Shawn comes close.  Of course, Jerry Douglas is amazing.  I am also extremely impressed with Johnny Warren’s fiddle playing.  I never knew he could play like that.  I love to hear them play.  I got to see them at the Ryman Auditorium in 2018, and they were fantastic.

What are your plans for the remainder of 2021?

I don’t want to rush and make a bunch of plans and predictions.  I did that in 2020, and everything fell apart.  I don’t want to jinx anything.  My first goal is to release and promote this album.  It is a great album, and I want everyone to hear it.  That’s my only major goal at this point.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

Yes.  These aren’t necessarily new, but it is what I’ve got stuck on lately.  Sturgill Simpson ‘Cutting Grass Volumes 1&2’.  Brent Cobb ‘Shine On Rainy Day’. Chris Knight ‘Trailer Tapes’. Cody Jinks ‘Adobe Sessions‘. Parker McCollum singles.  Parker is a new kid out of Austin, and he is legit.  Check him out.  He’ll be great if they don’t try to turn him into a pop star.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

You have a beautiful country.  I’ve travelled across southern England years ago, and it was the best trip of my life.  I hope to come back one of these days.  Thank you for listening to authentic folk music and helping keep this art form alive.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Stephen Flatt’s ‘Cumberland Bones’ is out now on Flatt Family Music

About Martin Johnson 378 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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