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Thad Cockrell puts warmth and beauty in his music

By Brian Steinberg, November 2003

Sure Thad Cockerell's music has that certain twang to it, but he hopes you'll take a closer listen to "Warmth & Beauty," his second and latest album.

"I think they are think they are really good songs, and there's no reason to hide behind a bunch of pedal steel all over the place," he says. "This alt.-country, whatever that is, 98 percent of songs in that genre are just completely ridiculous. The only reason why people would consider them is that they are really country music fans because it sounds so country. But you can't have a great country record if you don't have great country songs."

"Warmth & Beauty" is laced with high lonesome vocals and the intimate feeling of sitting right in front of the stage at an intimate nightclub.

Check out a song like "Why Go," a song that sounds like it mixes brushed-drums and acoustic guitars to achieve a clean-cut effect: just the singer and the song.

The album's best moments are stark and solid, and some parts of the disc might remind listeners of some of Neil Young's best moments from "After The Gold Rush" or "Tonight's The Night." Or perhaps Gram Parsons crooning a song like "She."

"Most of this record was live," says Cockrell in a phone interview. "Eighty percent of it was live."

Cockrell lives in Durham, N.C., but he got his first listen to high lonesome sounds while growing up in Tampa, Fla. Growing up under the supervision of his father, a Baptist preacher, Cockrell's first sounds came from artists like Merle Haggard and George Jones. Southern gospel music was always available at home.

Nevertheless, he didn't get his musical start until much later.

"I didn't start playing music until I was out of college," he explains. "It was two weeks before I graduated from college when I wrote my first song. I went out and got my master's in theology and counseling. My parents didn't listen to it - radio. I think I was maybe four years old, and I heard Charlie Rich singing 'Behind Closed Doors.' Twas before I even knew what country was. I freaked out. I just loved it, but it wasn't like I kept listening to it."

After leaving for school, he attended Liberty University in Virginia and first started to write his own songs. "I knew like two or three chords on a guitar," he recalls. "I wrestled through college."

By the time he arrived at Wake Forest in North Carolina to study at the Southeast Baptist Theological Seminary, he was playing for tips at a small coffeehouse near campus.

He next started to break into the local music scene in Raleigh, N.C. His first combo was named the Starlite Country Band, and his first release, originally supposed to be a demo, was called "Stack of Dreams." Like the current disc, it was produced with the help of veteran musician Chris Stamey.

Miles of Music, an LA-area company better known as a leading indie country mail order house, released the album.

Talented musicians abound on "Warmth & Beauty," released on the Yep Roc label of North Carolina. Zeke Hutchins and Greg Reading, two members of The Carbines who play with North Carolina Tift Merritt, play drums and pedal steel, respectively.

Merritt shows up to supply backing vocals on the song "Why." And Caitlin Cary, the songwriter, fiddler and former Whiskeytown member, offers guest vocals on the Buck Owens song "Together Again." Other helpers include Aaron Oliva on upright bass, John Teer on guitar, fiddle and mandolin and Jen Gunderman - a former member of the Jayhawks and now an accompanist for Caitlin Cary - on keyboards.

"Everybody kind of works together really well on the record," says Cockrell, 25. "People come in, and they fall out and come in when they need to."

Some of the songs came to him from real life. "'Some Tears,' that whole thing, is about me and my granddad," he says. "When business wasn't bustling, which it rarely was, he and I would go fishing." He remembers going to church and prayer meetings with his grandparents, as well as to a local eating place. His grandfather died when he was in the third or fourth grade.

While visiting his grandmother two summers ago, Cockrell says, "I went out there, and I wrote that song. It's the closest that I would get to spending time with my granddad again...Some people think that it's about some lost love. I suppose it is."

As for finding inspiration, it happens in all sorts of fashions, he says. "There's no rhyme or reason. It happens in all different ways. Usually, life happens, and it comes to me. The majority of it all comes to me - the words and music, the melody, everything."

Cockrell thinks much of today's so-called country music - even the modern roots hybrid sometimes known as "alt.-country," is not much to crow about.

"I rarely hear anything good in alt.-country," he says. Musicians such as Bruce Robison, Buddy Miller and Dwight Yoakam should not be placed in that category, he argues. "That's just great country music."

"What I want to accomplish is I want to sell millions of records," Cockrell says. "I want to be as cool as Johnny Cash. I'm moving to Nashville. I'm on an indie label, and I love Yep Roc. I think they are great. My goal is to be in country music and to play as much as possible."

"I don't care about the fame. I want to make great music. If you make great music, the rest will take care of itself."