What do you get when you take a musician who was born and raised in Missouri and cross him with a Grammy-nominated record producer from Oklahoma? Well, if the musician in question is Brad Cunningham and the producer is Wes Sharon, the answer is you get a CD full of Red Dirt Texas country tunes.
Brad himself laughs at the somewhat circuitous route taken by The Brad Cunningham Band’s debut album, Every Inch of Texas. But it all makes sense when you know the story behind the songs. Brad was born in Columbia and grew up just south of that city in Ashland. Although he was exposed to a lot of different music in his early years, it wasn’t until he went to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, that he first picked up a guitar and started creating his own tunes. That was also when his love for Texas country music began to form.
After returning to Columbia, Brad joined with other area performers to form Man in the Ring, a group that received critical praise, but seemed impossible to classify into a single niche. There were definite country influences and strong bluegrass overtones. But hidden among the intricate riffs and harmonies were also hints of Robert Johnson, Steely Dan, and Dave Matthews.
“That was a good thing and a bad thing, because people would say, ‘What do you play? Who do you sound like? What do you do?’ ” Brad says. “It was like, ‘Well, we do everything.’ ”
It was during a meeting with the late Louis Meyers, one of the founders of Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival, that Brad says his musical future finally gained some clarity.
“Louis said, ‘You need to pick a direction and go,’ ” Brad says. “He said, ‘You’re familiar with Texas. I think you need to chart something there. Hire a promoter, hire a publicist, and try to make some waves in Texas.’ ”
To re-image the brand, Man in the Ring was renamed as the Brad Cunningham Band. The next step was to find a producer who could start opening doors.
“We had played with the Turnpike Troubadours out of Norman, Oklahoma,” Brad says. “They’re really one of the biggest country/Americana acts out there right now.”
From that connection, the Brad Cunningham Band was introduced to the Troubadours’ producer, Wes Sharon, who not only agreed to produce Every Inch of Texas, but also got the band signed to a distribution deal with Sony/RED.
“Wes said, ‘I don’t want to record a record from where you’ve been. I want to record a record for where you want to be,’ ” Brad says.
The re-imaging is paying off. In August, the Brad Cunningham Band opened for the Marshall Tucker Band at the Gillioz Theatre in Springfield. This year, the band will be playing on the Great Southern Bank Stage at Columbia’s Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival on Saturday, October 1.
Although it’s not the first time the band has performed at the annual event, Brad says this year will be special.
“For us to be invited to play is always exciting, but to play on the main stage with the other big-name acts is a special thrill,” Brad says. Aside from playing to a hometown crowd, Brad says the energy from the larger venue will feed the overall performance. “In a small venue, you’ve got to take the overall volume back and I think that sometimes can reduce the amount of energy you’re feeling,” he says.“For us, it’s an opportunity to let loose.”
On Every Inch of Texas, Brad plays acoustic guitar and sings with longtime bandmates T.J. Klein on electric guitar and pedal steel; Kyle Day on bass; Drake Detwiler on drums; Kyle Pudenz on fiddle, mandolin, and harmony vocals; and Rachel Turner on harmony vocals. Ryan Engleman from Turnpike Troubadours also plays pedal steel on the CD, and producer Wes Sharon joins the group, playing bass on the cut, “Slow Down.”
Kyle Pudenz was an original member of Man in the Ring, but left the band to go to Nashville. Though Kyle played fiddle on the CD, Molly Healey, of Springfield-based Big Smith, has been the fiddle player for the Brad Cunningham Band’s live performances for the last three years.
Brad laughs when asked about the band’s Missouri to Oklahoma to Texas route, but says he wouldn’t change a thing about the road he’s taken. “Oklahoma was kind of a bridge, I guess, between Missouri and Texas,” he says. “The biggest thing is we wanted to work with Wes Sharon. We really love his records, and he believed in the music when he heard it.” Brad wrote or co-wrote all ten songs on Every Inch of Texas. One of the cuts, “Ozark Mountain Blues,” suggests a strong influence from Brad’s Missouri roots. A single, “Goin’ to Texas,” has been steadily climbing the Texas Regional Radio chart.
One takeaway from the experience, Brad says, is a Texas-sized pride in what the band has been able to accomplish. “I don’t feel like I’m trying to be something that I’m not by making a record of Red Dirt Texas country,” he says. “If anything, I’m taking that Texas mind-set that says be proud of where you’re from and putting some of my Missouri influence into it. For us to get a deal with Sony, for us to get on some big festivals and make a record with a Grammy-nominated producer that is getting radio play in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri—I just want people to know this is kind of a gem. And we’re very proud we’re from Missouri.”
The Brad Cunningham Band is scheduled to appear at Columbia’s Tenth Annual Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival, Saturday, October 1 at 11:15 AM on the Great Southern Bank Stage. Get more information at RootsNBluesNBBQ.com.