Big Grove Brewery & Taproom — Friday, Sept. 28 at 9 p.m.
There’s a buzz on the line when I get Lucca Soria on the phone from the East Nashville home he and the rest of the Cordovas share.
“I’m standing in front a wall of amplifiers right now,” he says.
It’s feedback — sound is sent back through a microphone from the speaker that’s producing it — and it’s the best illustration there is for all that the Cordovas represent in their music.
They are a repository of American folk music who have spent countless nights on tour studying Grateful Dead soundboards and Doc Watson records equally, fusing and subverting them both into their own style of Americana music. They’ve gone from Nashville’s best-kept open secret to being named one of Rolling Stone Country‘s “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know,” and having their song, “The One Who Needs You Tonight,” selected as one of NPR Music’s “Songs We Love.”
They are bringing their version of cosmic country music to Iowa City’s Big Grove Brewery on Friday for a free show just a couple of weeks after they were named “One of the Best Acts We Saw At AmericanaFest” by NPR’s World Cafe.
On the best nights, you aren’t able to discern one voice from another in the stacked harmonies of Soria, Joe Firstman and Toby Weaver, as much a talent as a larger metaphor for the way that the Cordovas live and create. The blueprint for their East Nashville home and headquarters harks back to some of the most famous laboratories in American music history: the Allman Brothers’ Big House. The Grateful Dead’s Haight-Ashbury headquarters. The Band’s Big Pink.
Soria guides me through a typical day at the Cordovas house:
“I take my guitar and I walk out to our barn. We just plug into the giant Twin Reverb and we go over some new stuff, and then we run through the set. People come out and join since we’re all in the same house. There’s no strict schedule or anything,” he says. “There’s no driving to rehearsal. There’s no people looking at their phone to see when they can leave for dinner. That vibe is totally eliminated. It just makes everything way easier, and once it’s easier for everyone, then a different thing can happen. A sort of light can open up.”
What light they found, or rather found them, wound up on their debut album, That Santa Fe Channel. Released by ATO Records on Aug. 10, the record was produced by the Milk Carton Kids’ Kenneth Pattengale. On it, they’ve written songs about America, from the straight-laced kill buzzes of “This Town’s A Drag” to the company of Midwest women in “I’m the One Who Needs You Tonight.” The characters are also familiar, from the manipulative stoner in “Selfish Loner” to the shotgun-toting maniac in “Standin’ on the Porch.”
Recorded live, they play deceitfully loose, like a late night Trailways bus ride with no stop in sight. Their tunes are full of joyous interludes of twin crisp guitars wielded by Weaver and Soria, anchored by Firstman’s impeccable grace and tonality on bass. Sevans Henderson and Graham Spillman complete the picture on piano and drums respectively.
Soria says that onstage, they are just trying to be the best house band you’ve ever heard, no matter whose house they happen to be in.
“We’re striving for consistency. Everyone in the band is meditating on consistency in one way or another,” he says. “We play a lot of shows and we’re just trying to throw a party every single time. We’re trying to be consistent at party throwing.”
That consistency starts with the countless hours spent in the barn, always working on their harmonies. It’s what the band has become known for. It’s also what they spend a lot of their time reshaping.
“We are super honest with ourselves. I’m still training with placement, ways to blend with them, There’s a lot of patience involved,” Soria says. “I recognize how Toby and Joe sing. It’s the actual old American way to sing, the North Carolina way. Whether it takes us forever to realize it or not, almost all the singers we like are doing that. That is the heart of American singing.”
Just in makeup alone, they are an unquestionably American band: Spillman is from California, Henderson from Oklahoma, Soria from Des Moines and Weaver and Firstman childhood friends from Charlotte, North Carolina. Soria says that this only widens their perspective and draws them closer together.
“Because we’re all from different places and all from different experiences growing up, there’s a part of us that sort of sheds some of the pride and we have this mentality like ‘Let’s all get this done and work together.’ There’s no other point,” he says. “Our goal always is to try to get along with one another and try to be better. It seems it should be the standard for everyone trying to be in what they are calling a band, a band that has a name and all the things that go with being an American band.”
Every January, the band heads south of the border to regroup and to host their annual music festival in Todos Santos, Mexico. The Tropic of Cancer Series is ten days of music played by friends from both sides of the border. This year’s lineup includes Joan Osbourne, Susto, and the all-female mariachi trio La Victoria. Last year, the Cordovas spent nearly two months there before and after the festival, fine tuning the songs that became That Santa Fe Channel. From what Soria says, there is some uncomparable creative energy there, fueled largely by margaritas and Baja sunsets.
“It’s a different life down there. It’s a different situation. You have to overcome some different things and you’ve got to be brotherly to one another. It’s not like American La La Land,” Soria says.
American La La Land might be a lyric Robert Hunter would dig. The Grateful Dead, in some way it seems, are always hovering around the Cordovas.
“We’re trying to get Toby’s license worked out and he’s got a Keep Safe box, and he opens his Keep Safe box and in there are all these OG Grateful Dead tickets,” Soria says, laughing. “It’s like his birth certificate, his passport, Social Security ID card and his Grateful Dead tickets.”
And much like the Dead, the Cordovas take to the stage night after night, chasing that feedback loop until audience is as much a part of the performance as the band themselves, if just for awhile reaching a state of American Zen we all seem to be after.
“We’re going to go up there and die. That’s the whole thing,” he says. “It’s not trying to make it about myself or anyone else. Just trying to make it about this night, wherever this night might be.”