Cotton Clifton was just a boy when his Aunt Debbie won a radio contest and gifted him a brand-new guitar with all the trimmings. Clifton’s childhood diet of classic country music evolved along with his skill, and as a teenager, Southern and classic rock gave way to metal before his songwriting abilities brought him full circle and he began to discover a songwriter’s voice that shared as much with Townes Van Zandt as it did with Ronnie Van Zant. Originally from Lousiana, Cotton landed in Jackson, Tennesee where he became a mainstay on the local scene with his band The Pickers as well as lead guitarist and chief accomplice of alt-country provocateur The Kernal. Cotton shares a great deal with his red-suited pal– both he and Kern have a reverence for classic country music but manage to present it without cliche (a Herculean task for any 21st Century artist) while injecting something completely new into the marrow. On his brand new track, “Stay”, Cotton Clifton delivers layers of textured fury that channel the epic spirits of American rock and countrypolitan grandeur. It’s vicious poetry that breaks towards the sky and barrel rolls for the sun. And it’s only a herald of things to come.
AI- I love the new track, man, and I’ve really been looking forward to this! Talkin’ to Anthony [Ennis], one of my co-workers, who I believe you’ve met at the show y’all did with Paul Cauthen at the [Hargray Capitol Theatre], and we got to talkin’ about Kern & Cotton’s Cactus Hour. We both thoroughly enjoyed that back in the early days of the pandemic.
CC- Yeah, that was early on, man! We were like, “Well, we gotta do somethin’!” (Laughs)
And it was a couple of months after that, I talked to Joe, the Kernal, and he told me you’d moved up to Nashville. I was like, “Oh no! What are you gonna do without Cotton?”
Luckily, Jackson’s only two hours from Nashville, so it ain’t that bad! But yeah, I just decided to up and move to Nashville in the middle of a global shutdown! Seemed like as good as time as any!
You’d been in Jackson– what, somewhere to the tune of 14 or 15 years up to that point?
Not quite. I’ve been in Tennessee altogether, about 15 years. I moved up there from Louisiana. I kinda went from town to town, worked at a little odd jobs, and I ended up settlin’ in the big city, which is Jackson, Tennessee. I was in Jackson almost 11 years. So about a decade. Spent a good part of my 20s and early 30s there. It’s a great little city!
What made you decide to go to Nashville?
Well, things were gettin’ kind of weird. All the shows had got shut down, and for some reason, I always kind of avoided movin’ to Nashville– almost like I was in denial! Like, “I don’t need to move there!”Jackson’s such an easy town to live in. The cost of living is low and it just seemed like a daunting task to move to Nashville. I guess maybe once everything was shut down and all the shows were canceled and there wasn’t really nothing goin’ on, maybe Nashville had the appeal. There was a vulnerability there, where it was like everyone was just kind of exposed and open, and you were seein’ the city for what it really is at its core. There’s a good, strong community here, and I’ve made a lot of connections in Nashville and have a lot of friends in Nashville. It’s almost like everybody hit the reset button. It just seemed like a good time, really. Kinda like a why-not situation. You know, like ol’ Kern says, he says, “Tammy Why-not?” (Laughs)
“Stay”… There’s about three or four different songs all rollin’ around in that one track. And the dynamic is just compelling as hell! Tell me about puttin’ that together. Who’s on the track and where’d you record it?
I recorded it here in Nashville at one of my buddy’s studios. He’s got a little home studio in his basement– David Broyles– and it was just me and him, man. We just got down to it, and we built the track. Between me and him, we played all the instrumentation except for the strings. Caleb Elliott, who actually has a record out on Single Lock Records, the label that Kernal’s under too, is a magnificent cello player, and Kimi Samson is a fiddle player down there in Muscle Shoals. They recorded that remotely. I just sent them the track and they composed and arrange the string track and sent it back to me. Did like a COVID recording, you know?
But other than that, yeah, it was just Caleb and Kimi and then me and David. He mixed and engineered it. We just hunkered down and started raw. I said, “Hey man, I’m just gonna play this. I got this track, I’m gonna play the guitar, and then we’ll just go from there!” And we had a good time with it, man! There was definitely some parts like the ending of the song, it gets a little epic. We were like, “Do we go for it hard, or do we keep it nice and simple? Easy listening?” And it’s like, “Nah, man, let’s take it to the moon at the end! Let’s get all Phil Spector on it! Or Queen on it and just go to town!” We had a lot of fun with that track!
It was real fun workin’ with David. David Broyles is actually a Jackson guy, and I know him from years ago! When I first started playin’ music in Jackson, me and his band would play together a lot. And then about six or seven years ago, he decided to move up to Nashville. Me and my buddy started this little handyman business to make ends meet here in Nashville, which there’s plenty of work in Nashville, and he was like, “Hey, I been workin’ with this guy in the studio. You oughtta go work with him. He’s actually from Jackson, His name’s David Broyles.” I was like, “Hell I know David Broyles! How do you know David Broyles? You’re from Texas!” It’s a big small world, you know? It just worked out. I was workin’ with this guy and he was like, “You gotta meet my friend David!” I was like, “I know David, man, come on!” And we just went from there! There was no awkwardness in the studio. It was like, “Hey, what’s going on, man? Long time, no see!” We just got right to work!
Is this part of a larger project or is this a one-off? Or is it somethin’ that you’re building up to?
I actually cut some music, me and my original band, we cut a live record about three years ago. Timing never worked out, and I didn’t want to release it into the world if I wasn’t going to be able to bring the boys on the road. A couple of the guys who played on the record got a wife and a kid, and then we were so busy with Kernal’s stuff that the timing never seemed right. So, yeah, the plan is to keep goin’. I think the next move is we’re gonna try to release another single here soon with the outlook of releasin’ a whole record eventually.
This is a single that’s already been recorded?
Yeah, it’s a single that’s already been recorded that I did like three years ago. I’ve been sittin’ on those, and I don’t know whether or not I want to maybe recut some of ’em or save ’em for the vault ’cause I’ve written a lot of other songs. The plan is to release another single that we’ve already recorded, but we did “Stay” durin’ COVID this past year. Late 2020 is when we cut it, like October. But yeah, the plan is to just keep on pumping ’em out, man! Why not?
I know that you’ve had Cotton Clifton and the Pickers. I’m assuming that’s the outfit that you’re talking about?
Of course, with the Kern & Cotton Cactus Hour, you sang some of your songs. I’ve seen you sing your songs with the Kernal [live], so it feels like you’ve been building towards this for a little bit.
I’ll be forever grateful for Kern choosin’ me as his right-hand man, his wingman. The music business is all about who you know and in order to get to know people, you gotta go out on the road and you gotta meet ’em and you gotta talk to ’em. You gotta make friends. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to go out on the road with Joe for the past seven years and make a lot of friends and connections. It does pay off to build that community and make friendships that can last a long time. It’s funny how small the music world can be sometimes when you hit the road and you’re like, “Oh yeah, I know him! Yeah, I know them! They’re great people!” It’s pretty small when it gets down to it. I like that about it.
Let’s talk about the business part of it because I feel like you and the Kernal and other artists of your cut, the liberties that you take, the boundaries that you push, I feel personally that’s what’s necessary to keep country music moving forward. Country music that is not pop music. But there’s no formula on “Stay”. There’s no formula with what you’re doing. And I think that sometimes can be a challenge for radio and for record labels.
Yeah, that’s a funny thing too ’cause when we were doin’ all the online stuff and tryin’ to get everything ready to put it out in the digital world on all the platforms, you have to jump through all these hoops and you have to say, “What genre is this?” And I was like, “Well… Country? Question mark? I think it’s country? I don’t know? I just wrote it!” (Laughs) Country can be such a broad statement these days, you know what I mean? ‘Cause a lot of people, when they think country, they [think] pedal steel and fiddle and Bob Wills doin’ his little yelps– and that’s country. But then John Prine is also country. Bob Wills and John Prine couldn’t be more different, but they’re both, in my eyes, country music.
This is something that I’ve had a lot of thought about lately. At the end of the day, all music is folk music. It’s all coming from a personal place from the people. Sometimes it represents a singular thought from a single person or sometimes it’s speaking as a universal language. It’s all folk music even if you wanna call it hip hop or whatever it is. Somebody wrote that song from their heart. Like the old saying goes, “Write what you know.” Yeah, it’s hard to call it what it is these days, but at the end of the day, it’s country music… With a question mark!
You grew up with country music and Southern Rock. As a matter of fact, I believe Lynyrd Skynyrd was your jam early on…
Oh man, yeah! And I’ll still say to this day, unironically, Skynyrd is probably my favorite band of all time. I’m not even kiddin’! I love that band so much!
But what was the gateway for you to what you’re doin’ now? ‘Cause as you say, “Country with a question mark,” but it’s still very left of the dial. Who were the artists or what were the instances that put you on this path that you’re on right now creating Cotton Clifton’s music?
I would say the Kernel helped a lot. I grew up listenin’ to country music that my granddaddy listened to. He loved George Jones and all that stuff, but my stepdad, he was really into the classic rock. So I kind of strayed away from country in my teenage years– as like formative years– and I was really into metal and Metallica and all that stuff. I’ve played in several heavy bands. In Jackson, I had this band with my brother and my good buddy, John. We had a little 3-piece kinda stoner metal band. But I had all these songs that I was writing, just sittin’ down with my guitar in the livin’ room, that I was like, “Well, I can’t play these in a heavy band! This is not Old Cold Blood!” That was the name of the group.
I’ve had all this stuff in the vault, and I had to do somethin’ with it eventually. So I got together a group of guys whenever I wasn’t tourin’ on the road with Kernal, and we just started playin’. I recruited an upright bass player, one of my good friends, Jake Flippin, and a pedal steel player there in town. Used the same drummer that played on the first Kernal record, Jesse Hornbeak. So I kinda like pulled Kern’s drummer! And Kern’s played bass with me doin’ Cotton Clifton stuff too! It’s a tight-knit little community there in Jackson.
But I would say that Kernal really helped me. He broadened my horizons for what country music is like I was sayin’ earlier. He showed me other alternative forms of country, not like the modernized alt-country, but alternative forms of country like diggin’ deeper into Del Reeves, that truck drivin’ music, and stuff like that– that I didn’t even know existed! I was like, “Okay, well, this is country music too! It’s not like Bob Wills or George Jones, but it’s still country.” And I found that fascinating and that inspired me to write in that form of Guy Clark and others. I would credit a lot of that to Joe Garner ’cause he has such a… I mean, Kernal! Sorry (laughs)! I credit a lot of that to him ’cause he had such deep-seated upbringing in the country music world ’cause of his father. Joe’s daddy was a house bass player from the Grand Ole Opry for years. So Joe grew up goin’ to the Opry and him and his little twin brother runnin’ backstage at the Ryman with Porter Wagoner pushin’ ’em outta the way! He grew up in that thing and he really got me into it and broadened my horizons for sure. He’s one of my best friends, and I still think he’s one of the best songwriters out there too!
Oh, I heartily agree! And I always have a great time talkin’ to Kern about just music in general too because he has such a broad taste in everything. But I’ll tell you, I did not know he had a twin brother!
Yes! He has a twin brother who is a corporal. He’s a cop! So you’ve got a corporal and a Kernal!
I have watched you play guitar. I think you’ve got a great style. Watchin’ you fingerpick on them Telecaster strings is really amazing. Have you been doin’ any studio work for other artists during your tenure in Nashville so far?
Not since I’ve been in Nashville, but I did work with John Paul White from the Civil Wars. He’s one of the father heads of the Single Lock label, and he got me down there to play on his latest single. “Long Way Home” was the name of the track.
I didn’t know you were on that track!
Yeah! They got this guy, some Nashville cat, this older guy, who’s just a fantastic guitar player. Plays like a big hollow-body Gretsch. They got him to play on it, and John Paul White is talkin’ and he’s like, “You know, no offense– but that guy was just too good.” Ben Tanner, he’s the head engineer down there at Single Lock, but he also plays keys for the Alabama Shakes, they were sittin’ there cuttin’ in the studio and they listened to that one guy playin’ the solo and John Paul’s like, “Man, it’s almost just too good.” And Ben said, “You know what we need? We need some Cotton!” I guess they needed a little more of that raunchiness or that grittiness or whatever. So I went down there and gave it to ’em! And it was a lot of fun! I was honored to be asked to play. I remember when they were makin’ the announcements and stuff like that, they announced that was gonna be the single before they released the album. Hearin’ it play in Starbucks and stuff like that’s kinda surreal. That was a good time!
But no, not really. I haven’t really done much else in Nashville, man. Been really workin’ a lot with this handyman stuff and just home repair kind of things. Hell, I spent all last summer mowin’ yards, man! Like I was a teenager again! I was out there, had about nine or ten yards, just mowin’, and weed eatin’ and blowin’ and keepin’ my head down and writin’ songs and workin’!
What is the plan goin’ forward? We’ve talked about you deciding to release more music, record more music, but I’m seeing a trend with places opening back up and bands startin’ to get back out and play. Are you gonna do Cotton Clifton and The Pickers? Are you gonna be back with the Kernal? Have you guys got somethin’ in the works?
Yeah, that is kinda the plan. I started gettin’ some gig offers recently once some of the restrictions were lifted a few months ago. I didn’t quite feel comfortable yet, and I knew that everybody was bein’ safe, but it’s a precarious situation, and a lot of times in this day and age, your reputation goes a long way. I didn’t wanna have necessarily the reputation like, “Oh, well he started playin’ shows in the middle of a pandemic!” So there was that and then there’s obviously the fear of it, not wantin’ to have an event that was spreadin’ the virus around.
I actually just booked my first show. We were supposed to play it last year. It’s a festival in Iowa called Torque Fest and it’s like a hot rod show music festival. We were supposed to play it last year and it was one of the first gigs of many that got canceled. They’re makin’ it up this year, so I’m playin’ my first show in over a year in Dubuque on April 30th and May 1st. And we got a show at Acme Feed & Seed here in Nashville in May! Kernal and I both, he’s got a record that he’s sittin’ on that’s coming out, hopefully, this summer, and I think we’re gonna try to both put the albums out there and hit the road as a Kern and Cotton thing. It’s basically the same band and we got some Kern songs and Cotton songs, and we’re just gonna hit the road hard! I think that’s the plan. I’m officially, fully vaccinated today, which is exciting, and I know he is too, so now it’s just, “Let’s do it!” There’s no reason not to now!