In 2004, Thad Cockrell, a country singer-songwriter then living in Chapel Hill, packed his bags and did what his hero, Willie Nelson, had done four decades earlier. He moved to Nashville with hopes of selling the products of his pen to country radio stars.
In Music City, he sang harmonies with another idol, Lucinda Williams, in a tiny club and scored several cuts on big-budget records. Surrounded by like minds, he worked all the time, thinking only about music. But he was human; he had other interests. He'd attended seminary, for instance, and wanted to minister to families in need. He used to play music in church, too, but there was little room for competing interests or muses in Nashville. Cockrell needed something else, a different outlet. So, once again, he packed his bags and came back to North Carolina.
After all, Cockrell will tell you quick that he's always been one for conflict. In his Florida high school, he was the kid who was constantly under scrutiny and suspicion. His father was the pastor of the Independent Fundamental Baptist church that funded his school, which meant his dad was his school's president, too. People badly wanted Cockrell—the one brother of three who didn't grow up to be a pastor—to be the hellion.
"I didn't drink. I didn't smoke. I didn't do anything," says Cockrell, laughing over a cup of coffee after a Sunday morning church service about perseverance and patience. "But I'd hear these rumors like, 'Oh, man, Thad Cockrell was so gone Friday night.'"
Instead of defending his purity, Cockrell owned the bad-boy image: "I told 'em, 'Yup. I got drunk Friday and stayed drunk Saturday. And Sunday morning at church, boy, was I gone.'"
Cockrell's one indulgence in school involved furtive, faithful listens to country and rock 'n' roll, things that were forbidden at home. He fell in love with The Everly Brothers, The Cure and Nelson. After high school, Cockrell enrolled in seminary, graduating from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University with a degree in family counseling. Instead of pursuing that career, he picked up a guitar and began writing songs. He moved into the storage basement of a tea room in Wake Forest and began recording.
Throughout, that archetypal conflict—secular pleasures and aims versus Christian tenets and rules—has powered Cockrell's songwriting. He's written love songs for God and love songs for women, and he's added country and pop elements to gospel tunes, and vice versa. After his successful but exhausting four-year stint in Nashville pursuing a music-publishing contract, Cockrell decided it was finally time to give his music and his faith equal footing. Through community and collaboration, that's what he hopes to accomplish in Raleigh.
When Cockrell left for Nashville, he sported his ambition and attitude on his sleeves. Here, he'd been a country music crusader of sorts, leading his all-star "Starlite Country Band" behind the motto "Puttin' the hurt back in country." Both of his albums sold well for local outlet Yep Roc Records, and people responded to Cockrell's sentimental songwriting and to his warm, gentle voice, which creaked, cracked and cooed at just the right moments. But he thought his songs could do more for his finances, so he went in search of the people who could help him sell them. After all, he'd cut his producer's grass to help pay for the recording of his second record.
"He was meeting with industry people most every week he was [in Nashville]," says Jeff Crawford, who now plays bass in Cockrell's band and serves as his de facto music director. When Cockrell first arrived in Nashville, he lived with Crawford's old band, Spencer Acuff, while they recorded an LP there. "He was speaking more of things you had to do. 'You have to talk to these people. You have to go this route.'"
That route worked for Cockrell: He nabbed a few odd jobs in Nashville, but he mostly subsisted as a writer and performer. Eventually, he landed a music publishing deal with Razor & Tie, an established firm that helps artists like Matisyahu and Drive-By Truckers collect royalties for their tunes. He co-wrote two songs on the new album from Donovan Frankenreiter, a surfer-turned-songwriter who's signed to Tift Merritt's former major label home, Lost Highway. Cockrell also penned six songs for a young Universal Records singer named Courtney Jaye, too. She's working to reinvent herself at the graceful crossroads of country and soul, a spot he'd already mapped well.
Nashville challenged Cockrell professionally in ways he'd never imagined. He scored the chance to write with Kerry Kurt Phillips, a Music City vet who's penned hits for George Jones, Joe Diffie, George Strait and dozens of others. Cockrell had long been one of those guys who would write two or three tunes in one day and be satisfied with at least one. But this was different. Phillips flatly rejected 20 of Cockrell's strongest ideas.
"I started throwing them out there, and he'd be like, 'Naw. Naw. Naw. Hoss, I need to have a reason to write a song,'" Cockrell remembers. When Cockrell offered his last idea, Phillips bit. They rewrote the first verse two dozen times. "We spent seven days. I remember apologizing to him that it was taking us so long, and he looked at me weird and said, 'Hoss, there's plenty of No. 1 songs on my wall that took me 16, 17 sessions to write.' That was kind of like a master's course in songwriting."
As much as Cockrell enjoyed the education, he could only stand such extended sessions once every several months. It was tedious and tiring. Like many of the other music industry machinations in Nashville, it wore Cockrell out quickly. He identified a little too much with Nashville's work ethic, he says, so that he never took a break. He maintained an open-door policy, the sign of a young songwriter aggressively looking for work, connections and great songs. Some nights, friends would wake him in the middle of the night for help finishing a tune. Cockrell would get dressed and dutifully write away.
"It's really tiring. Music, like in the worst way possible, can become the all-consuming me project," he says. "Any time you're consumed with yourself that much, it can empty you really quick. 24-7, you're just with people who are in the same space, and there's no way to get out."
Skip Matheny—who leads the Nashville-via-Chapel Hill rock band Roman Candle and has been writing and recording with Cockrell since they first met in 2003—describes Cockrell as someone who's either completely on or completely off. In Nashville, he never found time for the latter.
"Whatever he gets involved in, he kind of goes headfirst. Thad really doesn't do much else other than what he's interested in at that moment, and since I've known him he's mostly been interested in songs and songwriting," says Matheny, who adds that Cockrell possesses an understanding of how great songs work and connect that's more profound than that of anyone he's ever met. "It was probably driving Thad nuts because he finally could spend an endless amount of hours doing music. ... He wakes up and reaches for a guitar and puts it on his stomach and starts to strum out a song."
Cockrell took those songs on the road early in the summer, opening two months of full-house gigs for singer-songwriter Matt Wertz across the country. It was a huge opportunity, but it ultimately drained Cockrell: "By the end of that thing, any music I had in me had dried up."
Cockrell knew he needed a change when he got back to Nashville. According to Matheny, Cockrell was more popular than ever. Everybody knew the spirited guy from North Carolina, and his industry connections and concert audiences were growing. But he wanted to write less and find a community where he could be more than a musician. Three days after the tour with Wertz was done, he was back in North Carolina.
When Cockrell visited Raleigh during his stay in Nashville, he'd often attended Vintage21, a progressive non-denominational church that draws massive crowds to the downtown warehouse district for two services each Sunday. It's where he headed shortly after getting back to Raleigh. There, he met Seth Hall, a pianist in one of the church's four worship bands. He moved in with Hall, and they started playing Cockrell's songs at home. Cockrell started playing at church again, too.
Those twin streams of music reflect Cockrell's hope for the next year and, really, for his new life. His third album is almost finished, and it's, again, a conflict-driven mix of love songs for Jesus and women. It laces gospel and country influences into gentle, loping tunes. The harmonies are mixed especially high because, says Cockrell, he doesn't need to be so precious with the sound of his own voice. Cockrell's started writing his fourth record, which he likens to Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Now single, all he pens is love songs.
Some may say that conflicts with his other aim, to put that Liberty degree to use. He wants to work with a church, ministering to people who need it. Cockrell's tried to ignore conflicting parts of his life—whether it was the urge to play music or the urge to put God in that music—for too long. He wants to let it all out this time.
"I can't deny who God is to me. At some point, it's just what I am," he says, explaining that he's lost fans for his religious convictions and alienated some Christians with songs that aren't always about God. "I think the worst thing I could do is to pander to either side. You have to become comfortable in your own skin with what [religion] looks like to you. That's going to piss people off on both sides."
That sort of talk demands a certain confidence in Cockrell. Crawford, who's been playing off and on with him for half a decade now, says Cockrell's new songs feel more like himself after Nashville. They're a little less formulaic, and he seems to get what he wants out of them. He's in comfortable command.
Indeed, one week before his first show with a new backing band, Cockrell seems relaxed and self-assured in front of his new sextet. Cockrell's played on a higher level than most of the guys backing him, but tonight, he doesn't seem bothered by the fact. He treats them like professionals, dropping the occasional piece of Nashville jargon and referencing specific moods he wants to establish.
With his back against the wide window at the front of his pale yellow living room just off Capital Boulevard, Cockrell calmly works through arrangements with them, rubbing his hands along his worn Taylor six-string. He listens to their suggestions and questions—Which track gets organ? How about piano? Do the drums need to drop out for the turn-around? Doesn't that guitar solo sound too Chuck Berry?—and offers his feedback. Although the band plays the songs mostly as they were recorded in Nashville, Cockrell boosts the members by involving them, letting them introduce new muscle into the piano rocker "Advocate" and nuance beneath the luxuriating chorus of "Beauty Has a Name."
It wasn't always this way, though: Not long after moving back to Raleigh, Cockrell would fly Nashville musicians in to play with him. That didn't reflect who or where he was, or his hope to build his music into his community and to build his community into his music.
"I'm in North Carolina, and it should sound like I'm in North Carolina, not in Nashville," he exclaims. "Music is communal. Every song is co-written, whether you like it or not. I think life is co-written."
Throughout the practice, Cockrell pays particular attention to Cameron Lee, who's hearing and playing some of these songs for the first time tonight. Their repartee is playful, and both struggle to communicate that they like what the other is doing. Lee likes Cockrell's songs, and Cockrell likes Lee's occasionally risky choices. Lee, 23, plays in the new Raleigh band Bright Young Things. He hopes they get signed and hit the road. Cockrell heard around town that he was the hotshot new guitarist, if "a handful to work with." Lee reminds Cockrell of his young, ambitious, somewhat impetuous self. That's the guy Cockrell wanted in his band.
"Who wants to be surrounded by a bunch of yes-men?" asks Cockrell. "I believe in conflict. I believe in what conflict does. It grows, and it develops. It's rewarding."
The conflicts of Cockrell's life, then, have at last wrought a multifaceted person who's finally at ease with being himself in the world. He graduated from seminary seven years ago, and—in many ways—he finished music school when he left Nashville in July. Now 36, he's ready to let those seemingly conflicting goals drive whatever's next.
"Balance has been a good thing, and I think that was the fear of a lot of people when I left Nashville. They literally said I was jumping off the professional cliff," he says, laughing. "Being there, you lose your perspective on stuff. You slowly start becoming something that's just not true to who you are. I've got more interests than just music. It will never be the only thing I do again."
Thad Cockrell plays with Bright Young Things at The Pour House Saturday, Nov. 29, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8. The Moderate plays the late show.