“Songs always made sense to me, sometimes more sense than real life. And no matter where I’ve gone, there have always been songs.”
Troy Cartwright is a fascinating mix. Certainly a product of Texas’ rich heritage of dive bars and honky tonks, he’s also a Berklee trained musician, a one-time youth worship leader and an all-around good guy. Part of what makes his music so compelling is his heart, and the way he views the world around him: always something to take apart and understand, to bring his sense of grace to turning points, difficult moments and the thrill of being alive, in love and on fire.
A winner of the prestigious B.W. Stevenson Songwriters Competition, writing has been the compass for navigating life for an unlikely Dallas kid. While he could’ve played football, the dark-haired outlier preferred playing in a rock/roots band. "My best friend was the captain of the football team, and we’d find each other after games. Hang out and talk about life..."
The ability to understand what people want, but to go his own way saw the teenager head to NYU for a summer course. Beyond showing him a world outside of his hometown, it turned him onto a school where music was everything. Not long after, he applied to – and was accepted at -- Boston’s highly competitive Berklee School of Music.
Having spent much of high school alone, practicing and sinking into the craft of songwriting, Cartwright found himself immersed in a world where everyone slept, ate, drank and dreamed songs. Intense, extreme and exacting, the experience hyper-charged him.
"I knew from a very young age, songwriting did something to me nothing else did," he explains. "But Berklee immersed me in the way melodies work, the idea of how the harmonies you choose change the emotion of what you’re writing, the concept of juxtaposing elements and ideas. Rhythms, modulations, tonics, even lyrics that don’t match the music, all those things can open whole new dimensions if you’ll have fun and also go deep into the emotion."
"Love Like We Used To" is just such a cocktail: dog-eared emotions, a humid melody, a beat that suggests the complicated rhythms of not wanting to let go, but needing a deeper release. It’s everything country music used to be, and everything people facing a world that’s not Instagram-perfect need.
"It’s a guy missing this person he loved," Cartwright concedes. "It’s a song not about getting back together for all time, but hitting rock bottom, wanting that connection you had, to know that it really happened, really existed. Those intense moments are the ones to capture in song."
Funny thing about kids from Texas, you can take’em out of the state, but you’ll never quite get the red dirt off’em. Armed with his degree, Cartwright now understood music at a level most people don’t even consider. But at the end of the day, he yearned for highways that go on and on until they disappear, beer joints strung with Christmas lights and Shinerbock neon, long necks and girls with long, long legs.
"Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, it’s a whole other world," he says of returning home. "You can leave, but it never leaves you. People are so wide open, and they drop their truth all over the bar. When you write songs for those kind of people – even Saturday night songs for drinking and dancing – there’s an immediacy. It wasn’t long ’til I got drawn back to what I know by heart."
A couple EPs and a critically-heralded full-length with songs like "Coffee In The Morning and Whiskey At Night" kept the work – and opportunities – coming. Raised on those endless Texas horizons, Cartwright dreamed bigger dreams. It wasn’t long until he landed in Nashville, where his creative drive found a new gear. "Nashville was a lot like Berklee: a creative energy that held the whole place together. It was electric, and I knew – given how much I love songs – there was a lot I could learn here."
All the years listening to Hayes Carll and Ray Wylie Hubbard, the nights at Poor David’s Pub, Billy Bob’s, and the Kessler had been leading to this. "After college, I realized there were people who lived lives like mine, who loved music the way I do, who have the same stumbles and troubles. I wanted to write songs for them. It’s what gave me a pretty good living, but it made me want to write for anyone looking to make sense of the rush a certain girl gives you, or the way your mind sometimes won’t stop."
Between the belief of William Morris agent Kevin Neal and Warner Nashville A&R director Stephanie Davenport, Cartwright met writers, played around town and found his way. He also found an even more defined voice, that of the hometown boy who yearns for more, isn’t afraid of the work and respects the values that ground actual people. It echoes in everything he does.
The sparkle of the major-keyed "Hung Up On You," staccato breaks, twirling guitar punctuations and a rising melody, distills the want for the girl who breezed through his life, while the more robust sweep of "Cake For Breakfast" works that surging in-the-moment exhilaration of the morning after the perfect night before. Even the hard country saunter of the opposites’ attraction principle that propels "Round & Round" suggests the way boys and girls will forever be driving each other mad with desire.
Mainlining the best of how things feel is what the quiet songwriting strives for, and then he takes that honed musicality and finds ways to make the records lift what he’s writing even higher. Laughing, he confesses, "When you can tease the ear with something musical, it pulls people closer to the song. If you deliver something in the hook, especially a misdirection, they tend to hang on. The trick is to make sure the verses really deliver what you’re trying to feel – don’t pull up short, or go for the easy, because real life, even the good parts, never is."
Indeed, that’s everything "My First Beer" is. Taking the basic putdown and making it a skeleton key for every first that matters, listeners drown in the everyday details of young romance. The electric banjo embroiders a back and forth guitar part and a steady tumble of quarter notes cascade down a melody that’s equal parts Muscadine wine, first kisses and nervous butterflies. While those moments/thrills can never be repeated, they’re also – like Troy Cartwright – something you’ll never forget.