Cody Culberson’s return to The Prophet Bar next weekend will mark a milestone for him.
The Fort Worth singer-songwriter got his first break at that Dallas venue six years ago, when Joel Fruth, the club’s booking agent, gave Culberson a slot opening for an all-female punk band in the Prophet’s 1,000-seat “Big Room.” There were a couple hundred people there, Culberson recalled.
He occasionally listens to a recording of that night. He can still hear the pressure.
“There was so much nervousness in my voice,” he said. “I had no idea what I was doing. I love to be able to go back and hear where I was at that time and say, ‘Well, I’m here now.’ At the same time it’s always reassuring to know that you’re growing, getting better, and honing your skill.”
After that Prophet show, Culberson began gigging regularly, mostly at places closer to home, including Lola’s Saloon, The Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge, and Shipping & Receiving. He also began playing with the collaborators who back him onstage and who had his back when he recorded Carry the Blame. Released earlier this year, the five-song EP has a little bit of everything, from Southern-tinged ballads set to slide guitar and light acoustic strumming to alt-Americana to some blues-folk. “Culberson is all over the contemporary roots-rock map, from Americana to honkytonk to radio-friendly country-pop,” we wrote recently (“Killer or Filler?,” Feb. 25), “but his strong melodies and potent sense of lyrical detail keep these five songs firmly grounded and occasionally haunting.”
In his hometown of Aledo, Culberson got started in music in elementary school, when his older brother taught him the rudiments of guitar and how to read tabs.
“I realized then that I could actually learn the songs I was listening to,” he said. “OK, cool, I thought. Now I can write my songs too.”
After graduating from Aledo High School, Culberson hit the road. Homebase became Houston, where he flopped with some musician friends while picking up gigs at churches. The move away from home was as deliberate as his return one year later was unexpected. Another older brother was dealing with drug problems at the same time his aunt and uncle were going through a divorce.
“There were a lot of family things going on,” Culberson said. “I love my parents. They’re my foundation, so seeing them suffering that way made me realize I needed to be there for support.”
With his family’s help, the brother became sober, helping the family regain a sense of stability.
Culberson used the move to attend UNT, graduating in 2010 with a degree in literature only to discover that teaching wasn’t his calling. During college and in the five years since, he has steadily built a collection of songs.
Eight years is a long time for an active musician to wait to release something beyond a demo. Maybe the main reason Culberson decided to record Carry the Blame when he did was the return of an old friend and collaborator.
After four fruitful years of performing and recording with area artists in San Diego, bassist Tyler Halford decided to move back to Fort Worth with his wife. The Fort, he said, just felt like a better place to raise a family. Last summer Halford and Culberson were having drinks when Halford pitched his idea.
“I’ve seen [Culberson] develop over the years as a musician,” Halford said. “I told him, ‘We should take some of these songs we started together, finish them, and get them recorded.’ ”
The duo recorded most of the five tracks over six months at Halford’s new studio, Dustland Records, in the West 7th Street corridor with guitarist Taylor Johnson, drummer Jesse Fox, and a trio of keyboardists: Tyler Chester, Blaine Crews, and Reese Murphy.
“This was [Culberson’s] first project, and I didn’t want to go overboard with the production,” Halford said. “We recorded a lot live in one room. I didn’t want to fake it out by overdubbing while he was away.”
The experience didn’t feel like work at all, Culberson said.
“We love making music together,” he said. “Everyone gets along so well. A lot of musicians can’t really work that way, but we’re like a community that can feed off itself.”
A few weeks ago, not long after Carry the Blame had come out, Culberson, on a whim, reached out to the man who’d given him his first break. Expecting to maybe get a Tuesday-night slot, Culberson was blown away when Fruth offered him a spot on the Big Folkin’ Festival. The fourth annual celebration of all things remotely “folkin’ ” will feature headliners Penny and Sparrow, The Defibulators, The O’s, and Lincoln Durham, among dozens of local and touring acts.
“I’m thrilled to be able to play in that big room again,” Culberson said. “When I was there years ago, I was so nervous. Now that I’ve formulated my skills, I’m ready to get back. It feels like I’ve come full circle.”
9:30pm Fri, Apr 17, as part of the Big Folkin’ Festival at The Prophet Bar,
2548 Elm St, Dallas. $20.