Five-piece roots rockers Cullen Wade and the Waters are ostensibly a Nashville-based outfit, but that little detail only hints at the travels and travails that have informed the band’s music. Baton Rouge native Wade received an early musical education from his grandmother, whom he describes as “a cool old blind lady and band leader who played organ in a New Orleans style.” Inspired by his grandmother’s example, Wade eventually spear-headed musical projects of his own, touring the South extensively with folk-rock duo Nickels and Dimes.
Nickels and Dimes proved pivotal in the founding of Wade’s current outfit, though not in a way he might have anticipated. When the duo’s old touring RV broke down on a trek through Tennessee roundabout 2013, Wade’s N&D partner cashed in his chips and took a bus back to Baton Rouge. Undaunted, Wade decided to press on into uncharted territory by to making a go of it in Nashville. With scarcely a second thought, Wade moved to Music City, lived nine months in a campground and began the gradual process of assembling what would become Cullen Wade and the Waters, a plainspoken roots-rock and Americana outfit tinged with hints of folk and characterized most notably by Wade’s warm, pleasantly rasping vocal.
SP: After all the bad luck of losing both your van and your band on the side of a Tennessee highway, why did you choose to tough it out and start over in Nashville?
CW: It just made sense to me, because the music industry is here, and I knew there would be access to lots of good musicians. It’s the center of the wagon wheel. It took a while, more than a year of living in a campground, then looking for the right players. To my way of thinking, I’d rather have someone who has great energy and is supportive, than to have a great player whose head isn’t right.
SP: How did you bridge the gap between the music that was native to Baton Rouge — the music your grandmother played — and the folk-based sound that figures heavily into your sound today?
CW: For whatever reason, I have always had a love for good singer-songwriters. I love a well-written song with acoustic music behind it. John Prine, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Jim Croce. When I was in high school, when everyone else was jamming on whatever was popular, I was listening to Simon & Garfunkel. I always loved songwriters who had a story to tell. That was always my thing.
SP: There’s a very direct, expressive quality to your voice. It’s not flashy or histrionic, but it’s exceptionally warm and expressive. Did singing come naturally to you, or did you have to be coaxed?
CW: It was pure, dumb luck, in that in my first group, I was just a guitar player. But we got to the point where we needed a singer to play out, and we weren’t finding one. So I decided that while we’re searching, I’ll sing until we find someone permanent. And then it was a matter of, “Aw, geez, this doesn’t sound half bad. I’ve been singing ever since. I just never had the confidence to step out when I was younger.”
SP: What inspires you to write songs?
CW: My approach to music has always been that I want to write about the human condition, the things that connect all of us on a human level. I like to write about life, love — good or bad — and I like songs that are relatable. Life is my inspiration.
SP: How has the band evolved since you all first got in the same room together?
CW: Well, we’ve tried on a lot of different things. At first we were more country influenced, and then a little more rock. Now it’s come full circle and we’ve gone back to our roots. It took us a few tries to figure out who we are, but I think we’re starting to have that down. We know more about who we are, and what we were meant to play.
When I say we’ve come “full circle,” I mean we’ve gotten comfortable with who we are. We’re not trying to fit into a category; we’re just playing our music. And we’re a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, a little bit Americana. Going all in on any one thing wouldn’t be real for us.
Cullen Wade and the Waters will play Preservation Pub Sunday, July 8 at 9 p.m.