Cordovas’ Untethered Messages in “Rain on the Rail”

“I’m a master at messing up,” admits Joe Firstman, mastermind behind the celebrated Southern Rock/Americana band Cordovas. “Ruining the vacation… much of my life.”

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A glimpse into his life, you might not think he was messing up, but actually enjoying himself. From an early-on record deal on Atlantic where he found himself supporting Willie Nelson to a regular  gig as the bandleader for Carson Daly’s late late night talkshow Last Call to his latest decade-running adventure of leading Nashville’s beloved Codovas, you’d never know that each life station was upended by his own devices.  But the folly of youth brings most people to clarity, and such is what happened with Firstman… and that’s the story behind their new single “Rain on the Rail.”

“’Rain on the Rail’ is a song of longing, of self-sabotage and thwarted seeking. But it’s also about resolution and redemption,” he explains, perhaps applying his own bit of history into the story of the song’s protagonist.  “Rain on the rail, I can’t tell / What will come after this / Keep on thinking I waited to try / Once I wasn’t such a mess,” he sings, uncertainty and regret leading him down an unresolved road.

“I mention ‘wanting’ because an artist’s eye can get off the ball,” he says, reflecting on his lyrics. “Loneliness is in there too. I try to live in the story and understand my place in it.”

In the midst of the elated music of the song – the playful banjo ducking and diving around the bright Hammond B3, there’s a real ache in the vocals… not quite grief but a feeling of melancholic longing. “I think the character succumbs to reality,” he says, throwing off the suspicion of autobiographical intent. “I think throughout the course of the story, the character grows and matures… and at the end, he experiences acceptance.”

Perhaps it’s an adult-sized coming of age tale… a midlife bildungsroman of sorts… growth of character that has become a universal theme in pensive songs. But is that the message he’s trying to relate?

“Message? I don’t know about a message,” he laughs, evading an attempt to have him dissect his own lyrics. “The groove is pretty good. The words are all there for you if you’re ready for them. If the music is put together well enough, then people will get it; if not, then they won’t.”

It’s not really a vague mystique he’s hiding behind but his attempt at being perennial and untethered by specific interpretations and definitive meanings. It’s why, in the midst of the current global pandemic, he decided to avoid the easy temptation to write about distinct anchors to COVID-19 and what life is like right now in this moment. Recording the album just as the coronavirus was beginning to latch onto society and, thankfully, before the stay-at-home orders were imposed that would have made studio time challenging, he opted to look beyond the current climate to avoid making the music and its subject matter feel dated.

“In many ways, our intention was to write something that felt like it would last,” he explains. “I have a lot of experience of singing songs that didn’t quite represent who I was at the time. So an element of classicism is pretty important for us.  And this is certainly the best example of us incorporating that factor in our work to date.”

It’s this universality that makes Cordovas’ music so timeless.  With lyrics that are indefinite but at the same time emotionally specific, it propels their songs forward. So keeping the details of current events out of the song allows their music unlimited transference to dates, times, and situations. “That helps the messages in our songs to work well for all kinds of times,” he concludes. “Good times, bad times and pandemics. It was very well in our mind that it not become obsolete all the sudden if there’s a change of weather… or if there’s an alien landing… or whatever. Robert Johnson is still vital and useful in all those times too.”

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