Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
Bryan Cates is really supposed to be one of those songwriters that we never heard about. He has all the makings of that hermitic genius who chooses never to show what he can do with the general public. Even with buddies, he's secretive and selective in what he exposes to them, keeping most of the music that he's working on close to the vest, so close it's like another layer of chest hair. The North Carolina native is supposed to be one of those guys who doesn't even register a footnote when it comes to any hipster league, but instead toils and burns over his art, meticulously massaging and perfecting it, only to leave it behind for an unveiling after he's kicked the bucket. It could be harsh and misguided to peg a guy who accepted a personal invitation from Band of Horses lead singer Ben Bridwell to open a short run of dates this summer as someone destined to cult status at best. Historically speaking though, a guy like Cates is that hidden gem just doing his thing and taking it nowhere. The interesting part of this story is that he has friends who believe his music is too good to not allow it to get out here and into the world. They prod him and they personally take it upon themselves to make sure that it finds ears. My discovery of his music all happened last January, during a trip to Nashville to do some taping at John Prine's studio in an old meat-packing facility on the banks of the Cumberland River. We stayed with our friends Skip and Timshel Matheny of the band Roman Candle and Skip's brother, Logan - another member of the band, has been roommates and a long-time friends with Cates. Amongst friends, the man's music has been the topic of conversation, with Cates tirelessly poring over the finer points of his songs day and night, working and reworking them until he feels that they're ready to present to over people. Bridwell got his hands on a burned CD of some of Cates' stuff a number of months ago and became certifiably obsessed with his writing, emailing Cates regularly to see if there were any new songs that he could hear.
And why shouldn't he be in such a state that he needs to have more? It's completely justified. The recorded Cates songs that I'm listening to right now - the ones that he's been laboring over in his bedroom - are unpretentious odes to the 60s and 70s, music that seems to come from a first-time place, an honest place that has been unaffected by anything else that's out there. It comes from hours and hours of keeping oneself holed up and pining, getting acquainted with the fingerprints of one's inner chambers and pulling all of the strings to see what does what. It's music that sounds as if it's made by a man who is getting in touch with his personal owner's manual and figuring out exactly what it is that moves him and because of this attention to detail, everything that comes so sweetly to him, moves us. We get it. We get there with him as he stumbles and clutches his chest, singing about the "weight of a lover" and making the kind of Memphis and Motown-y music that is a rarity these days. Either that, or when it's done, it seems like nothing other than a cheap imitation and nothing that Cates does feels like a cheap imitation. It's hard knowing exactly where or when he's coming from and just like Bridwell, we're frothing at the mouth to hear more. We're tempted to write him right now to see what he's been working on this week, in that laboratory of his.