Cole Woodruff: His Own Sound, His Own Voice

by Donovan Wheeler
photos by James Ramos
and Tim McLaughlin

Cole Woodruff and I have one important thing in common: we both grew up a good bit away from the pavement.  The farm Woodruff grew up on sits an hour northwest of Indy.  My grandaddy’s farm, where I cut my way through my formative years, was an hour southwest.  To get to his childhood farm house, Woodruff had to roll off the highway and traverse a narrow, half-mile, gravel lane.  I had to do the same thing.  Also a half-mile.  I double-checked it on Google Earth.

We grew up in the “booniest” of the boonies.  Out there the lightning bugs hover atop neatly tucked soy bean fields, blanketing the scene with their spattering haphazard flashes of asynchronous beauty.  Out there a rustic symphony of crickets, cicadas, and whip-poor-wills offer a reliable soundtrack.  Out there the blaring, ceaseless, natural ambience creates a pulsating fog of silence.  Out there the teeming array of life makes for a symbiotic solitude.  Out there is where it all got started.

No matter what you think of Woodruff’s music—and I kind of think it’s pretty good—he’s earned his props by virtue of his birthright alone.  He is a descendant of the loam, of tilled earth and dirt-caked boots.

Woodruff formed his first band in high school, singing and writing songs.  He held it together as long as he could…as long as anyone can hold together a group of late-teenaged boys.  But once on his own, he strapped on his first guitar, mostly as a means to keep writing those early tunes that would foster his adult work.

Working nursing home gigs and playing at church, he honed his string chops and stage-presence.  Eventually he hungered for traditional venues and nighttime audiences.  In those days, as he describes it, the Frankfort area showed no interest.  His next option, Lafayette, wasn’t ready either.

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No matter what you think of Woodruff’s music—and I kind of think it’s pretty good—he’s earned his props by virtue of his birthright alone.  He is a descendant of the loam, of tilled earth and dirt-caked boots.

“Today, Lafayette has an emerging scene that’s pretty cool,” Woodruff says.  “But back then I was discouraged.  At the time … LaFayette seemed to have their head in the sand, musically speaking.  I wasn’t even sure I had what it took to keep playing.”  Everything changed when Woodruff stepped onto the stage at Birdy’s Live for the venue’s first annual guitar competition.

“Everybody went up and played the same, brand-new Taylor six string,” he explains.  “It’s just you, that guitar, and no other help.  You had to do your damage with that Taylor and try to get voted to the end.”  Making the semifinals mostly by winning over the hearts of total strangers in the audience, Woodruff cemented his first meaningful relationships, meeting what he calls his “favorite people” among the Indy musicians.

As quickly as that Woodruff landed Indy gigs, he began his frequent commutes from Clinton County to the Circle City.

“I hated driving to Indy,” he admits.  “I’m the guy who, if I could drive all the way to California on back roads, I would absolutely do it.  That is my thing.  I own the back roads.  But you get to Indy…you make a turn and suddenly you’re on a one-way street, and cars are coming at you.  I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing here?  Why would they make a one-way street?  What is wrong with this place?’”

Those commutes are nearing their end.  As he prepares to settle closer to the city he sits atop both a growing musical portfolio, a handful of local TV appearances, and a trip to Europe under his belt.  For a regional singer under 30, it’s a powerful résumé.  But Woodruff isn’t complacent about it.  In many ways, he’s not even at peace about it, either.  As his style and voice both continue to develop, he repeatedly finds himself weighing who is behind the microphone alongside who he wants to be.

“I’m kind of notorious for being a ‘sad bastard’ kind of songwriter,” he laughs.  “My friend, Chris Wilson, and I joke that we sort of pioneered the genre.”  His newest song, “Little Faith” is one of his attempts to shake that stereotype.  Producing a sound he calls “poppy” it also showcases his concerted effort an upbeat message while still retaining what he calls the “Americana, acoustic-driven feel” which anchors his sound.

Cole Woodruff:  “When people ask me [what ‘kind’ of music I play], I don’t know what to tell them.  I have actually been turned down from gig opportunities because of my blended sound.  [Some venue owners] said, ‘Well, we only hire country artists, and you’re not that.’  And I’ve also been told, ‘I like your music, but it’s too country for me.’”

This evolution in self-consciousness is evident in his work.  Woodruff’s 2019 EP, for example (The Love Wars), offers a much more distinct country sound than his previous album, 2018’s This One’s Gonna Hurt.

Woodruff:  “Yeah.  I love country music. I wish I was a country artist, but I don’t really think I have the voice for it.  I was raised on country music, but I was also raised on alternative rock—Soundgarden, Chris Cornell, Matchbox-20, and bands like that.  I’ve evolved into a sort of rock vocalist with a country influence, and it took me kind of a while to settle into that identity.  But with The Love Wars I knew I had a country record in the making.  [Because of that] I wanted to surround myself with people who really knew the genre.  And I know it’s kind of touchy to [refer to Ryan Adams right now], but I love that sound by The Cardinals.  That was the sound I was going for.

Help with the EP came in the form of Meghan Martin and David Garza, a pair whom Woodruff calls his favorite songwriters. Woodruff is quick to credit them for adding consistency to the disc’s sound.  He’s is also very comfortable admitting that his own songwriting process is haphazard—long periods of creative hibernation punctuated by rapid burst of spontaneous creativity.  The results, as Woodruff explains, are visceral, just as they are diverse.

Woodruff:  “I’ve always used this analogy, that [songwriting is] like being a paleontologist.  You’re discovering what’s already under the ground.  I never set ‘to write a song.’  Whenever I actually try to write a song I can’t.  I can’t just sit down and do that.  But I’ll be messing around on the guitar, and that’s when I find a bone in the dirt.  Then I start uncovering it.  Some of those creations are ‘super country,’ such as the The Love Wars lead track, ‘Lovin’ Man.’  As soon I started playing it, right as it was coming to me, I heard steel guitar.  But when a song like ‘Walls’ hit me:  that was a completely different sound.  I’m thinking, ‘Where is this coming from?’”

Woodruff:  “When I wrote ‘Colorado,’ all I had was a riff—the intro and outro riff—for months.  I told myself, ‘This is going to be something.  I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I do know that this is going to be the song that changes everything for me.  This is going to be my signature song.’”

“A lot of people pick with three fingers—the Travis picking style, but I never knew the difference and did it with two. People ask me, ‘How do you do that?’ I tell them, ‘Well, I just learned it the wrong way.”

Photo by James Ramos

That voice in Woodruff’s head offered a prophetic statement when it came to what would become his trademark tune.  Now his most recognized track, the rest of “Colorado” washed over him when he happened upon a trip west.  Sometimes however, tunes are hatched out of slightly more bizarre nests, such his recent single, “Black Bug’s Blood”—an homage of sorts to his life as a third-shift factory worker in Lebanon, Indiana.

Woodruff:  “[Everyone on the floor] was trying to say tongue-twisters, and no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t say ‘Black Bug’s Blood.’  I finally said to the guys, ‘I’m going to write a song that has Black Bug’s Blood in it.’  It was a joke at first, but when the song unearthed itself, I really liked it.”

After he finished his high school days at Clinton Central, Woodruff toiled on a different factory floor for the next six years.  But his frequent sets in front of nursing home audiences warmed him, and offered a much needed source of purpose.  So he set aside his safety glasses, picked up some scrubs and committed himself to a career he often describes as his calling.  As rewarding as the work proved, life—in this case in the form of strong economic forces—pushed him back to the factory and back to the grueling strains of the graveyard shift.

Woodruff:  “It’s tough, physical, manual labor.  But one of the weird benefits is that it’s a great place to think.  Third shift is such a lonely waste land at times.”

“I remember wanting to learn The Foo Fighters’ “Razor.” I saw Dave Grohl play that on Live with Jools Holland, and it just blew my mind. I wanted to play that so bad, but when I started working on it I thought, ‘There’s no way I can play and sing this at all.’ I had it made up in my mind that I would never do it. But the song kept eating at me, so I went back and tried again…still couldn’t do it. Another few months passed, and I picked up the guitar and played it. I didn’t even gear up for it. It was like something in my brain clicked, and it all made sense.”

Photo by Tim McLaughlin

Standing in very stark contrast to the mundanity of those hum-drum wee hours producing semi-truck axles are Woodruff’s memories of his January trip to the United Kingdom.  Tabbed by Indy-based music promoter and manager, Ben Cannon of Sparkjoy Music, Woodruff traveled with former Indy musicians Scott and Brittany McDonald.  Together they crisscrossed the England and Scotland, hitting small joints in places such as Inverness, Liverpool, and Doncaster while also treading local stages in “The Old Smoke” herself.

Woodruff:  “We did all the ‘touristy’ things because…well, you have to.  Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Piccadilly Circus.  Seeing all these things that I thought I would never see, in a place I thought I would never be was surreal.  I want to move there, now.  I know that’s sort of a cliché thing to say, but it’s really how I feel.  That’s how much that place affects you.  Every person we met went out of their way to welcome us and express friendships.  The conversations were great, and they loved the music.  When I finished a set, someone approached me and said, ‘You were so good.  What are you doing in Doncaster?  I bet you play for thousands of people back home.’”

Back home, Woodruff balances the artistic evolution of his music with marketing changes as well.  He’s shying away from albums and EP’s, opting instead for the online value of releasing songs as singles.  First of all, it’s the commercially obvious move in the 21st century.  What Woodruff gets is that the digital single is the official rebirth of the 45-rpm records our parents listened to.  Albums, those elegant holdovers from the days of ELO and Duran Duran, certainly lend an air of solemnity to the music making process, but not many people go to iTunes and buy full records.

Stand-alone songs also tear down some of those pens which are fenced-in by genres. Singles allow Woodruff the flexibility to massage his sound and keep experimenting.  Maybe he’ll settle into the persona of the country artist he’s always dreamt of.  Maybe the process will push him to the final stage of acceptance regarding that rock-country-Americana musician he often describes himself as. It may seem urgent, but it’s not.  Not really. The great thing about today’s music industry is that the race to label oneself is long, long over.

Cole Woodruff, in other words, is free to be Cole Woodruff: A hard-working, blue-collar laborer from the sticks who happens to play a kick-ass bit of guitar, write great lyrics, and tie all of it together with his deep vocals. He also happens to be a genuine guy—the kind you want to root for.  And because of that…?  We want him to break free of the factory floor.  We imagine him returning to the day job that makes him happy.  However his story plays out, there’s no doubt Woodruff will write it well, and then he’ll share it with us in that perfectly Midwestern sound of his—a sound which none of us have any business trying to label.

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for other publications. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it. 

Author: Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches English to a horde of bright and lovably obnoxious high school seniors in a small college town. He has written in the past for Indiana on Tap and STATE Magazine, and is an occasional contributor to NUVO, Indy's alternate news website. Since picking up the guitar three years, he can now play a dozens songs while singing them quite badly.

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