A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Also Country

by Roger Holland

Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell let their joy bloom while talking about their new album.

Caitlin Cary’s just got back from England, and she’s excited as hell about it. Although we’re supposed to be discussing Begonias, her outstanding collaboration with the up-and-coming country traditionalist Thad Cockrell, my English accent triggers a flood of enthusiastic stories about the four weeks she’s just spent in London working on quite a different collaboration, but more of that later.

While it’s always dangerous to throw these labels around—particularly when the year’s barely half over—Begonias is so clearly one of the best works of 2005 that it has to be acknowledged as such. It opens with a simple relaxed strumming, Cockrell’s beautifully clear and slightly pained tenor sets out one side of the story of a failing relationship and then Cary joins in precisely halfway through the telling line: “I wish we cared enough to fight about it every now and then”.

This first song, “Two Different Things”, is so perfectly conceived and performed that it avoids all the clichés while remaining utterly true to the tried-and-tested format of the symmetrical country duet. With Cockrell tending to reach for the emotional heights and Cary seeking to ground him, the two vocal talents combine wonderfully well in a full, rich song that sets a very high standard for the remainder of their album. A standard Begonias hits time and time again as it rises and swells into a modern classic country duets album.

“I’ve always known,” says Thad Cockrell, who seems less confident in himself than he is in his music, “I’ve always known about the tradition of duets in country music. I’ve always loved them, and I was very aware of that tradition when we came to work on Begonias. It was very important to me that we lived up to the great records of the past when we delivered our modern take on that tradition.

“There’s really three kinds of duets. There’s duets where people sing with each other, duets where they sing to each other, and duets where they’re singing at each other, and I think we kind of got all three of them.”

Caitlin Cary is clearly more comfortable in an interview setting—which is no big surprise given her somewhat longer track record—and she agrees with Cockrell.

“I was definitely aware of that history, too. It’s a wonderful tradition that I’m thrilled to contribute to. And you know, it makes the co-writing process even more fun and meaningful.

“There’s a ruse on every duets record that says that the singers are a couple, and I think we thought about that sometimes and just sort of pretended we were in love with each other, staring into each other’s eyes and singing. Though, actually, there aren’t that many real love songs on this record, most of them are troubled love.

“But it was really fun to think like that, and imagine how were Ray Charles and Betty Carter feeling? And how did George (Jones) and Tammy (Wynette) feel? It’s a fun tradition to try to step into and it definitely made the making of this record one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.”

Picking up on this couples theme, I interrupt the flow of our conversation to play an ad hoc variation on The Newlywed Game. It might’ve seemed like a cheap gimmick to liven up the interview, but it was actually very revealing about the relationship between the Cockrell and Cary.

Ask them about each other’s favourite colours, or birthdays and they haven’t got a clue. Cary’s favourite colour is green and she thinks Cockrell’s is, too. But he says his is blue and he thinks hers is red. Her birthday is October 28 and she thinks his might be in the summer, while he had no idea when hers is at all. “But I don’t even remember my brother’s birthday and I’m trying to forget mine. Caitlin should’ve known mine because she spent my birthday with me this past March. She should’ve at least remembered that.”

When the topic turns to music, however, they are completely ... ahem ... in tune.

Cockrell correctly identifies Ray Charles as Cary’s favourite performer and his song “What Would I Do Without You” as her favourite song, while she is completely on the money about his choices of “Amazing Grace” and Willie Nelson. And they both agree that Johnny Cash and June Carter’s “Jackson” is the best duet they’ve ever heard. Which brings us nicely back to Begonias.

This record, the couple agrees, has been a long time coming.

“Chronology’s never been my strong suit,” says Caitlin Cary. “But it seems to me that I first met Thad in ‘98 or ‘99. He came up to me one time while I was working and just handed me a tape. That happened to me occasionally then, it happens a lot more now. But my first thought was ‘Hey! Who is this cocky guy? What? He just throws me a tape?’ But then I went home and put it on and I thought, ‘Oh man, that’s something else.’”

In another Newlywed moment, Thad Cockrell points out that Cary is mistaken about their first meeting: “I don’t think Caitlin remembers the first time we actually met at all. I was with a buddy in downtown Raleigh in this bar called Slim’s. She was sitting there having a drink and I just went over and talked to her like you do, and she was just so nice, more so than she needed to be.

“Though she’s kind of right,” he allows. “The first time we met when she knew who I was, and I knew who she was, she was working at the Humble Pie and I did give her a tape.”

“Anyway,” Cary continues. “It was around that time that Thad started playing shows in Raleigh, and of course, his talent was immediately apparent. People latched onto him straight away, so his was one of the shows to see that I would go to, and somewhere in there we befriended each other. For a short time it was him maybe asking me for advice on where to play and how do you handle this or that business concern, but pretty quickly it became ‘Hey! Why don’t I come over to your house and we can try writing some songs together’.

“We really fell into that effortlessly. I’d had the experience of writing and singing with Ryan (Adams) in Whiskeytown, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever find any one guy that I’d be comfortable with again, but as soon as Thad and I sang together it was like ‘Oh! That’s a really a nice sound, we should do more of that. ‘“

Cockrell concurs: “We started hanging out and writing together a little while before Caitlin recorded her first solo album, While You Were Waiting, and we’d already decided to work on a duets album then when she decided to put our song “Thick Walls Down” on her debut. And then she did the same again with “Please Break My Heart” on her second solo album, I’m Staying Out. But I wasn’t worried. I knew that sooner or later we were going to do our duets record, it was always just a matter of timing.”

Unlike “Thick Walls Down”, “Please Break My Heart” has been given a second run around the block on Begonias. Cary says it’s a song for people who want to weep in their beer.

“Thad wrote the bulk of that song. Again, I was working, bartending, and he came in and we were having this conversation about how I was newly married, and really happy, and everything felt so good, and I just said, ‘Damn! It’s so hard to write when you feel like this. I wish someone would break my heart just for a second so I could go home and write some sad songs.’ And he swiped that line and wrote the bulk of the song and then brought it over to my house where we finished it off together.

“And I completely stole it. I said I need this song for my record, I love singing it too much, I can’t wait. It’s one of those songs that can stand by itself with one singer but can be reconceived as two people talking. It makes sense both ways.”

The version on Begonias is richer and more complete than its predecessor, and it seems almost symptomatic of the fact that although Cary is an indisputably fine performer in her own right, she tends to shine brightest in good company: both with Thad Cockrell on Begonias and also in her work as one third of Tres Chicas with Tonya Lamm (Hazledine) and Lynn Blakey (Glory Fountain). Cary’s recent spell in London was to record a follow-up to Tres Chicas’ estimable “Sweetwater”, so she clearly enjoys collaboration.

“I certainly feel very blessed to be able to have more than one musical identity. Once I got out of Whiskeytown, I was so thrilled to be ... uh ... The Guy, so to speak. To be in charge of what was happening, to be in charge of exactly how I was going to sound, and who I was going to have play with me. To be the bandleader and not have those decisons made for me.

“I think that was very, very crucial to my development. And I think it’s made me able now to collaborate in ways that don’t make me feel as though anything of myself is being lost. I feel I’m only gaining now because I know who I want to be and what I want to feel like when I’m making music, and I know enough not to settle for something less.

“On the other hand, when I started playing with Tres Chicas, I thought ‘Omigod, being in a band again is so wonderful!’ When you genuinely love the people and respect each other, there’s a weight that gets lifted from your shoulders, the weight of being the front man.

“And I find I know the music of Tres Chicas better than I know my own music, because when I’m not singing the lead I listen in a different way. When you’re just singing your own songs, it’s such an out-of-body experience that you’re almost not interacting with the music at all. Maybe it just takes years and years of doing it until you get to that point that you really are at one with yourself and present. But for me, when I’m singing my own songs, I’m just so wrapped up in it that I’m not hearing it in some ways. Whereas when I’m singing with Thad or with Tres Chicas, it’s different.”

The standout track on Begonias is the least traditional of Cary and Cockrell’s songs. Clocking in at almost seven and a half minutes long, “Conversations About a Friend (Who’s in Love With Katie) is a favourite of both performers.

“I love that song,” announces Cary proudly. “We felt real brave doing it because it’s so long. It’s like a short story that we wrote, Brill Building-style, about a group of friends talking behind two other people’s backs. It’s a risk to put that much information into a song and hope that people will keep with you.”

Again, Cockrell concurs: “The lyric on that is the most adventurous thing I’ve ever written. There’s a tradition of songwriting in country that derives from a storytelling perspective. But you never hear songs written in a conversational format, when life actually happens like that all the time. So I decided to write a song as a conversation, and I gave Caitlin what I’d done, and she came back to me with her bits and we just kinda put it together. I love how that song came together.”

Actually, Cockrell and Cary just plain love how the whole album came together.

“It’s a very spontaneous album,” says Caitlin Cary. “I went to Nashville just a couple of weeks before we were due in the studio and we wrote pretty much half the songs in just those two weeks. Of course, we had a bunch of songs that were done, that we knew and that we’d already played together. But there was still half a record to be written and so I just threw myself into that and the whole process in the studio was equally fast and furious—certainly as compared to certain other records.

Begonias is a record that I immediately wanted to hear when I got home. I wasn’t fed up with it, and I really liked it right off the bat, and felt like we’d done something really special and good. And you don’t always have that feeling when you’ve finished making a record. There’s a lot of self-doubt and ‘Is it good enough?’ or ‘Did I do the right things?’ and also ‘My head’s been in it so much I really can’t stand to think about it anymore!’ But this one, I’ve been putting it on when I’m at home by myself, and that’s something I never do with any of my other records.

“I feel really proud. To me, it’s really moving and yet pleasant to listen to as well”

Once again, Cockrell concurs: “It’s just so great to make music and have people get it. To have it resonate with people. To have it mean something to them more than just something pretty on the radio.”

It’s clear the pair are keen to repeat the Begonias experience in the future. Says Cary: “I certainly believe we’ll do more. You can’t always tell what’s going to happen, because things take so long in this business, but we really know and like each other, and we want to make more music together. And anyway, Thad told me the other day he already had the half the next record written.”

“Conversations About a Friend (Who’s in Love With Katie)” is not just the longest and least traditional song on Begonias, it’s also the least country by quite some way—even when you factor in the couple’s cover of Percy Sledge’s “Warm and Tender Love”. This isn’t a problem for Caitlin Cary.

“I don’t really think of myself as country,” she says. “Although by fate and chance and the labels that people like to put on things, I seem to have gotten in with musicians who embrace, if not the label, then at least a lot of what is great about country music.

“I didn’t really discover country music until I was in my 20s. That’s when I discovered Loretta Lynn and George Jones. I actually grew up listening to a lot of English and Irish folk music, and classic Woody Guthrie and Doc Watson and things like that. There wasn’t a lot of popular music in my house growing up, and my earliest influences are probably more from your side of the pond since a lot of American music is really English and Irish folk music anyway.

“In my head country music means plain-spoken music, music that might be a little bit more about the words than about the beat—though, of course, that’s something of a gross generalisation. And it’s about a blend, a borrowing from rhythm and blues, a way of singing that’s emotional but accessible, I think.

“And so in that way, I guess I can accept the idea that my music is called country. But I think Thad is a lot more country than I am in his approach to everything. He’s much more apt to put pedal steel on everything, and to swing it like country. Whereas when I listen to my own records, I don’t hear country music, although other people seem to. And I’m certainly not thinking country music when I’m writing or orchestrating my music.”

If Caitlin Cary is a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, a little bit country, a little bit folk, a little bit pop, and a whole lot of wonderful, then Thad Cockrell is country right down the line.

“Oh, I’m very country. Very. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I don’t think I can tell you why, or describe what I love about country music. It’s like trying to describe a beautiful poem. You don’t even know what it means sometimes, but just the combination of the words and the way they sound, it just has a beauty to it that you can’t explain. It’s almost like if you can explain it, then it’ll disappear.

“But I’ve always loved country music, from an early age. There’s this lilt in it, and this sincerity that I’ve always loved. And besides, pedal steel guitar might be the greatest instrument ever. I can’t imagine what the world sounded like before pedal steel came around—what a boring world!

“I don’t know what it is about country. I guess I was just blessed with blue eyes and a love of country music.”

Thad Cockrell is a country purist and the son of a preacher man. Caitlin Cary, however, has a little bit of the devil in her. She sold homemade candles to promote While You Weren’t Looking, and now she says: “My next marketing idea is soap. Don’t you think people would want Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell soap?”

When I suggest that might lead to all kinds of Freudian avenues best left unexplored, she chortles and announces she has the perfect advertising slogan.

“Ladies! Keep you country clean!”

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