Remember Susan Smith, the young white woman from South Carolina who drowned her sons and blamed a black man for the crime? Smith killed her kids to win the love of a man who didn’t want to marry a woman with children. Caroline Herring has written a murder ballad (“Paper Gown”) about the tragic affair in the old folk song tradition. Herring provides the social and psychological contexts, but she knows better than to try and explain the gothic horror.
“Paper Gown” reveals Herring’s ability to write new tunes that sound old-timey without seeming hokey or forced. She sings in a low voice with a trace of gravel that gives her the aura of experience. Herring doesn’t prettify the music, even on the happier songs. Instead, she lets the lyrics do their own work.
This gives the disc a deep groove, even when the material concerns more saccharine affairs. Such is the case of “Lover Girl”, the song with the line about the lantana plant from which the album gets its title. Herring penned the composition for her daughter. “Goodness comes to those who wait”, Herring sings optimistically. But the mother’s love is tempered by her knowledge that love requires sacrifice. The song ends with a prayer, because the singer understands her daughter growing up also marks the growing closer of her own death.
While these examples may suggest Herring is obsessed by death, that’s not true. She just writes about the existential facts of life. Her personal consciousness as a woman and mother colors the way she sees the world. However, Herring is a musician, not a sociologist. She turns her observations into songs.
The two cover tunes of traditional material fit nicely with Herring’s eight original compositions, especially her version of “Fair and Tender Ladies” that in contradiction to the song title, points out how tough women have been. Herring re-wrote the lyrics so that they were about three heroines of the South who fought bigotry and violence.
Herring plays guitar and is ably aided on the instrument by her producer Rich Botherton, who sings backup and plays 6- and 12-string acoustic guitars, electric guitar, resonator guitar, and electric bass. He employs a string band to accompany her that consists of Glenn Fukunaga on upright bass, Danny Barnes on banjo, Warren Hood on fiddle and viola, and Marty Muse on pedal steel. This heavy use of banjo and strings gives the disc a distinctly Southern feel.
While this album will, with its female-centered concerns, appeal more to women than to men, the artistry involved makes it accessible to all listeners. Herring universalizes the particulars on her album. She’s not just singing about Susan Smith, her daughter, or a trio of brave women. She’s talking about the situation of all of us in a world not of our making, where our deepest impulses aren’t always our best ones, and even when we try hard, we can’t always win. Even Smith was once a baby on her daddy’s knees with dreams of a bright future before she grew up and killed her own children.