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Population: One

Caitlin Cary beats a reluctant path out of Whiskeytown

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Ryan Adams has been known to downplay the merits of his former band -- to the point where it's fairly obvious that, for him, Whiskeytown amounted to little more than a messy tour of duty in the alt-country trenches. But that shouldn't come as a shock to anyone, given that nowadays Adams has taken to hanging out with rock 'n' roll royalty as he eyes his own Hall of Fame coronation somewhere down the road.

But not everyone looks back on the doomed North Carolina outfit with the same nonchalance. Take Caitlin Cary, Whiskeytown's former violinist and supporting vocalist, who's now touring behind her full-length solo debut, While You Weren't Looking. Her slant on the group's bumpy five-year ride is decidedly more judicious.

"I think things happened way too quickly for Whiskeytown, before we had the perspective to know what was in front of us," says Cary, battling cell phone static en route to a gig in San Francisco. "But in terms of making great records, I think we did that. As far as taking advantage of all the opportunities before us -- particularly, knowing how to put on a good show every night -- that didn't always happen."

Cary has acknowledged Adams' positive influence on her continuing evolution as a songwriter, not to mention their special chemistry as a singing duo. But in the same breath, she's also described him -- affectionately or no -- as "a little, bratty, horrible brother." And given his tendency toward tantrums at the most inopportune moments, it must've required the patience of a saint to put up with his cranky flawed-genius shtick for as long as she did.

Yet Cary managed just fine as his unassuming female foil, her voice equal parts troubled yearning and dreamy calm -- often serving soothing dressing on Adams' open wounds. At times, she says, she even felt as if she was on equal footing with her boss -- that she could hold her own against Adams' squirmy volatility. Other times, she wished she could melt into the stage. In Whiskeytown's final days, Cary returned to her onetime Houston home for a gig, only to stand by as the rest of the band destroyed their instruments Who-style after a particularly sloppy performance.

"I remember being very embarrassed in front of my Houston friends," says Cary. "That was never my style."

But Cary has moved past all that -- and out on her own. At once moody and graceful, easygoing and complex, her latest, While You Weren't Looking, gathers up 11 originals, recorded over a period of a few years, into a classy, downbeat folk-rock package that readily blurs the happy-sad dynamic. Though she claims her newer songs are not a direct product of her own experience, Cary's lyrics can seem both unsparingly personal ("Hold me now Daddy/I can't be alone") and somewhat cryptic ("You are a gnarled pear tree/Near an oak that binds your bitter root"). They're made more presentable for public consumption by fluid melodies and spunky full-band arrangements.

"Certainly there's a lot of me in there," says Caitlin of her songwriting. "I'm usually present as a character in the songs, even if they're not directly about me -- or even if they're just entirely made up. What I don't do is a lot of self-reflective stuff about how I woke up feeling this morning."

While You Weren't Looking includes guest spots from old R.E.M. associate Mitch Easter (who also recorded the album's basic tracks) as well as Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster and the Jayhawks keyboardist/ vocalist Jen Gunderman, who are both touring with Cary now. Missing from this road swing is Cary's longtime collaborator and fellow Whiskeytown alum, Mike Daly, who left the band to work on a solo project.

Also worth a mention is the earthy, utilitarian production of ex-dB Chris Stamey, which nicely counters the overt preciousness of some of the material -- including the album's natural single, "Shallow Heart, Shallow Water" -- lending it sophistication and immediacy. Elsewhere, Cary shows considerable command of citified folk-rock ("Thick Walls Down," "Please Don't Hurry Your Heart," the latter co-written with Adams), lilting redneck soul ("Too Many Keys") and Spector-esque '60s pop ("Pony"), all while steering clear of the punky redneck stigma that helped sink her last band.

"I don't think of it as a real folky record, nor as a country record," she says. "It's more of a pop record."

Caitlin Cary grew up in Seville, Ohio, in a household with singing parents, a multi-instrumentalist father and six older half-brothers, all of them musical.

"We lived out in the country on 20 acres," Cary recalls. "I had sort of a cool, solitary childhood."

Cary took up the violin in grade school, stowed it away as a teenager for fear of being labeled a geek and reconnected with the instrument in college, where she played in a goofy country cover band called the Garden Weasels. Graduate school brought her to Raleigh, N.C., where she pretty much stumbled backward into her tenure with Whiskeytown. Apparently, the master's degree in creative writing would have to wait.

"I don't even remember telling anybody that I played violin," Cary says. "But it must have gotten through to Ryan, who I'd never met. I got this call out of the blue. I thought it would be something fun to do on the weekends, but it sort of snowballed," she says.

As Whiskeytown bobbed and weaved its way through the '90s with an almost clueless impudence, Cary quietly began writing her own songs on the side with guitarist Mike Daly. Her Celtic-tinged debut EP, Waltzie, came along in 2000, a year before the belated release of Whiskeytown's low-key last gasp, Pneumonia. By then, the band was, for the most part, a distant speck in Cary's rearview mirror.

Now settled into the routine of touring, Cary confesses that she's still not completely at ease on stage. "It was a big test for me to figure out if I could actually be the front person," she says. "It's one of those things -- you don't know if you can do it until you try."

But there are small signs that Cary is getting comfortable in her own skin. It shows in her rapport with the audience.

"I don't have to say I'm sorry anymore," she laughs.

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