Caitlin Cary Biography
Begonias, the first collaborative effort from solo artists — and old friends — Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell, is a homegrown album worthy of big-time attention. Many of the songs were conceived and refined in the partners’ homes when they were neighbors in North Carolina (Cockrell has since joined the Nashville underground), and would meet on Sunday afternoons to talk, write, and sing. And a laid-back, Sunday afternoon vibe suffuses the album, which was recorded in Nashville under the guiding hand of Brad Jones (Josh Rouse, Jill Sobule, Butterfly Boucher) with Cary and Cockrell co-producing.
The result of this organic chemistry is a duets album in the grand tradition of George and Tammy, Conway and Loretta, Phil and Don, Gram and Emmylou. But Begonias’ timelessness isn’t premeditated; on the contrary, it emanates from a group of songs that flow as naturally as the captivating blend of Caitlin and Thad’s voices. The fact is, Cockrell is so steeped in the classics of country and rock that he doesn’t have to think about it — “I just write ’em,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of songwriters like Boudleaux Bryant, Hank Sr. and Dylan, and in my own way I’ve studied the craft of what makes a good song. The collaboration was really simple and easy between Caitlin and me. I trust her judgment and her songwriting ability. The joy of co-writing is that you then have this other person that you can connect a memory to.”
“It’s really interesting writing with Thad,”says Cary, “because he’s so capable of using a cliché or a piece of everyday conversation and making it work perfectly in a song, and that has allowed me to write in this way that I don’t write when I’m doing it myself. Y’know, I fancy myself this sort of ‘student of literature’” — she delivers the line in a mock effete snob voice — “and tend to try really hard not to say the most obvious things. But when you think about it, so much of the most resonant music is just really saying something that’s utterly mundane — it’s just the way you say it and how much you mean it.” What has come out of their easygoing process are songs like “Whatever You Want,” which could’ve come from the pens of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, the honky-tonkin’ “Party Time,” which sounds like an outtake from GP, and “Second Option,” which might’ve been slipped to Cockrell by Paul Westerberg. “Two Different Things” (which they wrote in real time during a pilot for an NPR show hosted by Cockrell) is a flawless modern-day example of the classic Nashville turnaround, while “Please Break My Heart” (their very first collaboration), unlike the hushed version that appeared on Cary’s I’m Staying Out, here locates itself at the very intersection of country and soul, a la Ray Charles and Betty Carter. That’s also true of their inspired cover of the Percy Sledge hit “Warm and Tender Love,” one of two non-originals on the album; the other is the poignant “-Waiting on June,” written by Roman Candle’s Skip Matheny. Cary, who grew up in northern Ohio, is known for her work with Whiskeytown and Tres Chicas, as well as her two notable solo albums. Cockrell, who’s originally from Kansas City, vowed early on to “put the hurt back into country,” and the line stuck like flypaper—primarily because that is precisely what his music so consistently does. The two were introduced in 1997 by Cary’s husband, Skillet Gilmore, who was then playing drums for Cockrell, and they’ve been friends ever since.
Caitlin has a vivid memory of the night “Please Break My Heart” sprang to life. “Thad came into the bar where I was bartending, and we got into a conversation about how it’s really hard to write songs when you’re happy. I think I said something like, ‘I wish somebody would break my heart, just for a minute, so I could get five good songs out of it, and then I’d be OK again’—which women also say about weight loss,” she quips. Thad said that sounded like a great idea for a song. He went home, wrote it and brought it to me for tweaking.”
Delighted by the spontaneous combustion of that initial co-write, they kept at it, eventually realizing they might be on to something substantial. “Four years ago,” Cockrell recalls, “we were sitting around writing songs on Caitlin’s porch, and we would sing together while we were writing. It sounded amazing—I loved singing with her—and at one point one of us said to the other, ‘Someday we need to do a duets record.’ So I think it was inevitable from that point on.” Inevitable, perhaps, but not immediate. In the fall of 2004, a six-week window finally opened up in both their schedules, and they were determined to make the most of it. But one major question mark remained: who would produce? Chris Stamey had done all of their solo projects, as well as the Tres Chicas album, but both Cary and Cockrell felt that this new scenario called for a new face behind the console. When they compared notes, they discovered both were big fans of Brad Jones, and Cary had a particular fondness the last two Dolly Varden albums, which the Nashvillebased renegade had produced. Cockrell made the call and told the producer about the project. Jones replied that he’d been dying to do a duets record and adjusted his recording schedule to fit them in.
Together, Jones and Cockrell assembled the studio band, which included both veterans like pedal steel player Pete Finney (Doug Sahm, Patty Loveless) and hotshots like 24-year-old Logan Matheny (Skip’s brother and cohort in Roman Candle), who not only played drums on most of the tracks but also contributed Moog, guitars, vibes and arrangement ideas. They cut the tracks live in the studio, including vocals, and everyone involved was so into the music that the sessions moved along effortlessly and fruitfully—generating the same vibrant, freewheeling spirit out of which Cockrell and Cary had created the songs, further enriching them in the process.
“We didn’t rehearse,” says Cary. “They just had the charts, we played through it a couple of times and Brad hit ‘record.’ That’s how good all the players are. It was really fun, and you get a lot from that.” Consequently, Begonias is that rare sort of record that feels totally in the moment and of a piece. It is what it is—inevitable, as Cockrell puts it. And now that it’s finally completed, how does Thad feel about the first collaborative recording of his career? “I can’t wait to make another one,” he says.