Caitlin Cary – Dark horse
Few recent bands have inspired as much lore as Whiskeytown. A lot of the mythology surrounding the North Carolina group involved volume and velocity, but not just in terms of loud fast rules: Bandleader Ryan Adams wrote so many songs so quickly that neither his band nor his record company could keep up with him. Though Whiskeytown was hardly the Beatles, in a sense Adams was like John Lennon and Paul McCartney rolled into one, a barroom wunderkind dashing off one song after another on cocktail napkins. And a remarkable percentage of those songs were amazing, given how prolifically he churned them out.
Adams burned so brightly that it was easy to miss Whiskeytown’s George Harrison equivalent, a supporting player capable of commanding attention if only given the chance. Caitlin Cary played fiddle and sang harmonies in Whiskeytown, but she’s set to turn a lot of heads with her full-length solo debut While You Weren’t Looking, due out March 26 on Yep Roc Records. While it might not be All Things Must Pass, Cary’s album is the best recording yet to surface from the remnants of Whiskeytown.
While You Weren’t Looking began gestating two years ago, when Whiskeytown was still together and the record was going to be a modest little side-project called Pony Ball Waltz (which explains the plastic-encased horses on the cover). Cary grew up as “a very horsey girl,” she says, with a pony. But as time went on, the album grew more ambitious, and a more appropriate title emerged, a line from the song “Thick Walls Down”.
“I finally decided Pony Ball Waltz was too frivolous a title for how this record turned out,” Cary says. “And I kept worrying that people would think that title was about, you know, horse balls. So I went with While You Weren’t Looking, which is a slight jab. Very slight. A bunch of the characters in these songs aren’t looking or paying attention, and the singer is trying to talk some sense into them.”
True enough. “What Will You Do?” pleads with a woman to start living life for herself rather than for her man, who is in a downward spiral. “Please Don’t Hurry Your Heart” warns about keeping promises. “The Fair” and “Too Many Keys” capture characters at the moment they run out of distractions and have to face up to themselves. “I, uh, hope it doesn’t come across as preachy,” says Cary, laughing.
The last line on the album is, “They say that these things take time,” which could be a mantra for Cary. She’s a late bloomer by nature, so it’s no surprise she had a good record in her and took some time to work up to it. Nevertheless, it’s more than a little stunning just how fully realized the album is in every way — musically, lyrically, vocally. Lush where it needs to be, but also spare in all the right places, While You Weren’t Looking is impeccable. Hemingway wrote of finding that “one true sentence”; While You Weren’t Looking rings true down to the smallest detail.
Chris Stamey, who produced the album after working with Whiskeytown in various capacities over the years, says Cary didn’t really take much prodding. “Caitlin’s sometimes not as rude as she needs to be, but she’s very driven to do this,” Stamey says. “Even though she comes off as calm and patient, she’s in the grip of her creativity as much as anybody else. She really discovered she could do this as Whiskeytown gradually stopped existing. It wasn’t like Ryan ever told her, ‘No, we will not do your songs, just mine.’ But when she finally had the chance, she just blossomed.
“People are probably gonna think this is her twin who’s been kept in a trailer park in Illinois for the last 20 years.”
One of the few unanimous opinions about Whiskeytown was that everybody — everybody — loved Cary. It wasn’t just that she was usually the one who would apologize to fans after the train-wreck shows, or try to smooth things over with radio deejays in the wake of some obnoxious behavior by her bandmates. She somehow managed the neat trick of staying on good terms with everybody, in and out of the band.
So it’s ironic that Mike Daly, her primary co-writer, says he actually didn’t much like Cary the first time they met. It was in New York City in 1997, when Daly joined Whiskeytown a few months before the band’s major-label debut, Strangers Almanac, came out.
“She comes up to me and says, ‘You’re the new guy, right?'” Daly recalls. “‘You live here? What’s the street in New York where you can buy all the cool shoes?’ ‘I, uh, don’t know,’ I said. And she yelled ‘Damn!’ and stormed off. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘this is gonna be fun.'”
Cary laughs about this now: “Whodathunk a New Yorker would want a polite introduction?”
Despite that beginning, it wasn’t long before Cary and Daly were fast friends. Inevitably, they’d be the only two people in the band to show up on time every morning while on tour. Breakfast together while everyone else slept off the previous night’s excesses became a daily ritual.
“Every day, we’d meet in front of the RV, and nobody else was ever there,” Daly says. “She asked me once, ‘Why the fuck do we do this every day?’ ‘We’re just holding onto some grasp of reality that everybody else has already lost,’ I said. ‘Right,’ she said, ‘let’s go to the Waffle House.’
“Sometimes I think she’s my cool older sister, other times my fucked-up younger one.”