Folk-Rocker Caroline Peyton Records First Album in 16 Years
Had singer-songwriter Caroline Peyton moved to Nashville in the early 1970s rather than Indiana, more people might know her name – her talent certainly warrants it. Instead, the call of a free-spirited commune drew her to Indiana where, even without the muscle of Music Row, she managed to launch a successful career as a recording artist and songwriter. She also used the success she found in America’s heartland to springboard into starring roles on Broadway and off, and work as a singing voice in several Disney animated features.
In recent years, Peyton, 62, has shunned the spotlight, opting for roles as a background vocalist and demo artist. But that changed this summer, when she released Homeseeker’s Paradise, her first album since Celtic Christmas Spirit 16 years ago. Peyton describes Homeseeker’s Paradise — the title borrowed from the motto of Brookhaven, Mississippi, where she was born — as “a book” about her life, rather than a collection of songs.
“It’s been a very crooked road, and I’ve done a lot of different things,” Peyton says. “On this record, I wrote about my experiences and my passions and my heartbreaks. Really, this album is my book. I wanted to tell stories that are real.”
The record’s first song, “She’s Coming Home,” is an upbeat, rolling rhythm rocker that traverses a mother’s joy and heartbreak that comes from watching her twin daughters grow into womanhood.
“They’re both very talented and very beautiful and I love them,” she says. “But, there’s a lot of pain, too – we all have it.”
I just can’t seem to let her go
I just can’t seem to let her grow
I just can’t seem to let her get away
But she can’t stay
Many of the record’s 10 songs are equally personal. “Idella,” rooted in jazz, is inspired by a woman in Brookhaven, who provided hospice care to Peyton’s now-deceased parents. “Walk on Back” speaks to her wanderlust that carried her far from anybody who would know it was her 60th birthday.
South Africa I’m proud to be your guest
Watching the seas from my little crow’s nest.
“I wrote that song on a borrowed guitar in a half hour, in a crows nest of a bed and breakfast in South Africa,” she says. “I really did want to miss my 60th birthday.”
That’s not to say that this spirited album is defined by haughty topics of love and loss. “Rollin’ Chair” is a joyful, upbeat song that describes an aged woman who has decidedly not lost her knack in the kitchen. “Happy Home” bounces through reflections of a lifetime rooted within one’s living, breathing family tree.
The musicianship on the record reflects the high-caliber talent Peyton handpicked to join her in the studio. Musician and producer Mark Nevers (Lambchop) tracked the songs. Guitarists Chris Scruggs (who has played with BR549 and Michael Nesmith) and noted solo performer William Tyler (also formerly of Lambchop and Silver Jews), keyboardist Tony Crow (Lambchop) and bassist Jordan Caress (Ponychase) each play on the record, as does renowned harmonica virtuoso Pat Bergeson.
A Winding Road to Nashville
Long before 1993, when Peyton would move to a Nashville suburb and into a hilltop home formerly owned by Emmylou Harris, she dropped out of Northwestern University where she was a theater major to join a commune in central Indiana—it was the early 1970s, after all. She worked with songwriter/producer Mark Bingham on her first album, Mock Up, released in 1972. It was a loosely focused vehicle that showcased her aria-quality vocal range and free-spirited expression. Soon after, Peyton and Bingham formed a jazz/funk/folk/disco ensemble called Screaming Gypsy Bandits. They recorded two albums and toured with the likes of Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Sly & the Family Stone. Ongoing tension between Bingham and Peyton, however, led to the end of their collaborative efforts before the end of the decade. Her career would carry her to live theater in the early 1980s.
“I hit pay dirt twice in my career,” she says. “The first time was when I got the lead role in Pirates of Penzance [in 1981].”
Peyton served as Linda Ronstadt’s understudy as Mabel in the Los Angeles production of Pirates of Penzance, which also starred Kevin Kline.
“Kevin Kline gave [the producers] my Intuition record, and they wanted somebody like that to be Mabel [in the touring company],” Peyton says.
Pam Dawber held the role, but would soon no longer be able to travel as she had accepted a starring role across Robin Williams in the television show Mork and Mindy. Peyton had her big break.
Peyton toured the country with Pirates, and squirreled away the bulk of her salary, choosing to live within the confines of the per diem. She eventually moved to Manhattan and starred in several Broadway shows, including The Human Comedy. But, this was the 1980s, and AIDS was terrorizing the country.
“Just about everybody who knew about me, cared about me, or believed in me died in the 1980s, including my agent, several people in the New York Shakespeare Festival,” she said. “They just dropped like flies.”
Peyton stayed in Manhattan for the balance of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, when she hit “pay dirt” a second time.
“That’s when I got my first Disney movie, Beauty and the Beast,” she says, smiling.
Peyton bats her eyes, drops her chin into a Betty-Boop pout and sings a wordless melody. Her voice is strong and beautiful. She wiggles her fingers in sync with the exaggerated Disney-esque warble she’s injected to her voice. For the next 30 seconds, the threat of cartoon forest critters frolicking in front of the fireplace in her sunken-floor living room formerly owned by Emmylou Harris felt very, very real.
Peyton also lent her singing voice to three other heavy-hitting Disney animated films: Aladdin, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Pocahontas.
The Nashville Scene published a version of this story in its Sept. 4, 2014, issue.