Caleb Caudle goes electric, heads west with his wife riding shotgun
Caleb Caudle is a rising star. It’s great, he says, that the TV show Nashville included one of his songs in an episode and Rolling Stone tapped him as an “Artist You Need to Know.” But, he stresses, he’s not seeking external validation. He knows that he’s settling into his talents as a singer and a songwriter. If he takes care of that, he says, the rest will take care of itself.
Caudle’s confidence is warranted. He has evolved into an insightful songwriter who’s also a natural-born vocalist. His voice flows unhurried and unforced, carrying Southern-tinged lyrics that intertwine with melodies that tend to linger well after the needle lifts from the vinyl. He’s outspoken against contemporary commercial country music, and embraces the Americana label critics have assigned him. On the current leg of his tour, his wife is riding shotgun as they amble westward from their hometown in North Carolina to Seattle and back, hitting a half-dozen national parks along the way. We spoke by phone last month — two days after his 31st birthday, which brought a Telecaster into his life, and with it a newfound affinity for pricey effects pedals.
You’ve been a touring singer/songwriter for nearly 10 years now. Is it what you expected it would be?
Yes, I’ve been doing it full-time for only about 5 years. Before that, I was a weekend warrior. I had another job managing a pizza joint in Winston-Salem. I had to ask off for work so often, I just put in my notice and transitioned full-time into music. There was a lot of struggle in the first couple of years.
What changed to lessen the struggle?
I became more consistent, and started writing better songs. Each of my early records had a couple of good songs, but the others in retrospect maybe weren’t all that great. I’m bringing my best effort to the forefront more these days.
When did you know that would be how you wanted to make a living?
I can’t remember a time not thinking that. My mom always tells the story of her finding napkins balled up in my pockets with lyrics scribbled on them. About five years ago, I realized that this really could happen. Previously, it was something that I felt I could only hope for.
Who were your early inspirations?
The first three bands I remember connecting with were the Clash, Velvet Underground and the Replacements. I was into heavier music then. There’s just something so relatable about Joe Strummer, Paul Westerberg and Lou Reed. I just came up in the punk scene and the garage scene. I had a garage band when I was 14. I was already booking show but I didn’t know what I was doing. In that way, I think Punk Rock is similar to country music. It’s not always the most difficult-sounding thing to do, but it cuts right to the core. I think I’m just a fan of records that get straight to the emotion of it all; I don’t like things that meander around. I’m a fan of extreme, in that way. I like things to be bold. Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way and Bobby Charles self-titled album are examples of those types of records. After my punk rock phase, I got into the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, and that led to Gram Parsons and Merle Haggard, and things just keep going and going.
What about now? Who is advancing the art form forward?
As far as contemporary people, I really love Robert Ellis — we’ve done some shows together. He makes really, really interesting records. I really like Erin Rae, and she sings on my next record. I also got hooked on this reggae band the Frighteners out of Brooklyn. The National, too. I really love them. I love Josh Ritter. His writing is on a level with no one else really.
Do you remember the first song that you wrote?
It was called “Stuck.” It was about being a teenager and being ready to break out of the scene you’re in. For me, that was me trying to break out of my small town and small mindedness and go on to the next thing. I grew up in Germanton, NC. It’s a good spot and it’s really pretty, and I’m happy to be from there. But there’s a lot out there — it’s a big world. I feel really fortunate to travel around and visit national parks. I try to see as many as possible.
You’ll be playing the syndicated radio program “Live from the Divide” in Bozeman, MT, Aug. 23. Will you be visiting national parks while you’re in Montana?
On this tour, we’re doing Yellowstone, Olympic, Glacier, Joshua Tree, Crater Lake and on the way back we’re going to hit Badlands. Last year, we did Arches, Canyon Lands, Bryce Canyon and Death Valley. I buy a pass every year. There’s something to be said for our national parks being our country’s best idea. It’s the only thing that’s not being ruined by man in our country. It’s a generational thing, like baseball: it goes through time and it doesn’t really change very much. It’s disgraceful that people are trying to change that. It’s all money-driven, and if that’s your number-one focus, I guess it makes sense. But it seems embarrassing to me.
In the span of just a few short weeks, Rolling Stone named you an “Artist You Need to Know,” and your song “Borrowed Smiles” was featured on an episode of the TV show Nashville. That’s a pretty good spring.
It’s pretty cool. The last record had already been out for about a year, so there wasn’t a big press push at the moment, so it felt very organic — they came to us. It’s cool that it happened organically. Nashville was a good paycheck, and I was able to pay for a new transmission, which I really needed. But, I already knew that what I was doing is worthwhile, so I didn’t need a TV show to validate me. But it was nice, and it gave me a pep in my step for a day or two. But that’s a byproduct of the bigger picture that what I’m working on.
Your name often comes up in the same breath as Aaron Lee Tasjan, Margo Price and Jason Isbell. That’s some pretty strong company you’re keeping. Is that a proper categorization of you as a singer/songwriter?
I think so, yes. Aaron Lee Tasjan also belongs in that list of people who are pushing things. Margo and Jason, too. Those guys make me want to push the envelope. I’ve known Margo since she was playing with Buffalo Clover. One time she gave me a really hard time about using a capo when we were swapping songs at someone’s house. Hell, I still use a capo and I’m not budging on that. We’re all looking for that balance of classic, timeless music while pushing the envelope. Nowadays, genres are weird. The only question that matters is whether the song is good. We’re in Americana because we write and sing our own songs — country, as a genre, has a bad connotation around it. The stuff on country radio is really bad, and the stuff on Americana radio is really good. Margo and Aaron are really working hard right now — touring, touring, touring. Margo just put out two 45s, one of which has a single [her husband and bandmate] Jeremy [Ivey] wrote for Ben Eyestone, who recently died of cancer.
Was that Ben playing drums on your “Miss You Like Crazy” video from your 2015 appearance at Music City Roots?
That was, yes. I’d been really good friends with Ben for about a decade, and it kicked me in the gut [when he died July 12]. I was a mess — he is such a good dude, and it’s so tragic. Cancer, ugh. That was awful. Too young. Too young.
Definitely too young. I met him a few times at the 5 Spot in East Nashville. He struck me as a nice fella, and a good drummer.
Your song “Carolina Ghost” takes a long-view look at a long-term loving relationship. There’s a real warmth and tenderness there. What was the inspiration for that song?
Me and my girlfriend at the time — now my wife — we went for a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway one afternoon and she was driving and I was writing [lyrics] on my phone. About a week later, I took a look at them and realized there was some good stuff in there.
Was that your parents in the video for “Carolina Ghost?”
It was. I wasn’t as tight with my parents as I am now for a while. But about three years ago, I quit drinking and that led me back to having a good relationship with them again. My drinking was really a problem. So now, we’re tight. They say one day at a time, and they mean it.
When can we expect your next album? If I were a betting man, I’d say early next year. It’s called Crushed Coins. There’s a line in the title track, “There’s a train that crushed our coins.”
That sounds like a sentimental song.
It’s very sentimental. I recorded the album between Los Angeles and Nashville. We started it in L.A., and worked with Jon Ashley as producer. I wanted to take what I’m doing to a new place, so I pushed really hard on this one to do that. Kevin Black plays bass on it, Josh Hedley plays fiddle and Megan McCormick plays guitar on it — she’s one of my favorite people in the world. Erin Rae sings on it, too. Go listen to her record called Soon Enough. Oh, man, yeah. That’s the good stuff. She’s got one of my favorite voices and she’s a helluva writer, too.
Did she get a co-write on your record?
No. I just write by myself, and I mean that in the best way possible.
Did you approach the upcoming record differently than your previous work, especially now that you’re finding a broader audience?
I just became more open-minded. With Carolina Ghost, we made a good, straightforward country record. But I’ve done the straight-ahead thing as good as I possibly could. Now I want to do something that represents more of what I listen to and am inspired by, be it life, art or nature. We dug a little deeper on this one, and used more instruments on this one. I was more open to new ideas on this one. I pushed myself there. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. All of the songs are all attached to one another. It feels like one big piece rather than a bunch of songs compiled together. This record flows, really, really well.
Is it tied together thematically? Musically?
It’s somewhat thematically, loosely thematically. There are a few death songs, because I was dealing with that when I wrote it. It’s about putting emphasis on the right things in life and trying to remain hopeful. Making sure you’re making the most out of this life — you only have one crack at it.
I think of you as an acoustic guitar guy. But you recently acquired a Telecaster. Are you shifting gears?
I am shifting gears. Because, if you’re not, then why are you doing it? The Tele just seemed right. I just played a show two days ago where I played a full show on electric guitar. It was awesome, I loved it and there will be more of it. I’ve written a couple of new songs on electric guitar, and that was fun too.
Did you know that Guitar Player magazine ranks Bozeman’s Music Villa as a Top 10 guitar store in the entire country?
I will definitely check it out. Now that I’m playing electric, pedals have become my new favorite thing. My pedal money is taken the place of where my vinyl money was.
If you dig vinyl, check out Cactus Record while you’re in Bozeman, too. It’s independent, locally owned and it’s terrific.
Skip Anderson relocated to Bozeman from Nashville, where in 2015 and 2016 he was recognized as Music Writer of the Year in the Nashville Scene’s Readers’ Poll. He also won the Alternative Newsweeklies’ Best Music Writing award in 2015.