SPOTLIGHT: How Caleb Caudle Found a New Spark With ‘Forsythia’
Caleb Caudle (photo by Joseph Cash)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Caleb Caudle is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for October 2022. Look for more about him and his new album, Forsythia, all month long.
A sliver of the clearest, brightest blue sky peeks out from behind the shade of a front porch overhang where Caleb Caudle is telling a story about a song when a horsefly bites him. “Ouch!” he says, but laughs it off with a smile. “Nothing new.”
This is life lately in Stokes County, North Carolina, a rural, mountainous area just north of Winston-Salem to which Caudle decamped with his wife when Nashville — and, of course, the world — shut down more than two years ago. The song in question is “Whirligigs,” a honeyed tribute to Caudle’s great uncle who lives across the street. “I’m getting my first cup of coffee and he’s already on a tractor out in the field,” Caudle says of the view outside his window. “I don’t even know what he’s doing half the time but he’s constantly working.”
As he sings in the song, a Zoom co-write with Brennen Leigh, “Well, he’s 83 but he doesn’t know it.” “Whirligigs” lives cozily on Caudle’s new album, Forsythia, out Friday on Soundly Music. A warm, pastoral collection of songs, Forsythia moves with the ease of an unhurried, carefree Sunday morning. The months before he began writing and recording it, though, were anything but. As the pandemic settled in and a tornado ripped through East Nashville, Caudle wondered if he would ever make another record again.
“I just didn’t really see a path forward where I could just continually put money into making records without touring them,” he says. After countless stops and starts, as he and his wife worked to reschedule dates only to inevitably cancel them, the Caudles had some decisions to make. So they went to the beach.
A friend loaned her empty home to them for a few weeks, during which time they soaked up the solitude of the desolate shoreline to confront their harsh, new reality. They would have to cut their overhead in half, leave the place where they’d begun to make a home, and, most importantly, simplify the hell out of things.
A native of North Carolina, Caudle had moved back once before after a period of living in New Orleans in his younger days. He’d been drinking too much and needed to get his shit together. “I felt really defeated in that on a personal level, [but] this was different because it was something completely out of my control,” he recalls. “I think I was pretty hesitant to move back at first because I didn’t want to feel that regret or feel like I failed in some way because I wasn’t coming back on my own terms.”
Eventually, he was able to immerse himself in his new (old) surroundings on long, thoughtful hikes through the woods. He brought along his phone to record ideas and seedlings of songs inspired by what he saw in the forest: foxes, owls, and snakes, nature in its constant cycle of life and death. “I would just walk through the woods and observe and try to capture a moment in words,” he remembers. “Then sometimes I wouldn’t write anything. I would just go and observe and be thankful for all of it. I think there’s something beautiful about both sides of nature. It can be this really pretty, serene, calming thing, or it can be this really devastating forceful thing.” Caudle had always hiked, always spent time in nature, but now it felt more intentional. It was during these daily sojourns that he wrote some of the best songs of his life, and a lingering feeling that maybe he had just one final record in him began to resemble something like motivation.
He called his friend John Carter Cash to take him up on an offer to make a pandemic record together — an offer made during a fishing trip that yielded “The Gates,” one of Forsythia’s loveliest tunes. Cash called up bluegrass legends Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush (bucket list collaborators for Caudle), and both agreed to join the band. They convened at Cash Cabin, Johnny Cash’s Hendersonville, Tennessee, getaway that later evolved into a studio, along with rhythm section Dennis Crouch and Fred Eltringham and supporting vocalists Elizabeth Cook, Sarah Peasall, and Carlene Carter.
“If I’m going out, I’m gonna go out with some legends playing on my best batch of songs,” Caudle remembers thinking. “So that’s what we did.”
It might have been kismet the way it all lined up and everything fell into place, a sign from the universe for Caudle to keep going. Or maybe, as he puts it, it was a good old case of cabin fever.
“I think everybody was sitting around bored, so everyone jumped at the opportunity to go make music with other musicians,” Caudle says. “I went from singing in my phone for two years, and then next thing I was sitting with all these people who I just admire so much, and they were playing on top of my songs. It felt like this crazy moment that I probably was weirdly prepared for.”
Forsythia is an outdoorsy album. In Caudle’s songs, bluebirds commune with sycamores and oaks; dirt roads lead to winding rivers, crop fields, and rolling mountains; bright moonlight and flashes of lightning illuminate inky skies; and blooming flowers yield fragrant breezes. With his warm, softly weathered voice, Caudle draws you in to the wilds beside him, pointing out the way the light hits just right, the scent of the air, all the little details you’d otherwise miss. Much like his experience simplifying his life amid the pandemic, Forsythia is an intently simple and focused record. Whether or not that was a conscious decision remains something for Caudle to ponder, but he recognizes the parallel.
“I’ve always wanted it to be about the songs, but now I feel like it really is about the songs. I think I had to come to terms with [the fact that] I’m not this glitz-and-glam entertainer guy. I’m a lot more subtle and I feel like my crowd is out there. But it’s a very attentive kind of listener that could probably get a lot from what I do. A casual listener would probably be like, ‘Hey, there’s another dude with an acoustic guitar,’” he says. “But I think somebody who is very intently listening to the lyrics, they could see that maybe it’s more than just a dude with a guitar.”
It is a lot more than just a dude with a guitar. In addition to Caudle’s impressionistic meditations on nature, he is ruminating deeply on the idea of legacy in these songs. At 36, he has begun to understand what it means to leave something lasting behind, and the songs on Forsythia are the breadcrumbs leading the way.
The grooving, twangy “Texas Tea” finds the value of being on the road, despite its hardships, for the way it makes you appreciate coming back home. The enchanting title track is all about being present, noticing life’s little pockets of sweetness. “I Don’t Fit In” is a delightfully melodic celebration of flouting expectations and carving out your own place:
The deck is stacked, my bags are packed
One for all my many moods
I’ll change again, get strange again
What a joy it is to choose
I’ll be satisfied and full of pride
When my wind has blown
Into the wild unknown
But no song on Forsythia feels more tied to Caudle’s legacy than “Red Bank Road.” He wrote it when he was 19 and had even tried recording it once (in 2007 in an abandoned dairy barn), but that was, to hear him tell it, before he knew how to sing. Still, the song followed him for years, a standout to listeners at his live shows who would ask where they could find it. It wasn’t until he realized the opportunity to record it with legends like Douglas and Bush might not come around again that he decided to rework it for Forsythia. The guitar is quiet and peaceful on “Red Bank Road” as Caudle sings about growth, lessons learned, and putting down roots:
It’s easy to forget where you come from
When the smoke and lights
Start to leave you numb
And longing for that old oak tree’s shade
When the noise becomes
An endless parade
“I had written the song ‘Forsythia’ and it kind of weirdly reminded me of ‘Red Bank Road,’ but it felt like someone who’s went and seen the world and then reflected on ‘Red Bank Road’ versus … just leaving the nest,” he says of including the song. “I’m really happy with the songs we chose because I think it does paint a really good picture of where I was at and the road it took me to get there.”
Part of that process was coming to grips with his anxiety, something reflected in the song “Through My Hands.” Caudle would find himself easily derailed by disappointment and worry, but rather than weaving that into a dark, brooding tune, he decided instead to craft a pretty little personal hymn:
But I’ve been running out of space
Living with mistakes
Not seeing who I’ve grown into
Along with a song like “Better Hurry Up,” the title track from his last record (ND review), it is a nightly reassurance to keep taking care of himself, to leave room to breathe. “When I’m singing them, it’s a reminder to myself that you can’t just sing about this,” he says. “You have to be about this, too.”
At this point, it’s safe to say Caudle’s spark has been reignited and Forsythia will be far from the last record he makes. On a recent trip back to Nashville, he had the chance to play “Shattered Glass,” a new song he wrote about that 2020 East Nashville tornado and its devastating aftermath. Allison Russell was in the audience and told him how much she liked it. Being back in front of a crowd, in the company of fellow artists he reveres, doing the thing he loves most filled Caudle’s cup to the brim.
“I just felt this tingly feeling when I played it, it was overwhelming. It kind of put me back in the place where I was when I wrote it,” he says. “I’ve just desperately missed this connection between listener and the song, what a song can mean to all parties involved.”
More than ever, he knows that while the road ahead is winding and unpredictable, it’s the one he was born to walk. “Everything now is just way more thoughtful, it’s more deliberate. It’s not this open-ended thing where I just do whatever and see what sticks. I’m gonna do this because this is the thing that makes me happy … and just try to keep it simple. Just not fussy,” he says. “I do feel enlightened … For a long time, it was just so open-ended and that’s a really scary place for me to be in because you never feel like it’s enough.”
For now, Forsythia will be enough. A timeless beauty crafted alongside some of Caudle’s heroes, it would have been a hell of a final record. And maybe there’s something to the idea of making each one like there won’t be another. For Caudle, it lit a fire he wants to keep roaring.
“You never know when it could be the last.”
Caleb Caudle’s Forsythia is out Oct. 7 on Soundly Music.