Tres Chicas – Not just whistlin’ Dixie
“Ain’t no liquor in London,
it’s forty pounds of flesh;
We’re goin’ down to the local,
for a pint of Scrumpy Jack.”
Seated around a dining table, Tres Chicas — Lynn Blakey, Caitlin Cary and Tonya Lamm — were in the midst of reconstructing the mad and merry month of musicmaking in England last year which resulted in their sophomore album. Among the many challenges that came with the daring decision to record in London was dealing with the high cost of spirits, particularly for visitors undercut by the weak American dollar.
Scrumpy Jack served as a sort of compromise under such economic duress. A dry alcoholic cider, it costs a good deal less than hard liquor, though as with most things in life, you get what you pay for. The internet reference source Wikipedia advises, “It is easy to drink, but large amounts tend to cause hangovers.” Think an English equivalent of Boone’s Farm, perhaps.
That a trio of struggling singer-songwriters would resort to drinking cheap booze while making an album is hardly a revelation. But the magic in this particular passage from our interview was not the admission, or even the quaintly folksy verse they’d composed to commemorate the experience.
Rather, it was all in the delivery. Lamm had casually commented, “Something that really cut into my drinking in London was just the fact that liquor is so expensive over there” — when suddenly, spontaneously, she, Cary and Blakey joined voices, spot-perfectly, to sing their little ditty in three-part harmony.
In that moment, it was crystal clear just how much of a band these women have become. Their unity is equally evident on Bloom, Red & The Ordinary Girl, released March 7 on Yep Roc Records. Though all three have brought distinctly different personalities and experiences to the table — the dining room of Cary’s south Raleigh home, in this case — somewhere along the line a bond has formed that runs deeper even than good friendship.
Indeed, when asked if Tres Chicas still seems primarily like a side-project pursuit, Cary simply answers, with a sincere smile, “No. This is the band I’m in.”
It hasn’t always been that way. The first Tres Chicas record, 2004’s Sweetwater, wasn’t necessarily ever destined to be a record at all, just as the band hadn’t really intended to be a band. In the beginning, it was just a handful of impromptu shows between friends during down time between their other musical endeavors.
Cary’s landmark alt-country band Whiskeytown was on its last legs in 1999, with Ryan Adams poised to break out on his own behind his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker. Blakey was between projects with her regional pop band Glory Fountain, which issued albums in 1997 and 2002. Lamm’s big-in-Europe band Hazeldine was in the process of splintering from its New Mexico base, with Lamm settling in Raleigh to be near her ailing mother (Lamm had grown up in Wilson, about an hour east of Raleigh).
They’d all gotten to know each other gradually during the latter years of the ’90s. Lamm and Cary recall crossing paths at South By Southwest in Austin in 1996; the following year, Whiskeytown and Hazeldine toured together on a couple of occasions (including a month-long jaunt in the spring sponsored by No Depression).
Blakey and Cary met in the summer of ’97 when Glory Fountain (then based in Charlotte) shared a bill with Whiskeytown. Around the same time, Blakey attended a Hazeldine show in Chapel Hill, and left an impression on Lamm that still lingers: “I remember I was like, ‘Did anybody meet that girl with the beautiful hair and the big eyes? She was really nice!'” Lamm recalls.
By 1999, all three had become good friends and had begun casually to collaborate with low-key gigs, though initially in duo pairings. Cary and Lamm played a couple of shows together, and when Lamm went on a European tour with Hazeldine, Cary and Blakey teamed up.
One night they all encountered each other in the ladies’ restroom at a show by another local band. As Blakey told ND’s David Menconi in a Town & Country article from July-August 2000, “I accosted the two of them at a Backsliders show and said, ‘We have to do this.’ So yeah, I horned in, and we were conceived in the Brewery women’s room during a Backsliders show.” Shortly thereafter, Raleigh club owner Van Alston booked the nascent trio and dubbed them “Las Tres Chicas” for the sole purpose of having something to list in the newspaper. The name (minus the “Las”) stuck.
A busy summer on the local scene led to studio time with renowned producer Chris Stamey, a longtime friend of Blakey who had also worked extensively with Cary during Whiskeytown’s heyday. By early 2000, the Chicas had made some rough demos, which they passed along to industry folks at South By Southwest in Austin that March while playing a couple of packed shows.
Much momentum seemed to be building for the band. And then…nothing happened.
Well, plenty happened, but only in ways that served to pull the three players in separate directions. Lamm not only made one last record with Hazeldine (Double Back, released in Europe in May 2001), she also became a mother. Cary, encouraged by the modest success of her 2000 five-song solo EP Waltzie, began working with Stamey on a full-length disc (While You Weren’t Looking, released on Yep Roc in March 2002). Blakey gave Glory Fountain one more try, recording The Beauty Of 23 (which came out in June 2002).