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How to Make It Happen. Or Not.
Did you put out seven albums before you were 30? Winston-Salem songwriter Caleb Caudle has. That seventh album, “Carolina Ghost,” hits stores (both real and virtual) this Friday. Which begs a question: What does it take for a writer of honest tunes to make it in the business these days? Lucky for us, Caudle began the quest to make No. 7 about the same time our friend and former SPIN magazine editor Charles Aaron, a native Southerner, moved back home to North Carolina after two decades in New York. So we put Caleb and Charles together to ponder a big question: In a business that chews up nearly everyone who enters it, what the hell you gotta do to get a hit these days? These are their stories.
“Why do you think it hasn’t happened yet?”
Caleb Caudle is shifting his boots in the gravel of a parking lot outside a factory-chic coffee shop in a refurbished warehouse on the edge of downtown Winston-Salem, N.C. The aspiring, country-tinged songwriter will release his seventh album, “Carolina Ghost,” at the end of this week, and he’s visibly anxious about the future. We’ve spent the last hour talking about the shady hustle that a young artist has to endure to get recognized beyond a handful of zip codes.
Now he’s asking me questions.
Like any observer of the music-industry grindhouse – my last 25-plus years have been spent, in large part, writing and editing stories about musicians – I have no fucking clue what to tell the guy. Why does one talented person’s art sell millions, while an equally talented person’s art resides, quietly undisturbed, on Bandcamp? Hey, Big Star’s my favorite band; I know the soul-crushing drill.
So, I mumble supportive banalities about keeping the faith and believing in oneself and not looking for validation in strangers and how success happens at different times for different people. Straight horseshit. Except it’s all sorta true – there are no guidelines for building a career in the era of Internet destabilization. Big labels are more picky and exploitative. Whatever clicks becomes a prototype, until it’s not. Skepticism is no more true than credulity. So I lean toward the latter.
Besides, I could sense his vulnerable mood was teetering. Back in the coffee shop earlier, Caudle told a story about the head of a prominent indie label who had listened to “Carolina Ghost” and reacted with overwhelming enthusiasm; he was anxious to schedule a meeting and claimed that he wanted to put out the record. Caudle fought back the urge to start touchdown dabbin’ like Cam Newton, the quarterback of his beloved Carolina Panthers. Then the indie guy stopped answering emails. No reason, he just ghosted. I sympathized again, dishing that the dude was a known drunk with a borderline personality – which wasn’t entirely hyperbole. Still, when a body blow gets personalized, it hurts a little extra.
Fact is, nobody can predict whether Caudle’s album, a beautifully crafted batch of pop-friendly country-soul, will draw a wider audience than 2014’s “Paint Another Layer on My Heart,” which more directly reflected the brooding country-rock moan of his former band the Bayonets (and featured punky stomper Lydia Loveless on yearning harmonies). And no label deal inducts you into a secret society of success. By default, Caudle’s music falls under the Americana rubric, a catch-all genre that was designed to support country, blues, folk, bluegrass and rootsy rock artists who didn’t fit any existing radio formats. The genre has experienced steady growth since its 1996 inception – earning a Grammy designation, inspiring a festival and awards show and producing its own crossover artist, Jason Isbell, whose 2015 album “Something More Than Free” topped the Billboard rock, country and folk charts. But for Caudle right now, that’s all an arm’s-length tease.
A devotee of Isbell’s music, as well as that of the band he left to go solo, Drive-By Truckers, Caudle has studied their DIY paths to success. Much as the Truckers raised $23,000 via online investors to pay for the manufacturing and distribution of their breakthrough 2001 album “Southern Rock Opera,” Caudle raised $15,000 via Indiegogo to record “Carolina Ghost” and commission the elegant album art. Nine years ago, when he was a headstrong 20-year-old, Caudle even scored a meeting with Traci Thomas, the Truckers’ most longstanding backer, a co-founder of the Americana Music Association, and now Isbell’s manager via the influential Nashville firm Thirty Tigers. She didn’t let him down easy.
“I basically told him he wasn’t ready and that he needed to tour,” says Thomas. “It looks like he’s finally doing that and starting to build something himself, which is what you have to do these days before anybody on the business end will care.”
Caudle nods and laughs at his hubris. “I had no business talking to her then,” he admits. Later, he goes further: “I didn’t listen to her for six years.” But now, over the past three, he’s committed more fully to touring and his fortunes have improved. Why didn’t he listen to her advice in the beginning?
“I was young and dumb,” he says, flatly, pausing to reflect. “Guess I thought I was better than I was.”
Sometimes it pays to remember such youthful kicks in the teeth.
A few years back, a guy chased a girl to New Orleans for the zillionth time.
Caudle won’t say much now – he’s recently engaged to another woman and living in North Carolina again – but he basically fled his past to rent an apartment, live in bars and disappear into a dissolute fantasy. Raised about 20 minutes outside of Winston in the tiny pit stop of Germanton, he grew up “about as rural as you can get” (there were “goats and tractors” at his high school). New Orleans’ debauched allure got to him, especially as the Bayonets (which he started with his older brother Kyle) struggled, and he became known as a regular at every tavern in town. Always close to his family – mom, dad, grandparents – he drifted away.
Of the NOLA sojourn, Caudle frankly describes himself as a “tourist” who played dozens of out-of-town shows and was always at loose ends. “It’s a good place to be insane; nobody cares because so many people are insane,” he explains, shaking his head.
“Seriously, though, I didn't want to get back ‘home’ after tour and have to use the GPS to find the grocery store. To be honest, I was no different from the people walking around the [French] Quarter with fanny packs. What’s great about New Orleans is how people who live there hold onto their culture; it definitely showed me what roots really were, and that I was disconnected from mine.”
One night, probably after posting for hours at the classic jukebox dive Brothers III Lounge, Caudle got a call from his dad, an ex-Marine and long-haul truck driver. “I was being a selfish jerk and not thinking about how it impacted the people who cared about me, and my dad kinda put me in my place,” he says. “At the time, you don’t wanna hear it, but it was the best thing that ever happened. That was a turning point.” He’s not had a drink since.
“It was an unusual talk to have,” he continues. “A lot of families in the South have this don't-ask-don’t-tell kind of thing, which is why it got my attention. I was, like, wow, I must be really screwing up.” Since then, father and son have stayed in touch consistently while Caudle’s on debilitating tour drives. “He literally drove all the same roads when he was long-hauling; he knows where all the good barbecue joints are.”
Soon after the call, in July of 2014, Caudle moved back to Winston-Salem with a renewed focus. “My dad set this intense example of family and hard work and how it pays off, and I feel like I have so much to live up to.”
For a singer-songwriter who can’t employee a regular backing band, the process of recording an album is generally an irksome, patchwork affair. But when the often unpredictable puzzle pieces start sliding into place, or when a muddled, disjointed project suddenly takes its intended shape, the feeling in the studio can get downright slaphappy — the relief and joy so electric that it practically shows up as squiggles on the recording engineer’s computer monitor. People start acting like 10-year-olds all jacked up on Mountain Dew. In the best possible way.
I was privy to a couple of those moments during two days of recording last year for “Carolina Ghost” at the Fidelitorium, the majestic, exquisitely designed studio of legendary producer Mitch Easter (R.E.M., Pylon, Pavement, countless others) in Kernersville, N.C., about 10 miles east of Winston-Salem. To assemble the same crew from his last album (in addition to pedal-steel ace Brett Resnick and vocalist Bonnie Whitmore) meant flying in musicians from Austin, Nashville and California, which is where the Indiegogo money came in handy. From a purely musical perspective, it was undoubtedly worth it. The record has a polished glow, and watching players of this quality develop their parts from scratch is astonishing.
On the ballad “Steel and Stone,” a swaying, unhurried sketch of a pained relationship between two tough-minded people, Caudle’s baritone hangs heavy but inches forward with stolid determination. He’s not giving up or giving in, but it’s unclear whether he’s actually getting anywhere. My favorite line is when he sings that “the smell of sweet tobacco is braided in your hair,” hearkening back to the days when Winston-Salem was a nexus of the tobacco trade, home to R.J. Reynolds and a symbol of the South’s industrial swoon from the 1980s forward. Throughout “Carolina Ghost,” Caudle sprinkles such local signifiers – Piedmont skies, dogwood trees, red birds – and by album’s end, his nostalgia for home is palpable.
Caudle tells engineer Jon Ashley that he wants to draw out the song’s soulful core, nodding to his vocal hero Percy Sledge, R&B’s icon of elegiac, tear-jerkin’ romance (“When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Warm and Tender Love,” “My Special Prayer,” etc.). Greg Herndon colors in some splashes of Wurlitzer and electronic piano, while Brett Resnick makes his pedal steel weep, and the country-soul retouch is complete in about an hour or so and everybody’s energized by the results.
For the next half-hour or so, there’s a raucous studio roundtable that touches on, among other things: Draconian drug laws; “Wrestlemania” through the ages; the greatness of M83 and Cam Newton; the ongoing conundrum of how Arcade Fire continues to make albums with that pitiful drum sound; Radiohead’s total whiff on “King of Limbs”; and a universal shrug at the comment, “Indie rock, man, what are you gonna do?” To cap it off, somebody launches into a dissertation on the pathologically unhinged, we’re-gonna-get-so-fucked-up fans of Widespread Panic. On a recent night, the storyteller had attended a house party where a wildly drunken woman wouldn’t stop screaming at the host to shut off the Band’s “The Last Waltz” and “put on some fuckin’ Wiiiidespread, man!” Then when the host refused, she hooted with a laugh, “I bet you like Wilco, faggot!”
Caudle’s personal tastes range widely. As young as 11 or 12, his older brother took him to all-ages punk shows. “I’d be the youngest person there and people would be like, “Who’s the kid?” I’d see these guys on stage with crazy hair; I was pretty enthralled by it all.” Despite having grown up in the rural South, he wasn’t that intrigued by country; everybody was listening to it. Instead, he was obsessed with the Clash and the Replacements, eventually coming to country via North Carolina alt-country antiheroes, the Ryan Adams-led Whiskeytown.
“They were doing what the Replacements were doing but more country, and I was like, ‘Man, this is so cool, and I’m missing out because of pride, I guess, because I won’t listen to what the rednecks at my school liked.” Later, he fell for ’80s New Traditionalists like Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis and George Strait. In fact, the songwriting on “Carolina Ghost” is probably most influenced by Strait (and his frequent writer Dean Dillon) or Merle Haggard’s improbable run of immaculately produced and crooned country-pop albums from 1981 to 1984, where his romantic vulnerability and weary wit created a body of work that functioned as one long, hardscrabble barroom confessional/tutorial.
“I don’t think he felt like he had to be anybody anymore,” says Caudle. “He wasn’t speaking for anyone, he was just talking about what he was going through, giving you his life straight up; that’s what inspires me.” He goes on excitedly, “And they were really going for that ultra-smooth sound that went down easy and Haggard seemed so effortless in what he was doing. It doesn’t take any effort to get it at all. It’s right there. It’s just so beautiful and meaningful and true and it means so much to me that he would lay it on the line like that without any frills.”
“I don’t party in the back of trucks.”
No, it wasn’t a bumper sticker, but a self-deprecating punch line that Caudle dropped in one of our conversations. We were talking not just about how he differs from mainstream country stars, but about what’s different now from the days when he was carousing and perpetrating his version of the self-destructive, alt-country, drunken-angel routine that eventually swallowed up Ryan Adams. In many ways, Americana is the aftermath of Adams and Whiskeytown’s inability to get their shit together, blowing their major-label opportunity in the ’90s when the mass market seemed ready.
As a result, Americana is an extremely sober genre; most of its stars seem to be in recovery and openly sing about it. Many of the musicians have moved on from youthful rowdiness and want to connect to their families and regional/musical histories. They’re all about clarity and work ethic and smart strategic moves in a music world gone kablooey. In some ways, Caudle is following this model. He’s publicly dispensed with debauchery, reconciled with his family, and is getting married; he’s back with indie label This Is American Music; he's fixated on managers and booking agents and figuring out how to make a profitable career out of his music. He’s tired of wasting time.
One of Caudle’s closest friends in music is John Moreland, a volcanically emotional songwriter who can hush a bar full of frat douches with one devastatingly bereft chorus. He’s a year-and-a-half older than Caudle and has struggled just as much or more, only recently signing with, wait for it, Traci Thomas of Thirty Tigers. He and Caudle have toured together for years and have spent hours on the phone when they’re traveling separately or at home. He’s a soulmate.
“Moreland always tells me that my time’s coming, that I just need to be patient and keep pounding and not worry about when things happen, just believe that they will. I know he’s right, but it’s hard when you’re trying to pay the rent.”
Caudle’s location is timely, though. North Carolina has been in the midst of an Americana renaissance (some might say glut) throughout the 2000s. Despite hip-hop and metal notables, rootsy music has defined the state. Rihannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hiss Golden Messenger, Mount Moriah, American Aquarium, Delta Rae, Mandolin Orange, Phil Cook of Megafaun, Skylar Gudasz, the list goes on. The folky but sprawling indie label Paradise of Bachelors has made a distinctive mark by signing a wide range of artists and releasing smartly curated reissues. Of course, there are also the Grammy-nominated Avett Brothers, set this year to release their eighth studio album, the fourth produced by Rick Rubin, and likely their third straight to enter the Billboard Top 10.
So the fans are there. And in Winston-Salem, Caudle has a solid foundation. He’s watched his modestly mid-sized hometown re-emerge from the decline of Big Tobacco. The area around the coffee shop where we met – once a ghost zone just blocks from the Forsyth County Detention Center – is now dubbed “Innovation Quarter” by its high-minded residents.
As we chat in the parking lot, the driver of an SUV waits impatiently to grab my spot, then shakes his head and kicks rocks. Caudle reminisces about when the building was an artists’ squat called the Werehouse, where all types of bands performed – he saw a particularly memorable Cat Power show there (when she still refused to face the audience). Everything is always changing and everyone’s impatient for their glimpse of the spotlight. Caudle’s anxiety is understandable.
But as we say goodbye, and I drive back to my relatively new home in Durham, I keep wondering how many people I know – who I still respect – who have simply made it happen on a timetable they envisioned. Life just doesn’t work that way. It can’t work that way. So don’t expect it to, just because you’ve got a special artistic gift. In other words, if you’re asking, “Why do you think it hasn’t happened yet?” then you’re asking the wrong question.
Maybe it would make more sense to ask yourself, “Why do I need to know?
Feb 25 The Garage - Winston-Salem, NC
"Carolina Ghost" Release Party
Feb 26 Slim's - Raleigh, NC
Feb 27 The Evening Muse - Charlotte, NC
Mar 02 House Show - Richmond, VA
Mar 03 Club 603 - Baltimore, MD
Mar 04 Rockwood Music Hall - New York, NY
Mar 05 Maybelle’s - Washington, D.C.
Mar 10 Venkman’s - Atlanta, GA
Mar 11 House show - Americus, GA
Mar 12 Standard Deluxe - Waverly, AL
Mar 13 Callaghan’s - Mobile, AL
Mar 14 Dyson House Listening Room - Baton Rouge, LA
Mar 15 The Mucky Duck - Houston, TX
Mar 18 SXSW Bandit Brand Party - Austin, TX
Mar 19 Stickyz - Little Rock, AR
Mar 20 The Basement - Nashville, TN
Apr 01 Jammin’ Java - Washington, DC
Apr 02 The Southern - Charlottesville, VA
Apr 08 Willie’s Locally Known - Lexington, KY
Apr 09 The V Club - Huntington, WV
W.B. Walker's Old Soul Radio Show: 3 Year Anniversary
Apr 16 Spring Fest - Huntsville, AL
Apr 30 Tropical Heatwave - Tampa, FL
Jun 04 Dunbar Brewing - Santa Margarita, CA
Jun 05 The Grand Ole Echo - Los Angeles, CA