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Caitlin Cary stays out on second CD

By Brian Steinberg, May 2003

Before Caitlin Cary gets ready to talk about her new album, the sophomore effort "I'm Staying Out," she wants to have a spot of tea. You can even hear the kettle whistling softly in the background through the telephone.

It's just that sort of atmosphere of instant conversation that Cary, the Whiskeytown violinist and co-founder, hopes to spark once again when she takes her touring band on the road.

"I think people who want to come see me tend to want to go to bed before midnight and not stand in a smoke rock club on the concrete floor," she says. "I always try to bring it to these people."

She certainly has something to deliver. Critics seemed surprised when Cary released her solo debut, 2002's "While You Weren't Looking." The disc showed that it wasn't just "It Boy" Ryan Adams hanging out in the loose collective and alt.-country darling band Whiskeytown.

Someone else was there as well, and she had a disarming voice and a way with a musical hook (as anyone who has heard the song "Shallow Heart, Shallow Water" leaping out of his or her radio speakers can tell you).

Now "I'm Staying Out" is ready to crackle, with a road-tested backing band that Cary thinks gives her sound an added degree of depth.

How does the new album sound compared with her debut?

"I think it's braver, maybe not more rock exactly, maybe more high energy," she says. "The band was solid and tight. We knew each other. We had been playing together. It seems to me you can really hear that."

The difference came through even during the album's early stages, she says. "The difference was really striking going home from doing the basic tracks," she recalls. "I think it was way more bold and better than the first record, which I'm proud of, but it was my first thing and it took sort of a lot more piecing together and a lot more brain work about what we were trying to accomplish. This time, somehow we knew better what we were up to."

The new disc contains a jaunty meld of fiddle, guitar, keyboards, accordion and rich vocal harmonies. You can hear a little country, but also folk, rock and even a little blue-eyed Carol King-type soul. Topping it all off is Cary's rich, plaintive voice that gives a little more soul and grit to "Four Rooms," the album's opener about someone whose life has been wrung nearly dry or a little languid charm to "Sleepin' In On Sunday."

The song "Please Break My Heart," an album standout, comes through as a weepy waltz in the Patsy Cline vein. And then, "Cello Girl" breaks though with punkish charm that might remind some listeners of Cary's other band.

Cary is aided throughout by longtime accompanists Jen Gunderman (formerly of The Jayhawks), on piano, accordion and keyboards; Dave Bartholomew, on acoustic and electric guitars; Brian Dennis on guitar and Jon Wurster on guitars and percussion. A few guests dropped by to lend a hand as well. You'll hear Mary Chapin Carpenter lend a few vocal harmonies and Jane Scarpantoni contribute cello. R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter adds guitar.

For Cary, writing a song and writing a novel are not that far apart, which seems a natural sentiment coming from someone who was enrolled in a graduate program in creative writing at North Carolina State in Raleigh when the Whiskeytown train started to leave the station.

"I'm not a real prolific writer. I tend to wait for inspiration, which every writer worth their salt will tell you are not supposed to do," she says. "It's supposed to be ass in chair. I've written about my family, I've written about my friends. I've written about - yes, I've ripped off my own short stories. They seem to come kind of from anywhere. Songwriting, as opposed to stories, is not good unless it comes of a piece. You have to get a little chunk of a song that comes. There have to be all these different components - the melody has to come at the same time. I don't find it very successful to try to paste the two thoughts together."

Cary should know something about music and how it's made. As a child, Cary wrote songs and performed them on her father's homemade harpsichord. When she was around six, she began studying the violin, which she played for a decade. She would pick up the instrument again while attending the College of Wooster in Ohio, while playing in her first band, a country covers combo known as the Garden Weasels.

Her real break came, however, while she was studying in Raleigh at the graduate writing program.

Adams, then a young rock musician, came upon her via a mutual acquaintance. Once the band, which came to be known as Whiskeytown, became something of an alt.-country phenomenon, Cary played the steadying presence, while Adams swaggered and grew rambunctious.

While that band's rise and ultimate splintering apart has been chewed over many times, Cary soon was ready to step out on her own, and her first disc got more notice than one might have thought.

Her musical interests are quite diverse, although much of it tends to hone in on old soul and jazz artists, including Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald and Sam Cooke. However, Cary also is enjoying the new Wilco album, likes the White Stripes and is championing some up and coming bands such as Dolly Varden. She also admits to having "guilty pleasures" such as Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" album.

Touring for the new disc remains "a little bit up in the air," Cary explains. "We're seeking to get out of the rock and roll clubs and into the more sort of listening sort of environment. However, you have to be pretty famous to get into them, because they hold 1,000 people. We did a lot of nightclub touring for the last record, and it was good, but I kind of got the feeling that's not exactly where this music belongs. We're shooting big and hoping we can get on some bigger tours throughout the summer. If that doesn't happen, we'll rethink it, I know I'll be on the road all summer, but the plans are pretty nebulous."

Still, a few city festivals are already supposed to be in the works, she says.

Hey, if this solo thing doesn't work out - and given the critical reaction, there's no reason to give up hope, she can always cash in a few decades from now with a Whiskeytown reunion. It's not such a far-fetched idea.

"My two big jokes are when Ryan is 40, we'll make a great duets record, when he's done being a rock star, not that I think he ever will. He's pretty good at it," she says. "I hold out hope that someday we will make music again because there was a lot to it that was phenomenal and sensational. I imagine we'll get nostalgic for it at some point."

"My other joke is that we'll all turn 50 and have pissed away all the money we made on our solo careers and have to go out and tour and open for Air Supply."