Category: Caroline Herring

(Re)Covered, XIII:
An interview and exclusive live tracks from Caroline Herring
plus live Chris Smither, and more of the year’s best tribute albums

November 15th, 2009 — 04:26 pm

Regular readers may recall that I first fell in love with the powerful, confessional Americana folk of Signature Sounds artist Caroline Herring after last year’s Lantana, a tour de force concept album of sorts which evoked a broad set of southern women’s voices struggling with their own claims to power and the lack thereof. As we wrote last month on the cusp of its release, Herring’s newest album, Golden Apples of the Sun, is a stunner, too, and I’m happy to report that it’s garnering the attention it deserves, climbing the Folk and Americana charts and finding placement on this year’s upcoming Oxford American Southern Music Sampler.

Last weekend I had a rare opportunity to sit down with Caroline before her opening set to a packed house at local folk-haunt the Iron Horse. Unsurprisingly, the Southern singer-songwriter was charming and articulate, both onstage and off; I appreciated the shout-out to Cover Lay Down during her set, and appreciate, as well, her willingness to share some thoughts on her own history and experience with coverage for the benefit of our readers.

Interestingly, as she noted at the outset of our interview, Caroline stayed away from covers for most of the last decade, having burned out on them early in her career in her work with Thacker Mountain Radio, a Southern music and literature radio show she helped found down in Oxford, Mississippi:

I used to do all covers, when I started playing with the Sincere Ramblers. We were the house band for a live audience radio show for two and a half years, and every week, we put out four new covertunes, and they were all of country blues, gospel, bluegrass, classic country…so we covered the canon. And so by the time I finished that, I was really tired of covers. I had learned a tremendous amount, but I just was so hungry to write my own songs and play my own songs and so I got in that habit.

But of course I know so many. And with this album, I first thought I would do an album of covers. And I was still not ready to do that. I don’t know why…I still have that Sincere Ramblers…that cover-mania was still with me…

The journey which brought her to include five songs originally penned and performed by others on her most recent release is deliberate and deep, as much a result of a pent-up sense of influence as it is a result of trying to craft a comprehensive vision in the studio. As Caroline describes it, under the guidance of producer and sideman David “Goody” Goodrich, she ended up with an album that seamlessly intertwines typically strong, poignant originals like The Dozens and Tales of the Islander with a series of songs reclaimed from her past and her culture.

In conversation, as in the music itself, it is obvious that the process by which Caroline has come to make songs her own, both lyrically and artistically, stems from to the way in which she connects her own artistic center with others – performers, producers, and songwriters alike. And listening to her music shows continued evolution of that process. Though the two covers on Lantana were recognizable from their first measures, here, Caroline doesn’t so much interpret songs as she does find her own voice in them, an approach which very often means a comprehensive reinvention of the familiar. Her LP selections – standards Long Black Veil and See See Rider, a resetting of the sixties folktune granted to Yeats poem Song of the Wandering Aengus, and startlingly transformative covers of both True Colors and Joni Mitchell’s Cactus Tree – are rewritten gems, with new tunes and tunings breathing new life and new intimacy into the texts. Here’s how that happens:

I had always loved the song of Wandering Aengus – Judy Collins’ version. I’ve listened to it for ten years, loved it. And I listened to her growing up. But I would play it, and sing it, and I thought “well, I wonder how other people do this.” And then lo and behold I listened to other people, and everybody has a different tune. And so I thought well, maybe I could do a different tune. And so I did. And then…that just spread.

And I’ve played Long Black Veil 500 times. You know, with a bluegrass band. And as a folk singer, perhaps it’s effective. But I loved playing with it. The song was definitely morose, but I played it very folkily. And in the studio, Goody – who was an integral part in the playing of this record – he played with it, and said “make it more urgent sounding”. And I got mad at him for saying it was urgent. And that was the take we took. And of course, he was right, and it was just wonderful, and I was just being diva-like…

As Caroline goes on to describe the way each covered song came to her, a two-part trend becomes clear: first, Caroline finds a song that she loves, and that speaks to her emotionally, and then, she rejects the melody and delivery of the versions she has heard from others in order to rebuild the songs as her own, whether in response to an inner desire or to the push of the producer and partner. In True Colors, which Goody brings to the table, she finds deep meaning in the sentiment of the song, but transforms the melody to make it a vehicle for her own sense of that sentiment. Similarly, Caroline describes feeling “standoffish from” blues, not feeling like she has a “right” to sing them, so although her version of See See Rider reflects both an appreciation of and a reverence for Ma Rainey and Big Bill Broonzy, she ends up remaking the song “in a way that [she] can sing it,” so that it has meaning for her.

In the end, it’s clear that, as Caroline herself notes, “I don’t seem to make an effective song if I’m not emotionally a part of it”. And this extraordinarily unusual, highly sensitive approach to coverage is consistent with her songwriting and performing process, too. Caroline’s originals show rare empathy, and the combination of intimately reforged familiarity and strong new songcraft is a great part of what makes Golden Apples of the Sun and its companion EP Silver Apples of the Moon – which also includes a few wonderful covers, most notably Kate Wolf’s Here in California, and a duet with Cary Hudson – such powerful works, universal and intimate all at once, worth buying from the source, and worth gifting as the holidays approach.

Here’s more from our evening with Caroline, in her own words and music: the full recorded interview, complete with chat about family and kidsong, and a few live tracks recorded by yours truly at the venue, on my trusty iPod voice recorder.

Bonus: Caroline’s new video for Tales of the Islander is now available at YouTube. Songs:illinois, who doesn’t usually post videos, says it “does justice to Caroline’s beautiful song as well as showing her beautifully serene and peaceful personality.” Having met her in person, I’d have to agree.

Caroline’s too-short set was followed by a rare treat: labelmate Chris Smither performing songs from his new album Time Stands Still with support from The Motivators (drummer Zak Trojano and guitarist David Goodrich, whose subtle strains also can be heard in the latter tracks from Caroline Herring above). Smither, who has recently moved into the area, only gets better with each passing year, his wry, gentle manner mellowing even deeper with age, and the band brought a fullness to his songs which was previously only available in studio recordings.

Unusually, Smither’s Saturday set was comprised of almost all new material, but he did offer this stunning cover of Dave Carter’s Crocodile Man. Though I’m still gathering in a few last tunes for an upcoming feature on Carter’s songbook, this bootleg track is just to good to hold back.

Finally, before you head off to buy your own copies of Golden Apples of the Sun, Silver Apples of the Moon, and Time Stands Still, a quick mention of three new and upcoming albums we missed in last week’s feature on recent Tribute Albums and Cover Compilations:

First, and most relevant to our recent foray into the world of folk tributes: a debt of thanks to delicate folkwatcher Slowcoustic and his own source the Common Folk Meadow blog for raising consciousness this week on The Wanderer, a new all-covers release from Berliner singer-songwriter Laurence Collyer performing as The Diamond Family Archive. The album, which features typically lo-fi bedroom covers of Sam Cooke, Eddie Cochrain, John Lee Hooker, and others, is comprised of quiet, often somber “acoustic landscapes”; in keeping with the organic sound and production value, the CD includes a handdrawn booklet, photographs, and “objects of affection”, and the whole thing comes across like a true collector’s item waiting to happen.

Slowcoustic has rehosted a wonderful free show from TDFA, just one of many available at label Woodland Archives, which includes the following live version of the title track from The Wanderer; the entire show includes some startlingly amazing covers, most notably absolutely mystical banjo-and-voice breakdowns of Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again and Islands in the Stream, and serves as a great introduction to the strong subtleties of Collyer’s work. Also included: two lovely late-night covers of Dire Straits classics, one from the covers album, the other from The Diamond Family Archive webpage. Gorgeous stuff, all ’round.

Second, this Harry Nilsson cover from Dawn Landes has been making the blogrounds, reminding both that a) we did a Nilsson feature way back when, and b) the pop-slash-indie-grown tribute album Songs from the Point!, while not folk, contains some delicate takes on Nilsson’s playful, poignant, well-crafted songs, the best of which come across as strong contenders for permanent earworms.

And finally, looking forward, the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street this week brought exciting news of an upcoming Muppets tribute album featuring the likes of Weezer, my Morning Jacket, and Andrew Bird. Like Songs From the Point, the upcoming tribute features several artists who claim folk music in their blood and musical origins; Andrew Bird, who will appear on each, recently released his torchy, francophilic take on Bein’ Green, and though it’s not clear if Joshua Radin’s version of the Sesame Street theme song, originally recorded for Scrubs, will make it to the 2010 album, it’s certainly in the same vein.

Cover Lay Down posts new features and songsets every Sunday and Wednesday, and the occasional otherday. We’re not known for brevity, but people seem to like what we’ve got to offer; if you do, too, please help support our mission by purchasing albums direct from the artists from the links above, and – if you’re up for it – perhaps consider donating a bit to help keep operating costs low.

983 comments » | (Re)Covered, Caroline Herring, Chris Smither, Dawn Landes

Midnight Coverfolk: Songs for the Middle of the Night

September 14th, 2008 — 12:32 am

I’ve always been nocturnal by nature, treating the darkest hours as my own private playspace. It’s in the genes: growing up in the summer vacations of my childhood, my siblings, my father and I wandered the house like ghosts until three. Until I joined the public schoolteacher’s union, I’d seen the sunrise more times at the tail end of my day than the beginning.

But teaching is an early riser’s profession. Fight as I may, after five hours of sleep and a full day in the hallways of urban adolescent chaos, I’m worn by supper, and drained by ten. I stay up as late as I can, winding down, blogging over at the collaborative. But these days, I’m lucky if I see midnight.

Which is to say: please pardon our bedraggled appearance while we remodel our author’s sleep patterns, folks. In the meanwhile, here’s some quiet songs of the witching hour, written late and tired.

153 comments » | Be Good Tanyas, Caroline Herring, Cowboy Junkies, Eliza Gilkyson, Guy Davis, James Yorkston, Madeleine Peyroux, Mae Robertson

Caroline Herring, Lantana: covers of Kate Wolf and All The Pretty Little Horses

February 19th, 2008 — 08:46 pm

Ever wonder what happens to the artists who win Best New Artist at SXSW? If they’re Caroline Herring, they release a strong second album and then disappear, putting their recording career on hold to focus on marriage and motherhood. Now, after a long hiatus, Herring returns to the forefront of the folkworld with Lantana, a stunning, intimate collection which I’ve already shortlisted as one of my top ten folk/roots/Americana albums of 2008.

Taking time off for family is an especially risky move in today’s music world, where momentum is king — bloggers, who constantly seek “the next big thing”, share no small responsibility for accelerating this process. But with true genius, Herring turns her time out of the limelight to her advantage, treating it as both subject and sustenance, crafting a strong, polished set of tunes which speak to the the complex balance between traditional family roles and career ambitions which women are asked to internalize in modern society.

The result is a revelation. Herring’s five years out of the studio only intensified what was already a stellar ability to create and deliver poignant, powerful songs about the world around her in a pure, rich southern-twanged voice reminiscent of some of the the best female folksingers of the past thirty years. The songs on Lantana are simultaneously authentic and new, applying traditional folk storytelling and verse structure to stories of women in today’s rural South who, like Herring herself, have struggled to find their place between the demands of the heart and post-feminist possibility.

At its best, this album is haunting and beautiful, combining strong songwriting with solid, effective production and stunning vocal delivery. Paper Gown, a murder ballad of the finest order which retells the chilling story of Susan Smith, is especially gorgeous example of Herring’s ability to create song of the first order: catchy, thoughtful, sympathetic, and deep, the song roots itself in your soul, lingering long after the music has faded from the ears. Even in her quieter, more peaceful numbers — including a deceptively simple cover of traditional lullaby All the Pretty Little Horses and a beautiful, wistful version of Kate Wolf’s Midnight on the Water, both of which we feature below — Herring brings a depth of emotion which few contemporaries can muster

Universally accessible yet rooted deeply in the sounds of Herring’s native south, Lantana is the best singer-songwriter CD I’ve heard in a very long time. Let’s hope it’s the first of many more to come from this up-and-second-coming talent.

  • Caroline Herring, Midnight on the Water (orig. Kate Wolf)
  • Caroline Herring, All The Pretty Little Horses (trad.)

Lantana doesn’t come out until March 4th, but you want more of Caroline Herring as soon as possible, so pre-order Lantana over at Signature Sounds today. Act now, and you can pick up this magnificent album for under ten dollars — a real steal in today’s market.

Still not convinced? Check out Paper Gown over at fellow folkblog Here Comes The Flood. Their description of Caroline Herring’s sound as “gothic country” is right on the money.

Today’s bonus coversongs include another take on Kate Wolf, and a set of songs which used to be my favorite versions of the slave lullaby All The Pretty Little Horses before Caroline Herring hit it on the nose:

  • Nanci Griffith, Across The Great Divide (orig. Kate Wolf)

  • Calexico, All The Pretty Horses (trad.)
  • Shawn Colvin, All The Pretty Li’l Horses (trad.)
  • The Chieftains w/ Patty Griffin, Whole Heap of Little Horses (trad.)

929 comments » | Calexico, Caroline Herring, Kate Wolf, Nanci Griffith, Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, The Chieftains