Caroline Herring digs deep-deep into the rich soil of American roots music for her sound, and deep into the recesses of her own consciousness for her themes. The musically understated, psychologically intense songs of this Atlanta-based Mississippi native ponder the eternal verities while probing the complex nature of contemporary existence; she delivers them in a fine-grained alto replete with the residue of hard-earned insight.
On Lantana, her beautiful and eloquent third album (Signature Sounds), Herring fills the listener's heart with hope one moment and sends a chill down the spine the next. This pivotal album, which documents a personal and artistic crossroads for its author, cements her status as a truth teller, and no matter how bitter or disturbing the story leading to the truth may be, she approaches it clear-eyed and straight-on, getting down to the nub of it with quiet tenacity. No wonder fellow artist Dar Williams, who co-headlined a European tour with Herring in 2006, described her as "the elusive 'real thing.'"
Since emerging out of the Austin scene earlier in this decade, Herring has beguiled the critics and accumulated an international following with her provocative outpourings. Her subject matter is firmly grounded in the rural South; "Mississippi's dense history and the shackles of its past are vividly present in Herring's songs," noted Craig Havihurst in the Tennessean. As a onetime folklore scholar Herring also draws on her knowledge of traditional music and culture as a way of contextualizing her personal narrative, thus bringing a dimension of timelessness and universality to the work. "I've learned a lot from academics and all the artists I've worked with," she says, "but I do try to write from my own experience, as a poet would approach her work, rather than as an academic. Though I admire all sorts of traditional art forms, I would never call myself a traditional artist."
Herring co-produced Lantana with Rich Brotherton (Robert Earl Keen), who helmed its predecessor, 2003's Wellspring, at Brotherton's home studio in Austin. The album contains eight solely written originals, along with "Midnight on the Water," whose melody comes from an old Texas fiddle tune, and the traditional lullaby "All the Pretty Little Horses."
Lantana's thematic bookends are "Stone Cold World" and "Song for Fay" (the latter inspired by a Larry Brown novel and included on a tribute album to the late author). Herring located the imagery she employs through the course of the opening "Stone Cold World" during a trip to the remote, rocky eastern edge of Canada. "Newfoundland is a rock-there's no vegetation on it," she explains, "and that is a metaphor for learning to exist outside myself, learning how to be married, to be in a new place, to be in the midst of changes in my career and in all of life. It's about what sacrifice means." She describes the closing "Song for Fay" as "a journey song about figuring out how to be a woman, and navigating that, and still getting up in the morning and looking towards heaven."
In "Fair and Tender Ladies," Herring subverts the female-as-delicate-flower theme of the traditional song of the same title as she celebrates the courage of three women from her native Mississippi-a poet, a nun, and an anti-lynching activist. The song "Paper Gown" is about Susan Smith, the 23-year-old South Carolina woman who drowned her sons. Herring examines the roots of that unfathomable act, relating this contemporary horror story as "the ultimate Southern Gothic tale. It makes a good murder ballad, but it's an important story." No, this is not easy-listening music.
The album title, she explains, refers to "a wild-looking, flowering plant that grows like crazy around here. Lantana flowers attract butterflies, and it's common to see lots of them hovering around a big lantana plant. The image is in my song 'Lover Girl,' in the lines: 'Longing for a place to know/Where branches reach, lantana grow/And butterflies take their poses.' So it's about finding a place to call home and making it home."
Herring embarked on her musical path while a student at Ole Miss in Oxford, where she played with The Sincere Ramblers, a local band who purveyed old-time country, country blues and bluegrass. Some of the most renowned figures in roots music-artists like Gillian Welch, Blue Mountain, The Bottle Rockets and bluegrass legend Peter Rowan-came to Oxford to appear on the Thacker Mountain Radio Show, a literary and musical hour co-created by Herring that was broadcast out of a secondhand bookstore; it still airs on Mississippi Public Radio. These visitors to this cultural oasis in the deep South were taken with the purity and honesty in Herring's voice, and they gave her the early encouragement she needed. Eventually, she found the confidence to begin writing her own folk- and country-leaning songs, though she wasn't yet ready to play them for anyone but herself.
That changed when Herring moved to Austin in 1999 after being accepted into a prestigious doctoral program in American studies at the University of Texas, lured as well by the city's vibrant musical community. In short order, the stars aligned for the aspiring singer-songwriter. She played her first gig just two months after hitting town, thanks to Rowan, who keeps a second home nearby, and soon thereafter she recorded a demo with Billy Bright and Bryn Davies, whom she'd met through Rowan. That led to a weekly happy-hour gig at Stubb's Bar-B-Q, where she learned to front a band while honing her material. Herring became the first artist signed to the songwriter-friendly Blue Corn Music, which released her debut album, Twilight, in October 2001.
The reviews were glowing-"Austin has a captivating new singer-songwriter," announced Michael Corcoran in the American-Statesman-and Twilight became a local hit after Austin station KGSR-FM started playing it. The next January, the American Statesman named her Best New Artist; two months later, during South by Southwest, she received the same honor at the Austin Music Awards. However, by the time Blue Corn released the Brotherton-produced Wellspring, in August 2003, Herring was living in Atlanta with her new husband, who'd taken an academic job there. "Leaving Austin, I struggled," she acknowledges, "because it was a great umbrella to be under, and I was really quite new at any sort of success. It's been a slow build since that time establishing myself away from there."
In Atlanta, Herring bore two children, a daughter now nearing her fourth birthday and a son still shy of his first. Family life put her musical career on hold for a time, but the need to create kept tugging at the young wife and mother. "I tried to figure out my life in terms of all of that," she says, "and also figure out how to reassert myself. I was able to sink in a little bit with my new babies and write again about whatever I wanted to write about. I just got to the point where I knew I had to do it. Music was my life, and I had songs I felt were good, and I had the support of my family."
The resourceful and dedicated Herring managed to juggle motherhood, writing songs, performing locally, playing some festivals, touring Europe and taking on a long-term project that involved accumulating a database of traditional artists for the State of Georgia. "I was able to do it on my own time, with a 2-year-old in the car if need be," she says, "and it allowed me to the chance to make another record." When a window of opportunity opened, she brought her new batch of songs to Austin, taking the role of co-producer for the first time as she crafted Lantana with Brotherton.
"I finally got my CD to Jim Olsen at Signature Sounds three weeks before I had my son," she says. "It's never what I would've chosen, but it's how things ended up. And so, I've navigated all this either extremely pregnant or with a little baby." She can laugh about it now that she's managed to pull it off.
"More than anything else," says Herring, "I'm excited-I really am. I'm interested to see what the future holds and grateful that I get to be doing this. I've learned how much I love it, how committed I am to it." She pauses for a moment to reflect. "'I'm no tourist'-that's one of the lines in the bridge of 'Stone Cold World.' And that's the truth. This is for real."
Please enjoy the performance video from her show at The World Café Live
You are now Tuned In to Caroline Herring
On the web