Accidental singer, purposeful bliss - Former Whiskeytown vocalist Caitlin Cary offers heart-kissed songs

Posted by on 30 July 2004

FFWD Weekly, July 22, 2004 - Preview Article by Mary-Lynn McEwen

There are not many graduate students who pick up a phone call from a stranger and end up wedged between a bad-boy partner-in-rhyme and a major label deal a few months later. Ohio-born Caitlin Cary, who now lives in Nashville and calls herself a born-again Southerner, played violin, sang in a few college bands and was completing a master’s degree in English when a young snot named Ryan Adams cold-called her. She had just decided that she didn’t want to drown in academia and become a prof, nor was her second choice of being a short-story author palatable.

"Whiskeytown just happened to me. I got a call out of the blue from Ryan, who I’d never met. I thought this would be something fun to do on the weekend. Total extracurricular," Carey says in a phone conversation during a visit to her parents’ Ohio home. "Things happened so fast that I wasn’t even aware of Ryan’s ambition and we were playing for major-label people. You can’t have that happen and not go, ‘Well, OK, I guess I’ll deal with it,’ because nobody gets to do that stuff. And I thought all along, ‘Did I choose this?’ No, it chose me. It’s a crazy world, people adoring you for what you just do."

Cary says having six brothers and an English teacher mother who worked with juvenile delinquent boys was training for dealing with the famously mercurial Adams. "I always joke that I was glad that I was in a band with Ryan for so long because he satisfied my bad-boy need so I could go ahead and marry a nice guy. I spent so much time with the bad wrong guy that I got it out of my system." Four years ago, Cary married Whiskeytown drummer Skillet Gilmore. She adds that she never became involved with Adams: "We had a musical romance, but never a real one."

In the fallout from the band’s breakup half-a-decade ago, Cary says she was casting around for what to do. She admired the voices and writing of Lynn Blakey and Tonya Lamm, and the three of them ended up together in Tres Chicas. This helped ease the pressure of Cary’s new solo career because, weirdly, her Whiskeytown experiences hadn’t proven to her that she could pull a show off on her own.

"That’s the nice thing about music – even if you cringe at your own lyrics or something, there’s a whole band playing so at least you can blame part of it on someone else. If only so-and-so hadn’t played the guitar like that it would have been a great song," Cary says laughing, adding that when she re-listened to Whiskeytown’s first album Stranger’s Almanac last year, it sounded pretty good.

But the girl who went on a seventh-grade mall date with Chrissie Hynde’s step-brother and used to car pool with the girlfriend of Devo’s ex-drummer had no idea if she could pull off the kind of solo live show she’ll deliver in Calgary.

"I barely got to sing (her co-penned Whiskeytown song) "Matrimony" live because Ryan never liked to do it and chances are he would play the chords wrong because he really likes to be the front man. I knew a lot of the time being funny fell on me – or being charming – because Ryan would be in a mood and he wouldn’t feel like putting on a show and he’d sing his parts, but he wouldn’t speak to the crowd. But as far as being a front person and singing 15 songs in a row and making sure everyone at the show is having a good time, that’s something you don’t know you can do until you’ve done it a lot."

With three solo albums out since 2000 and a new offering, Sweetwater, with Tres Chicas, Cary has proven that she can, indeed, parlay her nectarine vocals and heart-bruised songs into a future. Her life with Gilmore, a carpenter by trade, and their two dogs, Kotys and Dinah, is usually devoid of musicians and industry types, but Cary still has a suspicion of anyone who appears "normal."

"You get this idea in high school that there are normal people and I’m not entirely sure that there are – everyone’s a crazy. I got tired of feeling like an outcast and I just wanted to be a cheerleader or a popular girl, and I worked at it and it kind of worked. And now I look back on it with this horror that I acted like that and dressed like that and did all the fake stuff you have to do to achieve that."

With Gilmore adding his talents to Sweetwater and a supply of songs that her muse keeps fresh, Cary is not so bewildered by her accidental landing inside the music biz. "I’m a lot more in control of the choices I make now, the art I make and how it gets done. It’s no longer this dream – you begin to understand the realities of it. Here I am sitting around in my parents’ house doing my transcription, my typing that I do for money, and I’m getting calls, doing interviews. I did go in and say to my mom, ‘God sometimes it’s really hard to feel like The Guy. Who’d want to call and do an interview with me?’"