Caroline Herring Sings Songs About The South, Then and Now
At a time when several artists have found widespread commercial success recording songs that declare the singer’s affection for life below the Mason-Dixon by invoking an (often superficial) list of names, things, or activities that signify Southern-ness, Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Caroline Herring turns her unflinching gaze into the region’s troubled past, subverting the tropes of moonlight, magnolias, and Southern belles, writing about contemporary issues and events while still keeping one foot firmly planted in history. Her songs, which blend elements of classic country, folk, and bluegrass, have focused on topics such as poverty, racism, and infanticide; not exactly feel-good topics, but it makes for beautiful music nonetheless.
“[Those types of songs] sure sell a lot more records than [mine]” she says wryly. But like the artists content to sing about tractors and preachers’ hot daughters, Herring’s music comes from a sense of deep love for her home, which is manifested in her powerful songs: “I go back and forth with other Southerners who say ‘don’t take yourself so seriously.’ I do love the South; I love the land. But I can’t deny its history…that’s why I write about lynching and white women put on pedestals who are actually murderers. I love this place but I hear songs like that and it just fuels me to write more songs that turn all the stereotypes upside down.”
Born in Mississippi, Herring cut her teeth on folkies Judy Collins, Kate Wolf, and Joni Mitchell. After college came the creation of the Thacker Mountain Radio Show, a music and literature themed public radio program which exposed Herring to traditional country and bluegrass music as well as gave her the opportunity to hear—and perform alongside—famous musicians and songwriters on a weekly basis as part of house band The Sincere Ramblers. In the late ’90s, she relocated to Austin to attend graduate school at the University of Texas. While there, Peter Rowan, who appeared on the Thacker Mountain program, helped her get her first gig (he’d also appear on her first record). Herring flourished within the Austin music scene; her debut album, Twilight was released in 2001.
Perhaps her greatest non-musical influences has been one of the giants of the Southern Gothic: Eudora Welty. Herring found herself drawn to the Depression-era author/photographer because of the way Welty was able to incorporate both great humor and great tragedy within her stories. Her favorite Welty story, in case you were wondering, is “Powerhouse,” a piece about a jazz musician that’s allegedly based on Fats Waller. Recently, Herring (joined by fellow Eudoraphiles Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kate Campbell, and Claire Holley), celebrated the 100th anniversary of Welty’s birth with a series of performances. Caroline can’t speak highly enough of these gigs, or about Carpenter, who learned and sang on all the other artists’ songs, and insisted they get equal stage time, a stance that was empowering for the lesser-known performers on the bill.
To date, the song that’s garnered the most attention is “Paper Gown,” a chilling ballad about Susan Smith from last year’s wonderful folk album Lantana. Though she is thankful for all the press the song received, Herring says she’s glad to have some distance between herself and it, simply because it is so disturbing. As a mother of two young children herself, having to discuss a song whose lyrics include “Small town stars shine bright for a day/The moon lights up a watery grave…Watched my boys ride the incline down/All for a paper gown” must be slightly upsetting, to say the least.
Aside from that, the musician-mother combination is a good one for Caroline Herring, one she says gives her vitality. It’s this sense of vitality that shines on her most recent work. Golden Apples of the Sun, Herring’s fourth album (due out later this month), is a bit of a departure from her previous releases: less country, more folky, the influence of Joni Mitchell (whose “Cactus Tree” is lovingly covered here) and Judy Collins readily apparent. It’s also one of the best folk releases of the year. She’s able to cover artists as disparate as Lefty Frizzell, Cyndi Lauper, and Ma Rainey, making their songs sound perfectly at home among her sharply written originals by altering their well-known melodies in what she terms a “bit of a creative experiment.” Though the album was recorded in Connecticut, and explores different subject matter than her earlier albums, she can’t entirely separate herself from the South or its history. One of the album’s strongest songs, “The Dozens,” conjures up images of Civil Rights Era America as Herring sings “I’m just a white girl/From a segregated town/And I’m looking for some answers that I haven’t found.”
Maybe the answers haven’t been found yet, if they ever will, but if you’re on this journey with Caroline Herring, at least you’re assured of good music along the way.
To learn more about Caroline Herring, visit her official website.
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