Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A man walks into a bar with a well-endowed parrot, and…no? OK, then stop me if you’ve heard THIS one: A violin player joins an alt-country band with a maniacally creative—though somewhat dictatorial—frontman, the band garners immense critical and popular acclaim (due in no small part to the interplay between the genius singer/songwriter and the violinist/harmony vocalist), the violinist forms her own band upon the inevitable implosion of the original group, puts out a record remarkable both for its lilting beauty and its 180-degree stylistic departure from the first band’s sound, and goes on to a long and successful independent career.
You haven’t heard that one because the sort of artistic integrity needed to pull off such a feat is as rare, in an industry built upon derivation, as…well, a well-endowed parrot in a bar.
And though Caitlin Cary’s solo career has just begun, it can most definitely be termed a success. Her debut album, While You Weren’t Looking, has received kudos from publications as diverse as USA Today, The New Yorker, and RollingStone, and the early words from her live shows have been glowing.
The songs of Looking run the gamut from aching ballads (“Sorry”) to Al Green-inflected R&B (“Too Many Keys”) to lush passion (“Fireworks”), all anchored by Cary’s soaring, intricate alto voice.
“It’s very rewarding to be able to do my own stuff in my own way,” Cary told the Independent via cell phone last week, as she and her band made their way from San Francisco to Eugene, Ore. “I feel fortunate that I’ve got people who appreciate and support what I’m doing and are willing to take the time to figure out how I want my music done. It’s completely liberating in that way, because my aesthetic wasn’t always at the forefront in the other band, not by a long shot—not that it necessarily belonged there.”
The “other” band was, of course, Whiskeytown, the alt-country legends spearheaded by the mercurial Ryan Adams. Cary learned much from Adams, a monstrously prolific songwriter whose performances often showcased the chaotic nature of his particular genius, in terms of fronting a band.
“You could almost call it night and day,” Cary says of the dynamics of her band compared to those of Whiskeytown. “I’ve been very careful to surround myself with people who are kind, and caring, and…sane. As sane as musicians can be, anyway.”
But Cary is quick to credit her former frontman with taking her to the pinnacle of artistic achievement. “Of course, I took everything that I know how to do now out of Whiskeytown, and I would certainly not be here today without that experience. The music, when it was good, was very, very good. Singing with Ryan was just phenomenal. But when it was bad, it was horrible.”
Whiskeytown devotees learned that they had a compassionate ear to turn to after a train-wreck show, as Cary was often the last one on stage. “The joke about it is that even when we were at the height of whatever success we had, and had guitar techs and equipment people, nobody would touch the violin,” she laughs. “So I was the last one on stage, packing up my stuff, and people would come up to me and ask ‘Why is that guy such a jerk?’ And I would just say, ‘I don’t know, I’m sorry.’”
Life with Ryan Adams may very well have influenced Cary’s personal life as well. “I’ve always joked that Ryan fulfilled all my bad-boy fantasies so that I was able to marry a very nice man,” she laughs. That man is the drummer on her album, Skillet Gilmore. Asked about her husband’s blue-ribbon moniker, she chuckles. “He does have a real name, that I never even think about. I did say it in our wedding vows, though. I couldn’t bring myself to say, ‘I take thee, Skillet…’”
With her personal and musical life echoing the pitch-perfect harmonies she once attained onstage with Adams, Cary is eager to display the compelling artistic vision that permeates the album. And she’s excited to play Missoula, a city that Whiskeytown passed through on an early tour.
“When I think of Montana, I think of Big Sky country, cowboys and mountains,” she says, “and they’re all good in my book.”
Caitlin Cary and Garrison Starr bring it to The Blue Heron Friday, June 28 at 9:30 PM. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door. Phone 543-2525 for more information.