Caitlin Cary has skillfully adapted her literary talent to the song form. Courtesy photo
Ex-Whiskeytown violinist finds creative life as a solo artist

When Caitlin Cary arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina nine years ago, she had no interest in playing with a band. She was in town to pursue a master's degree in creative writing at North Carolina State University.

Sure, Cary had played violin since she was a toddler, and gone on to perform in a multitude of bands, in myriad cities. But as she puts it, all those experiences had been merely "something fun to do on the weekends." They had never amounted to anything serious.

So when an enthusiastic young Ryan Adams called her about joining his new country-flavored group - which would come to be known as Whiskeytown - she didn't give it much thought.

"I hadn't ever met any of those guys and I'm still, to this day, kind of confused about who told them that I played the violin, or who I told," Cary says. "I was totally new in town, but I guess I must have been drunk and talked about it with someone.

"The attention that came upon us, so quickly, was a total fluke. It was bizarre. I think somebody just happened to be looking at our part of the country at that exact moment and the stars lined up. We weren't a very good band. We were terrible. None of us could really play."

Nearly a decade later, Whiskeytown is a much-admired slice of Americana history, and Cary is touring behind her second solo disc, I'm Staying Out. Like last year's critically revered While You Weren't Looking, the new album shows Cary to be an expert - if unprepossessing - wordsmith, capable of conveying subtle pleasures and unspoken fears with the sparest language. Much like John Lennon decided to stop writing books after 1965, so he could focus all his literaary talent into song lyrics, Cary has learned to adapt her writing skills to a three-minute song form.

"I feel like songwriting is the most important thing right now," Cary says. "And I also learned about myself that I prefer the sort of social aspect of writing music to the solitary life of an author. It's such a lonely life. I have to write songs with other people because I don't really play guitar very well, so I bring my music to other people all the time to get the chords done. That makes the whole thing communal."

While the solo work of Adams and Cary isn't really that far apart - they're both basically sonic conservatives, whose work frequently recalls the early-'70s heyday of acoustic-based singer-songwriters - Adams has cultivated an image as a self-destructive bad boy, a wild child who rips songs from the pages of his tortured life. By comparison, Cary is like a comfortable chair: dependable and reassuring, but utterly devoid of flash or flamboyance.

For that reason, it's easy to overlook her music's considerable virtues. When you remove her voice and lyrics from the equation, her records are pleasantly generic sounding, barely skirting the slick blandness of a mid-'70s Jackson Browne. But her voice, with its catch-in-the-throat echoes of Linda Thompson, and perceptive lyrics, consistently lend the music a surprising poignance.

On both of the album's two pivotal tracks, "Empty Rooms" and "Please Break My Heart," Cary deals with a fear infrequently expressed in song - not that she will encounter pain or heartache, but that she may no longer be capable of feeling anything at all. A gorgeous country lament, "Please Break My Heart," grew out of Cary's worry that too much contentment might be killing off her songwriting inspiration.

"I had said to my friend Thad `Cockrell`, who co-wrote that song, 'I wish someone would come along and break my heart just for a second, so I could write a really great, sad country song.'

"I think we meant to write a song around the idea of 'please break my heart, 'cause otherwise I'm not going to have any more song material.' We actually were going to be that self-reflexive. But instead, this character came out, who would rather have her heart broken again and again by this guy than live without him."

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The product of an ultra-musical Ohio family - all six older brothers played, and her father not only performed on the Borsch Belt folkie circuit of the late-'50s ("Mighty Wind-style," Cary jokes), but he also made instruments: everything from guitars and harpsichords to a pipe organ.

But Cary's parents did not listen to pop music, and her closest brushes with the rock zeitgeist came from a Procol Harum record one of her brothers gave her mom, and a Judy Collins album that she considered "pretty rad" as a child.

Cary's naturally self-effacing manner fit perfectly in Whiskeytown, making her a welcome balance to Adams' self-conscious, petulant-brat routine. She also grew accustomed to being the band's apologist, the member left onstage at the end of a chaotic, alcohol-soaked gig.

This onstage ease has softened her transition to a solo career, and even though she hasn't abandoned her day job as a transcriber, you get the sense that she has come to view music as much more than a way to amuse yourself on the weekends. It's telling that she no longer dabbles in creative writing, but occasionally steals lines from her old stories for song lyrics. In particular, she has come to appreciate the mysterious x-factor that music brings to words.

"Songs kind of get away from you, whereas if you're writing a short story or even a poem, anything will work," Cary says. "Because of the whole music part of songwriting - not to be totally hippie-sounding or religious-sounding - it's almost like God comes and surprises you once you add the music in. It adds a whole new element, and often changes the meaning without words." •

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