When Eric Bachmann and Barton Carroll last played North Carolina together, they were in Carrboro, standing on the Cat's Cradle stage well after midnight on March 23, 2005. Bachmann was at center stage, branding the crowd with songs from what was then his most recent release, Dignity and Shame, the fourth album from his second prominent indie rock band, Crooked Fingers. Carroll stood stage right, playing guitar, smiling and grimacing, feeling the full levity of every song Bachmann sang in his trademark baritone.
"I don't know if I'll ever enjoy my own stuff as much I enjoy being in Crooked Fingers. In Crooked Fingers, I can really just be a fan of the music. It's like joining your favorite band," says Carroll from Charlotte, a day after arriving from his home in Seattle for the first tour date behind his proper solo debut, Love & War. "But, with my own stuff, I never feel any outside enjoyment because my ego is too wrapped in it."
Carroll has been a longtime fan of Bachmann's work: A Louisiana native who moved to Banner Elk, N.C., when he was 3 and attended Warren Wilson College in Asheville, Carroll toured with one of his other favorite bands, Bachmann's Archers of Loaf, selling merchandise. The day Carroll turned 23, he struck out of the mountains, driving to Seattle. After Archers broke up in 1999, Bachmann joined him there, where Carroll assembled a team of musicians to record the first eponymous Crooked Fingers album. When those sessions were done, Bachmann produced a set of Carroll songs, backed by the same musicians.
That album was never released, but--between subsequent Crooked Fingers sessions and tours--Carroll managed to record Love & War. He didn't intend to release that, either, instead passing burned copies to Crooked Fingers fans who asked about it. One of those happened to own Skybucket Records. Carroll agreed to make it his debut.
But Bachmann had options with his solo debut, this year's To the Races: He recorded a dozen songs to a hard drive in an empty hotel on the Outer Banks between Christmas and New Year's last year, choosing to keep them away from the mechanism of Crooked Fingers. He wanted to keep things simple.
"I didn't even recognize the process as it was happening. I just kind of close my eyes and go forward. As they were being written, it was obvious they should be guitar and voice because that's how they sounded in my head," says Bachmann, who wrote To the Races both in Spain and while living in the back of Crooked Fingers' van in Denver. "I tried to add stuff to it, but it lost the intimacy."
Bachmann's fall tour dates have reached for that same type of intimacy: He's touring as a trio, and his co-headlining dates with Richard Buckner represent a significant step down in club size from his last full-band tour.
Bachmann carries more name recognition than Carroll. While Carroll waited years for a label to get interested in Love & War, Bachmann decided against longtime friends at Merge Records to release To the Races on Omaha's Saddle Creek. After all, his decade in Archers and the past seven years leading Crooked Fingers, as well as a solo tour last year, have made his name--and voice--one of the most recognizable in indie rock.
But Carroll--whose solo work moves with the major-chord bustle of Richard Thompson and the vivid imagery of the bluegrass he was immersed in as a teenager--has only played a handful of solo shows, and his expectations for this tour aren't high. He quips that he's surprised his label thinks it can sell Love & War, but he's mostly worried about playing a solo set for people who are familiar with, at most, his associations.
"I've been trying to fight that and talk a little bit during my set, but there are a couple of things working against me. One, no one knows who I am, and, secondly, the subject matter of my songs can be gruesome. You know, 'Who is this guy that's talking about the Soviet occupation of Berlin?'"
Barton Carroll plays at The Cave in Chapel Hill on Wednesday, Sept. 20 at 7:30 p.m. Eric Bachmann and Richard Buckner play Local 506 on Friday, Sept. 22 at 9:30 p.m.