For our retrospective on Whiskeytown's Strangers Almanac, we spoke with songwriter, violinist and singer Caitlin Cary via e-mail about the band she recorded it with.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: The band had been through some turmoil, and you'd left but come back into the fold. What made you want to stay? And what made you want to leave?
CAITLIN CARY: I guess my reason for staying was really an overwhelming sense that I'd be missing out on something. With Steve and Skillet gone it didn't fell like "the band" anymore, but it did still feel kind of important and charged. I had helped to write some of the songs that were to be recorded, and I would have felt really shitty letting them get made without me. The impulse to quit the band started to feel just slightly more foolish than staying—that's the best way I know how to put it.
Some of these songs pre-date the sessions, but do you have any memories of hearing any of these songs for the first time and your reactions to them?
Well sure. A whole bunch of these songs were already in our live repertoire: "16 Days" and "Excuse Me," "Houses on the Hill," and Dancing with the Women," which we called "The Strip." Those songs were the reason for making the record from my point of view. I loved singing them and playing them, and I knew they were all really strong, evocative songs.
The song I feel like I remember hearing for the first time around the time of recording was "Avenues," which is just so brilliant, and which really foreshadows the best of Ryan's work as a solo artist. He wrote that far away from all of us, based on a couple of weeks or maybe months spent in New York. It's got that fetching little factual error about streets and avenues running the same way, but it also has this kind of perfect internal logic and old-soul wisdom. It was almost scary to hear that song go down, having had nothing to do with it. Everyone who knows me knows I'm not one and never was one to blow any sunshine up Ryan's skirt, but that song floored me.
Was there much writing in the studio? Or in the demos with Stamey?
There were songs written in the studio, or right around that time. Seems like I remember learning and writing my parts for "Inn Town" in rehearsals in Nashville, and maybe "Everything I Do," also. There were also "rockers" that I had very little to do with that were maybe written in the studio—I don't know—"Waiting to Derail" was one of those. "Turn Around"—Ryan and I wrote that one together closer to the time of recording it.
What was the mood of the sessions with Stamey?
I remember these being really sort of "rigorous" sessions, with a lot of cutting and re-cutting, a lot of recorded rehearsal, and so on. It was a kind of hardworking thing we were certainly not used to—up to then, making Faithless Street, it seemed like we just hit record, often after writing the song a few minutes before. This was a somewhat more disciplined, "work it out" demo session, which is why all the bonus material exists. I'm pretty sure that everyone in the band would agree that what was left off the record was left off for good reason, even though there's some strong stuff there. I think the Stamey sessions taught us all some valuable work ethics, and they surely strengthened the material that ultimately made the cut.
What's the most distinct memory of those sessions in Nashville, and how was the band's relationship with Jim Scott? What was the mood of those sessions?
We were, green, green, green. Despite what I said about the working demo sessions with Chris, I think all of us were still very naïve about studio work, and certainly about the expectations that a major label would have for the quality of what we were doing. We really got put through the paces. Jim was always fun, but he wasn't always easily satisfied, and I can remember a whole lot of heated discussions of a kind we were not used to. I think some songs were scrapped, some re-written or rearranged because he wasn't ever afraid to say they weren't good enough yet.
It was such a time of discovery for all of us, learning how to actually make a record. I don't know what else to say, really, except I'm glad I had the chance to work with Jim, and I'm thankful for his commitment to helping us make a good record. It was all there in the raw before Jim, but he's owed a lot for making it the shiny thing it is.
Tracking wise, were any of your harmonies live takes, or were they overdubs? Any examples or differentiations would be great, if you remember.
Wow, I really don't remember that. We cut all the songs live to make basic tracks, and I'm sure some of the vocals were kept. I do remember doing a lot of overdubbing which, you know, was still a pretty novel concept for me. I wish I had the kind of memory to tell you, "Oh, that one's the live vocal," but I really don't know.
Did you go to the mixing sessions in Los Angeles? And, if not, were you back in Raleigh?
No, I didn't go to LA. I don't think that I'd have been much help in mixing back then—I would have been an extraneous cook in the kitchen. These days I'm totally involved in mixing, but back then it was just a big mystery.
In making this record, did you feel like it was the kind of session and these were the kind of songs that would still be so esteemed 11 years later? Like, being reissued in the same manner as Rumours?
Heavens no, I never thought that way back then. I have no idea what Ryan or Phil would say about that, but I am still always astonished by the mark this record has made. I knew I loved the songs, and I guess I knew it was something special, otherwise why would such esteemed professionals be putting up with our crap? I mean really, it took a lot of faith on the part of Mark Williams and Jim Scott and Scott Litt and everyone else to take this green ragtag bunch of kids into a nice studio and let them go. I have enough perspective to appreciate that now. I can't really explain the phenomenon except to say that Whiskeytown was some combination of swagger and spark that we all just barely wrestled into a pleasing form, Strangers Almanac.
After this album was done, how did you perceive the future of the band?
Oh, jeez, I guess I thought the world was before us—I was ready for anything. But I certainly never knew what to expect, never had any grand delusions about fame or fortune or any of that. Good thing, too.
Same question goes for the tour following the album.
Hmm, well, I remember being very scared as I climbed into an RV to tour for 12 weeks straight. That one ended with everyone but me and Ryan leaving the band, so I guess my trepidation was well-founded. We had some great shows, though, along with some really bad ones. Did I ever tell you about the time we had tomatoes thrown at us in East Lansing? You can google the whole story.
Looking back, Ryan almost took that A&M solo deal, and you've since established a solid solo reputation and again joined another band. What did you learn from sticking with Whiskeytown that you still utilize now, musically or personally?
I guess you can say I learned a certain sticktoitiveness in Whiskeytown that has probably served me well. I can also honestly say that some of the bad times probably fueled my need to do my own thing and to be more in control of my own destiny. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, but neither would I go back in time, you know?
Any original songs you wish had been left off of the reissue? As in, is there anything you'd take away from Strangers Almanac? And how do you feel about the reissue at large?
Oh, I'm not really sure how I feel about the bonus material. As I said before, there's some part of me that thinks those songs and/or those performances hit the cutting room floor for a reason. On the other hand, if these songs give people pleasure—something new to hear after all these years—that's exciting.
What's funny is that we made a whole record in 1998 that never came out. It's all over the Internet, I guess, but it never got properly finished or released. To me, putting that out would make more sense than putting out some of the Strangers outtakes—we actually meant for people to hear that record. Oh well.
The bottom line is I'm awfully lucky to be able to say I was part of making a record that made a little mark on history, at least for some folks, and nothing will change that. If this reissue brings it to some new, younger fans, well that's ducky. I hope they do their homework and buy all the records we're making now!
When's the last time you heard this album? And what impressed you the most?
For many years, I never listened to the record, and I would actually turn and walk out of a bar if it was playing when I went in. I was so self-conscious about it—I don't know if that's normal or not. A few years ago I actually played the record at home and found that I'd gained some objectivity, and could listen to it a little more like a fan. It's pretty good. I don't think it could ever be one of those records for me, but I can sorta see why it might be that to someone else.