Photo by Courtney Swift
In songwriting and in life, Caleb Caudle believes, sometimes the best line is the most obvious one. It’s the guiding idea behind Tobacco Town, his second solo record in six years; one that’s more of a goodbye record than a breakup record, intended for both city and personage to different degrees, but mainly a return to the meditative style of Americana songwriting at which he has excelled. It’s also the prime mover behind one of the most significant, and maybe most obvious, life decisions he’s ever made: a 200-show trek across the country with fiddle player and backup singer Haley Dreis to promote the album that begins this Friday at the Garage.
For the first time, the essential machinery — a record label (Chapel Hill boutique Robust Records) and a publicist — is in place, though it’s not exactly the first time he’s stood on the launch pad. Exactly one year ago, his band the Bayonets were at the apex of the most concerted period of its existence. Months earlier, Caudle had detached his own name from the front of the band’s to project the degree of creative solidarity that went into the creation of their latest, and ostensibly final, album Driver. Dutifully recorded at Asheville’s renowned Echo Mountain Studios, the album’s rock-driven sound was as much emblematic of the degree to which he was down for the cause as was the choice to become a “band,” the cause being touring, getting attention, getting signed, being something better than a reasonably wellknown regional act that’s yet to get over. But at the moment they were most trying to come together, secondary influences were spreading them thin.
“With Driver, we had some bigger labels come back to us and say, ‘If you guys toured more, we’d be more interested,’” Caudle said during a Sunday afternoon interview. “There were some labels I really wanted to be on.”
Pedal-steel player Sam Kossler became wrapped up in engineering and production work. Guitarist Philip Pledger was little more than a month away from putting on Phuzz Phest in downtown Winston-Salem while his band Estrangers was on the verge of an EP release. Others had families and jobs to consider. With a high-grade record to show for their work, it was the right time to commit to touring harder than they ever had before. For just about every other reason, it also the wrong time. What was once Caleb Caudle, then Caleb Caudle & the Bayonets, then the Bayonets, was back to being Caleb Caudle.
Only then did a sense of equilibrium return to him and nine months later, he had Tobacco Town, the first album bearing just his own name since his 2007 debut Red Bank Road. The idea behind it wasn’t to pour time and resources into it as he had with Driver, but to simply make a record that allowed him to reacquaint with himself in a sense. With instrumental and vocal support from Dreis, Kossler, Whiskeytown co-founder Caitlin Cary and drummer Chris Ankelein, he made the organic, uncomplicated album he had aspired to.
““If you go all the way back to Red Bank Road, you can hear what I was trying to go for on Tobacco Town. We weren’t trying to make some huge record; we just wanted to make it organic. Most of it is first take-vocal all the way through,” Caudle said. “We didn’t want to make it this perfect thing because I didn’t feel like it needed to be. Just two mics and a Mac. It just so happens that Sam has a really good ear.”
Long before this moment, however, the kernel for Caudle’s own great American road trip came while opening for Charleston duo Shovels & Rope on a short Southern tour, a year and a half before their Letterman appearance made them the alt-country darlings of Q1 2013. Their intended venue the Garage was already booked, pushing them before a crowd of a couple dozen at the Old Winston Social Club, when Michael Trent and Carrie Ann Hearst gave him a crucial bit of insight after a show.
“They were a big inspiration for me to quit my day job and just hit the road. They said, ‘We just go until we can’t do it anymore,’” Caudle said. “That’s what I wanted the Bayonets to do then, but it just didn’t work out that way. It’s still what I wanted to do, so I am. I’m at a point now where I feel like I’m putting my effort into the right thing right now.”
Caleb Caudle will kick off a seven-month tour at the Garage this Friday with support from Jonathan Loos and Tyler Nail.